Exploring the canyons of Arches National Park

What Fear Can Teach You About Yourself – Part 1

In Lifestyle Experiments, North America by Daniel S. JohnsonLeave a Comment

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”Dale Carnegie

Over the past several years, I’ve read dozens of books related to personal development. In those texts and in myriad articles and videos I’ve consumed online, I’ve been told a lot of interesting, scientific advice about how to self-improve. It pumps me up in the moment, and sometimes I even retain the concepts well enough to apply them with measurable results in the real world.

What I rarely see are tests of this advice in real-time — that is, where the author forms a premise based on their assumptions, and then challenges themselves to prove (or disprove) the concepts via applications in their own lives.

That’s essentially why I started this blog: to use colorful real-world environments and experiences as vehicles for the personal development concepts I want to expound. I’m operating under the theory that if you see me testing these hypotheses in the field, the visual association will make you more likely to remember them in the moments when they matter most.

It’s with that assumption in mind that I want to introduce a new category of posts which I’ll call, “Lifestyle Experiments.” They relate my implementation of changes to my day-to-day habits, and the resulting effects on my productivity and fulfillment.

The purpose of writing about these experiences is two-fold: to synthesize and refine my ideas, and to share my successes and failures as a guide for those with similar self-development aspirations.

I decided that my first set of lifestyle experiments would focus on fear.

The way I saw it, fears could be divided into two categories: those born from a logical self-preservation instinct (e.g. fear of getting cancer from smoking), and those that emerge to defend the ego. This second category, which I’ll call “ego fears,” consists of most of the trepidations we encounter in our everyday lives, such as the fear of embarrassment, rejection, and failure. As such outcomes are damaging to our egos, we naturally seek to avoid situations that may lead to them. These ego apprehensions don’t actually protect us from anything — on the contrary, they make us miss out on unfamiliar but promising opportunities, and can even turn our worries into self-fulfilling prophecies.

I’ve experienced these particular symptoms many times in relation to a deeply-held fear of mine: social awkwardness. It started sometime before high school and persisted into my twenties — whenever my desire to make a good impression on someone rose, so did the likelihood of my thought process grinding to a halt and heavy silence ensuing. My frustration over this increased until I finally committed to do a thorough self-analysis and uncover the source of the issue.

In examining what caused me to freeze up, I realized that I’d always anticipate it happening right before it actually occurred. As it never arose in low-pressure conversations with close friends, it seemed that the problem stemmed from my assumption in high-pressure situations that I’d soon run out of things to say, rather than from a true lack of conversational fodder.

This led to another realization: fear is simply the assumption that something bad (X) will happen if we do, or don’t do, something else (Y). To use the above example, I feared that I’d make things awkward (X) if I had a conversation with someone I wanted to impress (Y).

In these terms, our ego fears are nothing more than self-defeating sensations created when we’re under stress and we let our emotions defeat logic.

How, then, could I reverse my negative assumption? It didn’t help that I’d reinforced it with all the awkward moments I’d inadvertently manifested over the years. Since the fear fed off uncertainty and past negative experience, I had to override it with a different type of experience. I needed to prove to myself that the outcome I dreaded was a) avoidable, and b) not actually that bad when it did happen. And I decided that the surest way to accomplish this was to take the initiative and purposefully put myself in situations where fear would be present.

Rather than avoiding certain social interactions, pretending the fear didn’t exist, and then feeding it with self-sabotage once it did catch up to me, I’d turn the tables: I would use fear as an indicator and do the opposite of what it told me to do. If fear said I shouldn’t approach that interesting stranger and start a conversation, I would take that as a sign that I should approach them.

In this manner, I slowly chipped away at my social anxiety over the past few years by replacing uncertainty and assumptions with familiarity and positive experiences.

This brings us to three months ago, at the end of August 2016. While I’d made a lot of progress with my conversational ability since adopting my “do the opposite” approach to fear, I had never applied it in a systematic, quantifiable way. If I was going to actively share this with people and write about it with confidence, I wanted to isolate my methods and prove their effectiveness through tests of my own.

My trip to Burning Man at the end of August offered the perfect environment for my first set of tests. Ruled by principles of “radical inclusion,” communal effort, and self-reliance, the week-long arts festival in the Nevada desert was ripe for social experimentation. Soon after the festival, my one-month road trip around the western U.S. gave me another opportunity to conduct research.

I had my laboratories — now I just needed my experiments. To start with, I mustered my honesty and made a specific list of what I feared most. When I was done, I was able to trace each of the listed apprehensions back to one of two root fears:

  1. The fear of social awkwardness
  2. The fear of accomplishing less

The rest of this post will focus on the challenges I came up with to test fear #1. Part 2 of this post (which I’ll link to here once it’s up) will cover my challenges related to fear #2.

Fear of social awkwardness

Burning Man gate road sunrise

Sunrise on my approach to Burning Man.

Within my fear of social awkwardness, I identified three nested ego fears that I wanted to test: the fear of initiating conversation, fear of acknowledging strangers, and fear of rejection. For each of these, I dictated the assumption that formed the fear’s basis (the “fear-ssumption,” if you will), and then created a challenge that would force me to face the trepidation and do the opposite of what it suggested. The test would reveal the fear’s legitimacy, help me understand it, and, ideally, would serve to demonstrate a practical method of overcoming it.

Finally, I analyzed the results, and presented proof of my endeavors when applicable.

Without further ado, I present my first experiment…

1. Fear of initiating conversation

Fear-ssumption: “If I engage in conversation with that interesting person, there’s a good chance that we’ll have nothing in common and our exchange will dry up almost immediately.”

Challenge: Cold-open 30 people at Burning Man, seven of which I’ll also gift a poi lesson and practice pair to.

Result: As initiating conversation is one of my most fundamental and pervasive fears, I knew I had to make it a priority. Based on the high proportion of memorable chats resulting from those rare occasions when I have initiated, I had reason to believe that my failures to approach people had cost me a lot of wonderful connections — and yet I still found myself fighting the urge to stay quiet more often than not. My intention with this challenge, then, was to convince myself through repeated conditioning that both, a) it is in fact possible for me to successfully approach someone, even when my energy or comfort level is sub-optimal, and b) failure is a natural part of the process and an opportunity to learn, rather than an indication that I’m irrevocably unsuited for a pursuit.

So it was that, on 30 separate occasions over the course of the Burning Man festival, I found myself standing next to a compelling stranger. I felt the impulse to avoid eye contact, or fidget with my outfit, or walk in the other direction — and instead I swallowed and turned to them and said, “So what’s the coolest thing you’ve done this week?” or, “I like your glowing fur coat, did you make it yourself?” or, “Have you ever tried poi?”

This led to interactions with a wood sculptor, a stunt pilot, a conspiracy theorist, and a neurosurgeon, among many others. Each conversation lasted between 30 seconds and six hours. While some certainly went better than others, I regretted none.

I should note that, even by the 30th person, the approaches were never completely effortless. Each time, I had to convince myself all over again that it was worth it to try, regardless of the outcome. Every successive interaction did become a little easier, however, because whenever my brain raised fretful concerns about my intention to approach someone, I could fire back with increasing confidence something like, “Actually, brain, I’ve done this three times already today and I’m fine, so kindly STFU.” And by the end of the week, those 30 “little” decreases in effort had added up to something bigger.

Burning Man instant photo collage

The seven people I approached and taught poi to during the week. Clockwise from top left: Tasita, Kelly, Butterfly (we’re standing in front of the Temple holding poi, trust me), Swan, Andy, and French & Bridgette.

2. Fear of acknowledging strangers

Fear-ssumption: “There’s no point in acknowledging these transient strangers around me unless it’s absolutely necessary — I’ll never see them again, so it won’t make a difference either way.”

Challenge: Say hi to every person I pass on the hiking trail.

Result: I sometimes exhibit asocial tendencies, like ignoring the existence of strangers in my immediate environment and generally closing myself off to those I’m not exceedingly comfortable with. Instead of yielding to this inclination to not expend energy on people I’m unlikely to see again, I attempted to say hello to everyone I passed on the 20+ hikes I completed on my road trip.

I didn’t necessarily want to pursue a deep conversation with every person I greeted, but I asked myself: why not at least say hi? Wasn’t it kind of weird not to acknowledge a member of your own species when you cross paths with them in an untamed wilderness? It would cost me nothing, could lead to a cool conversation or two, and the worst case scenario was that I’d get snubbed (which would be an opportunity in itself to practice not taking stuff like that personally).

At any rate, I ended up saying hi to a few hundred hikers, the vast majority of whom seemed to appreciate it. Roughly 75% of those I greeted smiled and said hello back, 15% stared at me with confused expressions, and 10% utterly avoided eye-contact and kept walking.

By the end of the trip, saying hi to strangers was almost involuntary, and being ignored by ¼ of those I hailed no longer phased me — they were far outweighed by the positive response I got from the other ¾.

Angel's Landing silliness

I started the Angel’s Landing hike in Zion National Park by saying hi to a stranger near the trailhead. By lunchtime, I had an amazing new friend who was willing to humor me for pictures like this one.

3. Fear of rejection

Fear-ssumption: “It’s a waste of energy to even try and make this ambitious/outlandish request…I don’t have enough experience/talent/connections, so there’s basically no chance it’ll work.”

Challenge: Prior to attending the DJ GRiZ’s October 1st show at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, publicly post a tribute video on his Facebook page and email him a request regarding the concert.

Result: When you’re considering whether or not to apply for a long-shot position, reach out to an influential person, or make a bold request, it’s easy to justify inaction by telling yourself there’s no way you’ll be successful — that there are plenty of other more qualified people competing for the same thing, and that your attempt to aim higher will only lead to you getting shot down and embarrassed.

What’s harder to recognize and admit is that the real source of your passivity is the fear of rejection. You’re worried that you’re underqualified or under-connected or both, and you decide to wait for opportunity to come to you.

Unfortunately, that’s not how opportunity works. To quote author Neil Strauss: “Usually, what you wish for doesn’t fall in your lap; it falls somewhere nearby, and you have to recognize it, stand up, and put in the time and work it takes to get to it.” This involves taking calculated risks and expecting some missteps. It can sting to ask for something and get turned down, but understand that most of the fallout is in your head — if you so choose, you can transform your perception of rejection from an “embarrassing mistake” to “a necessary step on the path to success.”

True failure is not asking. Fortune favors the bold, and the cost of not taking any risks in pursuit of what you want is far heavier than a stack of rejections.

I kept all that in mind as I made my way to Colorado in September 2016 to see my favorite DJ, GRiZ, perform his saxophone-infused brand of “future funk” wizardry at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver. A week before the show, I recorded a tribute video to his music and posted it on his fan page:

I then sent his press team an email in which I reiterated my appreciation for his craft, briefly told the story of how his Red Rocks show inspired my road trip, and humbly requested to join him on stage and spin LED poi for a short time during his set.

I was denied. That mattered little. I had recognized an interesting opportunity to share my story, enjoyed recording the video, and make my request in spite of my expectation that it wouldn’t be fulfilled. In doing this, I avoided the regret that surely would have ensued had I not given it a shot, and I got to witness how the failure I’d once dreaded wasn’t actually that bad.

What that all amounted to was a healthy dose of humility, and a stronger inclination to reach out with similarly unconventional requests in the future.

My first three challenges taught me something interesting about the nature of fear: it’s only as strong as you let it be.

In starting conversations with 30 strangers at Burning Man, I deflated my social anxiety through pure volume of positive experience. Greeting hundreds of other hikers during my road trip normalized the act of acknowledging other humans for the sake of itself and led to a couple of unexpected connections. And my unsuccessful but instructive request to GRiZ reinforced my conviction to perceive failure as a precipitate of success.

You give fear power when you let your aversion to it dictate your actions. You take that power away when you act in direct opposition to fear — when you laugh in its face and do exactly what your ego defenses are telling you not to do, spurred on by the knowledge that you’ll be better off in the end.

I demonstrated how this could be done in a few social contexts with the experiments above. But what if the things you fear are entrenched in something more abstract, like the passing of time? That was the case for the other root apprehension I identified: my fear of accomplishing less. To read about my second set of experiments, including how I spun fire naked to challenge FOMO and used a hate group to combat my procrastination habit, click here for Part 2.

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