Self-help ideas expand our idea of what is possible. They make us believe in our dreams and think big. 'I'm going to do this!' we say, 'I'm going to be that!' No longer will we sell ourselves short. But waking up to another day and the weight of 'reality', those dreams suddenly seem more fiction than biography. In two minutes flat we are rationalizing the life we have now, and the fear that took a brief holiday is back.
How do we get to the point where pursuit of the dream is our daily norm? Between the experience of today and the vision is a Grand Canyon of doubt and fear which stops us dead, and it seems a lot easier to turn around and go back to security and routine. Susan Jeffers says people see fear in totally the wrong way. Rather than an indicator that you are reaching your limits, it is a green light to keep going; if you are not feeling any fear, you may not be growing. Don't deny the trepidation, she suggests, but take the step anyway - ships were not designed to stay in harbor!
Following are some key points in Jeffers' philosophy of fearlessness:
There are different types of fear, but this is the killer: the simple but all-powerful belief that you won't be able to handle something. We won't be able to handle it if our partner leaves us, we won't be able to handle it if we don't have a certain income etc. The basic work to be done is to get to a point where you know you can handle anything that comes your way, bad and good. This sounds like an empty platitude, but her point is that fear is not a psychological problem but an educational one. You must re-educate yourself to accept fear as a necessary part of growth, then move on.
Saying 'Yes' to your universe
Refreshingly, Jeffers does not say that you can totally control your world. Things happen which have reasons of their own. The key to not getting bogged down in fear is to affirm what is. This not only applies to small things like losing a wallet, but to the more significant like pain. Positive thinking may not make pain disappear, but by including it as part of your universe - not denying its right to be - it loses its terror. Jeffers mentions Viktor Frankl's concentration camp classic Man's Search For Meaning, which describes some of the most hideous conditions humans have had to endure; yet within the barbed wired fences the author could still find people who were saying 'yes' to it all, choosing responsibility instead of giving up.
All our lives we are told to take responsibility. We interpret it as meaning going to college, getting a job, getting a mortgage, marriage. Jeffers' understanding of it is closer to Emerson's ideal of self-reliance, that is, being responsible for how I interpret my life experiences. Hate your job? Then either make a conscious choice to stay and make something out of it (an emphatic 'yes'), or go.
Why positive thinking works
Positive thinking is fine, but does not reflect reality. It's too 'Pollyanna'. This is the common accusation, but Jeffers asks: if 90 per cent of what we worry about never eventuates (as studies demonstrate), how is negativity more 'realistic' than positivity? The fact is, what is realistic is up to us, depending on how we shape our thoughts. A positive mindset will not save you from bad news, but your reactions to it can be different. Replace 'It's terrible!' with 'It's a learning experience.' OK, but what about serious stuff, like getting cancer? Actually, Jeffers did have cancer, and says this attitude made all the difference, and if the rule applies in such extreme situations, then there is no excuse for overreaction on a day to day basis. We love to denounce things and be drama queens, but Jeffers says: look how it weakens you.
The key to positive thinking, the most elemental yet the most overlooked aspect to it, is that you must practice it all the time. Even Susan Jeffers, a famous motivational figure, cannot afford to go a day without positive mental refuellings. We won't go without breakfast, or a morning jog, or a child's hug, she says, so why do we think a program of daily positive energizing is optional? Build a collection of inspirational books and tapes, and read/play them daily, she advises. The effect will probably be greater than you think, both on yourself and the world you inhabit. Write out your favorite inspirational quotes and keep them next to your computer, in your car, next to your bed. The positivity you create will start to seem closer to how things should be (to 'reality') than the way you are used to being. The former life will begin to appear as if it was lived in a gray fog.
Program the subconscious
You can be sure that whatever exists in your subconscious mind will find a way to express itself in real life. It is therefore crucial to take control of your mental inputs at every level. One important way of generating change and overcoming fear, which requires little work or courage, is the affirmation. Jeffers defines them as positive statements that affirm something is already happening. A statement like 'I will not put myself down anymore' won't work. It must be i) positive and ii) present. For example, 'I am a confident person in every situation'. You don't even have to believe in them for them to work, as long as they become your mantra. The mind reacts to what is fed to it, whether it is true or false. We can either listen to our 'chatterbox', or to the higher self.
There are many other good messages in the book, including:
There is always plenty of time: 'The biggest pitfall as you make your way through life is impatience.' Impatience is just self-punishment, creating stress, dissatisfaction and fear. One has to trust that whatever one is doing, it is all unfolding perfectly and in the right time. How to make 'no-lose' decisions: stop believing that there is usually only one 'right' or 'wrong' way to go. We have to get in a position where we are no longer hostage to a single outcome, knowing that the world has endless opportunities for achieving what we want. Never be fearful of mistakes, Jeffers warns. Remember that even the very best baseball hitters have a .400 average. The best miss six times out of ten! Lighten up and be happy that you've had the experience, even if it isn't successful this time. You're a success because you tried. On the fear of commitment in relationships: we have to realize that we are committing to the person and their advance and well-being, not necessarily to an inflexible union for all of time.
At the beginning of the book, Jeffers sets out a number of 'fear truths'. The most profound is number five:
Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
In other words, those who never take any risks ironically live with a dread of something going wrong. They seek security above all else, but the effect is chronic insecurity. It is actually easier (and infinitely more life-fulfilling), to try new things. The decision to incorporate more challenge into your life brings a feeling of security because you know you can tackle anything.
This type of straightforward insight is typical of Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway. It has an empathy that makes you feel you're not alone, crucial given the sense of isolation that fear causes. And there is a lightness of touch to the writing that invigorates as you get into it.
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Feel The Fear evolved out of a course at The New School for Social Research in New York. The manuscript received many rejection letters, the worst stating that 'Lady Di could be bicycling nude down the street giving this book away and nobody would read it', (as noted on Jeffers' website).
Other books include Feel the Fear... and Beyond, End the Struggle and Dance With Life, Dare to Connect, Opening Our Hearts to Men, The Journey From Lost to Found, and (in homage to Thomas Harris's classic) I'm Okay...You're a Brat, on parenting. Known for her fear-busting seminars and courses, the author has appeared several times on Oprah. She lives in Los Angeles.