“Most men lead quiet lives of desperation.”  – Henry David Thoreau

Huh? What’s that all about?  Susan Jeffers, In her classic book, Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway, posits one reason people might live “quiet lives of desperation.”  She says that everyone has fear, and most are trying to avoid it. Avoiding fear creates stress, worry, and feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, paralysis, and yes— desperation. 

If we live in avoidance of fear we might feel we are living inside an absurdist play.  In Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, two characters, Valdimir and Estrogon, sit around a tree talking about what they will do once “Godot” arrives.  Godot never does arrive and the characters live in a state of perpetual limbo, impotence, and frustration.  While the play is open to a vast array of interpretations, one might easily see the “lives of quiet desperation” Thoreau talks about in their perpetual waiting. The pair spend the entire play waiting for Godot to come to their rescue, give them hope, guidance, tell them what to do. Even at the end of the play when they agree to make the decision to move on, the pair don’t budge.  They are psychologically stuck, unable to deal with life.  They are living the myth of Sisyphus— a man doomed to the pointless task of rolling a stone up a mountain and watching it roll back down for all eternity. While Beckett may not agree that there is a way out of this dilemma (other than accepting the absurdity of life and “imagining Sisyphus happy”), Susan Jeffers would likely have another take on the play.  She would probably interpret their dilemma as the character’s unwillingness to face their fears, take responsibility for their lives, forget Godot, and get away from that damned tree. 

To face our fears Jeffers has a number of solutions.  She says we have to take 100% responsibility for our lives.  We can’t blame anyone for what we are having, feeling, being, or doing in our lives. When we blame we give away our power and live in paralysis.  She also reminds us that 90% of our fears never come true.  When we are feeling fear we are at our growth edge, about to expand, reaching past the known and into the great unknown—the adventure of life.   When we resist or avoid fear we live a life of fear—our lives become about about protecting ourselves, hiding, playing small.

She breaks our fears down into three categories.  

  1. External Fears:  Fears about things outside of ourselves:  approaching an attractive person at a bar, investing in property, speaking publicly, going for a new career, etc.
  2. Internal Fears: The imagined feelings of fear around not succeeding in dealing with the external fears: helplessness, hopelessness, paralysis, etc.

Let’s stop here, Jeffers argues that we often don’t reach the “Real Fear” of any challenge because we shut down and go into avoidance around the external and internal fears.  We stop trying, go away, get a massage, drink something, take a drug, watch TV, become stagnate, avoid the situation all together.  That is, unless we can embrace the Real Fear

  1. Real Fear:  The fear that comes from the belief that “I can’t handle it” if I don’t succeed.  That’s it?  Yup, the Real Fear is that if I take on my fearful challenges I won’t be able to handle the consequences.  I’ll  loose all my money, become destitute, live my life in humiliation, kill myself, etc. 

Jeffers says to ask ourselves, “If I couldn’t fail, what would I be afraid of?”  She says that facing our fear is the only way to make it go away.  Often people even cry from relief after they face a long held fear.  The author goes on to advise us that whenever faced with a fear to go right to the “Real Fear” and tell yourself, “I can handle it.”  Whatever comes up in this situation I can handle it. I can handle it if the marriage goes south.  I can handle it if the business deal goes wrong.  I can handle it if the book isn’t published. I can handle it if they say no to my art.  Then she says to take on the fear in small pieces.  You can use what she calls the, “Pain to power continuum.”  On the continuum a 0 represents a complete sense of fear and helplessness.  A 100 represents full empowerment. If you are at a 20 on the pain to power continuum about quitting your job you can take it in small bites till you move to 100.  Don’t go in and quit your job today.  Today you might look at your finances and see what you need to live (moving to 30), next week you remake your resume (moving to 40), the next week you hire a head hunter (moving to 60), the next day you submit your resume to three businesses (70), the next week you go on an interview (80), the next week you say yes to the new job and quit your old one (100!) Or you say, “Ok, they turned me down, but on we go to the next interview.  I can handle this.”  

The big take away is that it is ultimately more painful to live a life of fear avoidance than a life of working through fear. Working through fear is a short term solution to your pain compared to the lifetime of pain that comes from avoiding it. 

What fears have you told yourself you can’t handle?  What if you could? What steps would you take on the continuum?