How to Systematically Face your Fears with This Unstoppable Habit Stack
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The question of how to face your fears is something that everyone deals with.
Because you see, everyone is afraid of something.
The cute person down the street, your Mom, that famous celebrity…
The big difference is that some people chose to live their lives in fear and be held back, leading to a life full of regret, anger, and frustration.
On the other hand, others find a way to push through.
There is an often repeated quote that goes:
“Life shrinks and expands according to your comfort zone.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be on my death bed thinking about all the stuff I wanted to do, and all the time I had to do it…But reflecting and knowing I was just sitting, thinking, and waiting for things to happen and for me to get better.
Now that REALLY scares me.
Here are some fears that I’ve had to deal with and keep working on everyday:
- Social anxiety and meeting new people.
- Intimacy and people getting close.
- Starting a business and going off on my own, not working for a regular 9-5 job.
- Moving overseas to live in new countries without knowing anyone beforehand.
I’m proud to say that I’ve gotten a better handle on these and the results speak for themselves in having girlfriends, my blog, my pictures from Thailand and Vietnam…
But that’s not good enough is it?
You Want to Move Forward, but Here’s the Problem…
There are WAY TOO MANY “rah-rah” let’s-all-be-motivated-and-do-it type blog articles to pump your state up that leave you feeling good…
But then you get no actionable advice on how to tackle whatever fear you’re facing.
Here at Develop Good Habits, Steve talks a lot about creating habit stacks. These are things you do altogether to accomplish something like going to the gym, feeling good in the morning, etc.
In this article, we’re going to apply that thinking to conquering fear.
You’re going to learn:
- Why having a system to conquer fear is better than just FORCING yourself to deal with it.
- How to ROCKET yourself to WANT to conquer your fears by uncovering your hidden “why”.
- A 5-step system to conquer your fears with action steps you can take right NOW.
Why You Need a System to Face your Fears (Because “Just Don’t It” Isn’t Working)
Just having the goal of “getting over my fears” isn’t going to work.
Goals not only delay happiness because you NEED to get the thing in order to be happy, but they’re also useless without planned action steps.
Also, your view becomes skewed from a continuous process to a specific outcome.
For example: Sometimes people achieve their goals and go right back to where they started. Think someone who hits a weight loss goal, but then returns back to their previous weight.
So, what’s a system and why are systems better than goals?
According to Adams, “A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.”
The best way to make lasting progress is to build systems using tools and habits that:
- Can last LONG-TERM, and don’t just disappear once you achieve what you want.
- Make your goal an inevitable consequence of your systems.
- Incorporates down days, feedback, and possible issues.
For example: Davies talks about how if your goal is to write a book, your system is to hit a daily or weekly quota.
You can also have conditions for when you don’t write, e.g., if you wake up super late, if you’re sick, etc.
OK, so you know that having a system is better than just trying to force yourself through a fear…
But how do you give yourself the huge amount of energy to do it? How do you get over the excuses and the apathy and the “I just don’t feel like it” without walking around, headphones plugged in, listening to Anthony Robbins and Oprah screaming “YES YOU CAN” at you all day?
The One Thing You Need to Do before You Start to Tackle Your Fears…
In Predictably Irrational, Professor of Behavioral Economics, Dan Ariely, talks about how we all believe that we’re very logical, calculated creatures…
But that’s actually crap.
We make decisions based on our emotions. No matter how logical you try to be, everything is routed in emotion.
While you can use tools to make sure you don’t make the wrong decisions by being TOTALLY RULED by your emotions (e.g. asking someone if you should break up with your partner), you can also use this little fact to fuel you forward.
By uncovering the emotional motivations/why you’re so interested in getting over a fear, you can push yourself.
Without knowing it, you’re going to run out of steam pretty quickly.
WHY do you care about doing this? WHY is it important to you?
And the thing is that it’s usually not the first reason you think of. It’s usually a deeper meaning that you’re not conscious of, operating in the background that you might need to address that doesn’t even directly relate to this fear.
So, how do you uncover your hidden why?
In Davies’ goals vs. systems article, he also talks about something called Toyota’s 5 Whys Technique, where you ask yourself WHY you want something 5 times.
“Asking why five times helps you identify your core motivation and differentiate between what you want from what you really want (and probably need).
"I want to lose 14 pounds”.
“Because I want to look good naked”.
“Because I want to feel good about my body”.
“Because I want to feel more confident”.
“Because I want to find my soul mate”.
“Because I want to settle down and start a family”.
By the third or fifth why, you should have your core motivation, the reason why you really want what you want.”
Find your why for wanting to face your fears using Toyota’s 5 whys technique.
Now that you know the why, you can learn the habit stack and system you need to conquer your fears.
The 5-Step System to Getting over ANY of Your Fears
You might not need all of the elements of this system, but this is a great guideline to getting over any fear you’ve identified:
1. Do the fear-setting exercise.
Tim Ferriss coined the term “fear-setting”. This is a technique that takes nebulous, “I have no idea what the f*** will happen fear”, puts words to it, and actually DEFINES it.
Why is this helpful?
Your mind will always imagine the worst case possible happening and create insane scenarios. All it wants to do is keep you safe and alive. So, when there are no reference experiences to what can happen (e.g. If you’ve broken through the fear before), it will predict possible death just to preserve itself.
Even when you HAVE past experiences but they were negative, your mind will STILL try to keep you from moving forward.
By using fear-setting, you actually define the ABSOLUTE WORST case scenario and:
- How you’d handle it
- What could potentially go wrong
- How you’d build yourself back up/get back to your starting position
- The likelihood of all of it happening.
This controls your thinking and there’s FAR less room for your mind to go crazy.
Is it becoming an entrepreneur and travelling the world? Is it approaching someone attractive? Is it asking your boss for a raise?
No matter what it is, use fear-setting.
On a piece of paper or in a new document, create a table with the following columns and fill them in:
What is the worst case scenario if I did what I’m considering?
What are all the things I could do to minimize that from happening?
If the worst case scenario happened, what steps could I take to repair the damage?
2. Use implementation intentions.
In logic and programming there are items called “if-then statements”. These are lines of code that tell the computer what needs to be done in different cases.
If this value is greater than 10, then print “You’re awesome!” on the screen.
If this value is greater than 20, then print “Are you cheating?” on the screen.
You can do the same thing with your brain and your actions.
So, if your fear is to talk to people and you want to get over social anxiety, an implementation intention could be:
“When I see a person I want to say hi to, I will go over and say ANYTHING within 3 seconds.”
If your fear is to practice saying no to people:
“When I feel like I don’t want to do something, I will say no, no matter WHO’S asking me, and HOW uncomfortable it is.”
Create an implementation intention of the action you will take that addresses and pushes against your fears.
Tools #1 and #2 are great, but I hear you saying:
“Yeah Noam, I KNOW I want to go over and talk to someone, I KNOW nothing bad will happen…but I still can’t do it! This isn’t helping!”
That’s where the last 3 tools come into play that really get you to TAKE ACTION:
3. Call a friend/support partner.
A lot of the times we think that our fears are unique or that we’re stupid, bad, or should be ashamed for having them.
We suffer in silence and isolation.
The sad yet funny thing is that usually TONS of people have the EXACT same problem we have and once we know that:
- A. We don’t feel like we’re alone anymore.
- B. We feel less ashamed when we tell someone and a weight gets lifted off of our shoulders.
- C. We know that if other people have had this problem, survived, and gotten past it, then we can to (what one person does, another can).
Talking to someone about your fear and them supporting you is SO under-rated. For anyone who overthinks, suffers from anxiety, depression, etc., it’s usually the FIRST thing I recommend people do for MANY reasons:
1. The other person isn’t affected by your limiting beliefs or mental nonsense keeping you down, so they’ll be able to pull you through that and help you make decisions that aren’t based on your fear.
2. They can provide support and help you correct course if something’s not working, or things aren’t going the way you want them to.
3. They might join in your cause. Getting over a fear together with someone can be fun and it makes it MUCH easier.
There’s a reason why people in AA have assigned support partners, so why not do the same for getting over a fear?
Trust me: Without my friends I KNOW I’d never get ANYTHING done and they help kill overthinking as well.
- Find a support person you can talk to, whether that be a good friend, a therapist, or a religious figure if needed.
- You might want to consider setting it up so you can call them when you’re having issues (e.g. trying to face the fear in the moment), or regularly meeting once a week to report on your progress/get feedback.
4. Create a CBT ladder and use progressive desensitization.
There’s actually a SUPER EASY method that will let you face your fears, backed by decades of psychological research.
...And what’s even better is that you can learn how to use in less than 5 minutes.
It’s called progressive desensitization or the ladder technique.
Most people try the Nike, “Just do it!” approach and try to force themselves to do something that they’re afraid of.
If you do that, not only does it just stress you out, but if you can’t do it, you’ll probably feel like absolute crap and a failure afterwards.
And sometimes even if it DOES work, the fear just comes back in a few days.
With progressive desensitization, you gradually build up to doing what you’re afraid of.
This slowly shows your mind that you’ll be OK no matter what, it begins to make new connections feeling safer, and the fears get easier to handle.
This is a very common technique used in CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy that helps alleviate anxiety: You do the easiest thing in the category of what you’re trying to do, and then slowly work your way up to the “scariest” thing.
In doing these steps, slowly but surely, you build up your confidence to the point where the ultimate thing you want to do doesn’t seem as bad anymore.
And, you’re riding on a wave of confidence to boot.
For example if you have some fear of talking to people (social anxiety), do each of the following with 5 different people:
- First, start with just asking someone for the time.
- Then ask for directions.
- Then ask them how their day is going.
- Then compliment them on a piece of clothing you like on them.
If you’re having trouble with this, you can spread it out over several days, doing one step a day, with more people: So ask 20 people for the time on Monday, then 20 people for directions on Tuesday, and so on.
You can also use this in the moment: If you’re at a social event and notice you’re a bit scared, just go ask someone for the time first to get rolling and out of your head. Try asking a question after that, and keep going.
If your fear was public speaking or performing on stage:
- First, just do it in front of someone close to you like a friend, your parent, etc.
- Then for a few of your friends.
- Then put a video of you doing it on your Facebook.
- Then at a coffee house or Toastmasters meeting.
And so on.
Whatever fear you’re trying to get over, there’s a way to build up to what you’re trying to do…You just need to be creative and think of the steps.
- Create your own CBT ladder of how you can stair-step your way up to tackling your fear.
- Set a day for when you will start your ladder.
5. Set an accountability goal.
Your mind will always try to worm its way out of doing stuff giving supposedly logical reasons…
“I don’t know how.”
“The conditions aren’t optimal!”
“I didn’t eat breakfast!”
“I don’t know the perfect workout routine…”
“They look busy.”
But they’re almost always rationalizations of your fear.
I’ve found that accountability is the most effective/one thing/20% in the 80/20 that has pushed me through my fears. This is because I personally research and know EVERYTHING about what I need to do, I just try to get out of the uncomfortable emotions that come up.
So, what exactly is accountability?
You tell someone you’ll accomplish something (e.g. your CBT ladder) in a certain amount of time. Otherwise, you’ll pay them $X or face some other kind of penalty.
Or even better, you can pay them beforehand and you don’t get it back unless you do what you need to.
I first learned about this from Maneesh Sethi’s short book, The Minimalist’s Guide to Hacking Your Habits.
Imagine you, the superego, are riding on the back of the elephant, which is your emotional ego.
Remember: an elephant is SUPER strong.
As much as you try and jump on the elephant’s back to go on a different path, the elephant’s just going to look at you (your powerful emotions are going to resist), say, “Meh," and keep going.
The only way to make the elephant change its path is to have an extra EXTERNAL force making it change its path.
It needs to be blocked in some way to FORCE it to move in a different direction. In fact the only one true and best direction.
This is what accountability accomplishes.
If you want to get over any excuses you have, this is the way to go.
- Find a mastermind/accountability group or person that will hold you accountable.
- Assign a deadline and monetary amount you’ll give them, and tell them NOW.
The Only True Fear You Actually Have
Sean Ogle talked about how you might think that there are many different types of fears: spiders, heights, talking to people, etc….
But there’s actually only one real fear we’re all running from:
You aren’t scared of putting your work out there, you’re scared of the uncertainty of how people will take it.
You aren’t scared of approaching that attractive person, you’re scared of the uncertainty that comes with possibly getting rejected, them not liking you, or messing up the conversation.
But here’s the trick: You want to move from being scared of uncertainty, to overcoming it, to embracing it.
The uncertainty should make you EXCITED because of the ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES on the other side of your fear.
Insert a stereotypical motivational type quote here. 😉
But in all honesty, that uncertainty is where the amazing things happen. And though you might worry about the worst case, it usually isn’t that bad, you can handle it (as you’ll see when you go through fear-setting), and it almost NEVER happens.
In the End…
While I can give you some awesome systems and tools, in the end, the only way to conquer your fears is to push THROUGH them.
After reading about these techniques and “hacks”…With all the mindfulness and being non-judgemental of your fear…you still just have to do it.
You might feel like you’ve been cheated because I said at the beginning of this article that thinking in the Nike “Just Do It” mode isn’t helpful…
It’s not, and that’s why you create a system to push through. But the end point of all this is TO DO THE THING THAT YOU’RE AFRAID OF.
There’s no other way.
Here’s something that should make you feel better though: Humans are only born with two fears, which are the fears of falling and loud noises. These fears are biologically programmed into you to keep you from dying.
That means EVERYTHING else has been learned.
And if it was learned, it can be unlearned.
How to Push through and Stay Positive
The system I’ve shown you will give you a step-by-step plan of how to approach things so you can get over your fears for good.
As you conquer your fears you’re going to come up against roadblocks - it won’t be super simple, and other people might have an easier time than you do…
But don’t get down on yourself. Maybe it takes more work for you to do things than others, they might have it better, you might overthink more, you might need more time…
But all you can do is compare yourself to whom you were in the past.
As long as you’re an improvement on whom you were yesterday, you’ll get it done and you’re doing well.
Here’s Your FINAL Action Step
If you want to learn more about how to use habits to change your life, I’ve got something awesome for you.
I just created a new, free report called The Anxiety and Depression Destroyer Blueprint. It’s a system made up of 7 easy-to-implement habits that all take a few minutes to do that can DRASTICALLY improve your mood, self-esteem, and confidence.
Check it out and get ready to take MASSIVE action!
About the Author
Noam Lightstone is a patented inventor, Master's graduate, digital nomad, and #1 bestselling author who founded Light Way Of Thinking, an online resource dedicated to providing you with actionable advice and tools for dealing with situations you face that cause stress and anxiety. Noam also writes for other resources, like Lifehack and Location 180. Learn more here.
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