A Lesson on Overcoming Fear: Let Fear Protect, Not Harm You

winding roadThere is a fine distinction between fear that protects you and fear that harms you. At least, those were my thoughts a week or so ago as I tackled a steep, curvy descent on my bicycle.

Secretly, I wanted to walk my bike safely down the 3-mile road with 6-18% grades. But the concern and kindness of a fellow cyclist thwarted my plan.

As a I headed downward, well after my friends waiting at the bottom of the mountain, I was perplexed about my approach. Go too slow or brake too hard and I could flip or fall over. Go too fast and I could crash as I missed the paved road in a curve.

How, precisely, could I achieve the perfect compromise of not too slow and not too fast? As I was pondering this dilemma with both feet placed firmly on the road, a cyclist in my group rode up the mountain to check on my condition.

I learned, rather reluctantly, how to live in the dual and opposite states of fear and courage, resistance and resolve. With coaching and support of my cycling buddy, my focus moved from my state of mind to the task at hand, which was riding down safely but swiftly as possible.

This experience taught me that it is important to put fear in the right place, allowing its protection while avoiding its harm. Here are specific lessons on overcoming fears:

  • Know the difference between healthy and unhealthy fears.

    A starting point for overcoming (the right) fear is to recognize the crucial difference between fear that protects and fear that holds the potential for harm. Next, identify situations in which you might cross the line from safety to danger.

    The cycling example is an easy one for me to visualize. Brake too hard and too suddenly, and you could possibly lose control of the bicycle or, if riding in a group, cause the person behind you to hit your back wheel and crash.

    Other aspects of life provide scenarios that illustrate my point. For example, you may be fearful of investing because you don’t want to lose the value of your principal in the stock or bond market. Recognizing the potential for loss is good because this knowledge can protect you from making poor financial decisions. Too much fear, though, can paralyze you and prevent you from experiencing gains (or keeping up with inflation) through investing, leaving you impoverished later in life.

    Similarly, being alert to unusual behaviors of new acquaintances, neighbors, and professional associates can protect you from deception and fraud. But being overly cautious can distance you from other people and rob you of genuine friendships and positive relationships.

  • Take risks that carry minimal consequences.

    To a certain extent, a true risk involves high potential for loss or bad consequences. But taking risks doesn’t mean betting all that you have on a hunch or hot tip, or abandoning your reasoning to face down your greatest fear.

    Really, it’s perfectly fine to be tentative in the right situations.

    We typically think of being tentative or acting tentatively as a state or action to be avoided. Act definitively or don’t act at all, we are told, either directly by a well-meaning friend or subconciously by ourselves.

    But you can approach new situations with appropriate levels of caution, letting fear properly control your actions. You don’t have to begin your cycling career careening down mountains, invest your life savings in a single stock, or share confidential information with a new acquaintance in an isolated setting. You can learn to judge the potentially negative aspects of a new endeavor (and manage risk accordingly) while embracing the possibilities of progressively increasing prowess in your favorite sport, wealth accumulation, deep friendships, and professional collaborations.

    Transformation from fearfulness to courageousness doesn’t (always) require overcoming trepidation in a single bold act. Instead, it can be achieved through small, deliberate steps.

  • Get help from a friend.

    Before going further, I should clarify the circumstances that brought me to the top of a mountain for which I was unprepared to safely descend. A trusted friend asked me to accompany her; I quickly advised her that I might need to walk down the mountain, rather than ride (I am not sure she took me seriously; nevertheless, I was upfront about my fear). Other cyclists, all with more experience in hill climbing and descending, decided to join us.

    Those accompanying us were helpful in explaining the nuances of the route and suggesting techniques to enjoy the experience. This guidance was particularly welcomed and valued by me.

    My new cycling buddy gave me great tips on descending safely, ones that I had not yet learned despite my efforts to improve in this area. For example, he taught me how to ride to the apex of a curve and gently move around the curve down a steep hill or mountain. And he reinforced my practice of letting those in a group ride know that I am likely to brake on curvy descents (before the turns) and moving to the back when appropriate.

    Getting friendly help or professional guidance can be useful when you are learning new skills or entering new territory. Pursue tips and insights on judging new situations, developing the capabilities to tackle new and scary endeavors, avoiding common mistakes, and taking the right path to confidence and success.

  • Forget your pride; think of your family.

    Truly, cycling has made me braver and more humble for reasons that I hope my story has illuminated. Though I have learned to face many fears, I have also learned that it is perfectly fine to express fears and back away from a challenge because of them.

    Often, when my fear places me in a dilemma, I think of my family and not myself. If the consequences of my actions could harm or hurt them in any way, then I choose the safer course of action.

    I have learned to make a decision that is right for me, not one based on avoiding embarrassment or preserving false pride. Though I love to experience the joy of saying “yes” to challenges, I have also become unafraid to say “no.”

Cycling has taught me to understand my fears. For example, last year on an all-day ride, I realized that I was becoming overheated. I desperately needed water. I was riding with a new group and feared hesitating in my cadence while I drank.

Quickly, I considered the tradeoff between near-certain heat stroke without water and a possible mishap due to slowed movements with water, and opted for the safer route of getting hydrated while on the bike. (Recently I rode with a person who warned me that she was going to drink water, allowing me to slow and avoid running into her; her well-founded caution caused her to communicate with me and avoid an accident).

I’ve learned not to avoid fears altogether but to wisely choose which type will move me.