When Sun Tsu wrote The Art of War fifteen hundred years ago, I expect he didn't anticipate it would be dredged up in an article on harnessing our fears in 21st century life. Then again, perhaps he did.
After all, war and fear go hand in hand. Yet, the real staying power and applicability of this book over the ages comes less from its focus on winning through battle, and more on prevailing through strategy. As he states...
"...the ultimate achievement is to defeat the enemy without even coming to battle."
When faced with our deepest-seated fears, our first instinct is either aversion - to withdraw to a place of security - or to battle them head-on in the hopes of outright victory. There is perhaps a time for each. But when this behaviour becomes chronic, fear stunts our ability to explore and grow. In short, it can have a debilitating impact on our sense of fulfillment in life.
Are you avoiding taking action out of fear of some kind? Perhaps it's an opportunity in your career that has presented itself. Maybe it's something you really want to do in life but just can't get past that surge of fear-based emotion.
Let's take, for example, the fear of public speaking. This, for me, has been a lifelong journey. For many years, even the idea of having to speak in front of others set my cardiovascular system into overdrive. Rather than it being the opportunity that it was, it always became something to be endured. To be placed behind me.
Until, that is, I began to see and approach fear from a vey different angle. A strategic perspective.
Bring your fears into the light
Our fears like to reside in the shadows, resisting attempts to define them. Even when they come blasting forth, triggered by some current or pending event, what we see of them is only our emotional response. They are the proverbial iceberg - 99% of their identity lurking out of sight.
Getting a bead on their true nature is important. You need to know what you're working with.
How can this be done?
Assess your judgments of others:
It may seem counterintuitive, but oftentimes, we can gain an understanding of our deep-seated fears through assessing how we view others.
Tsultim Allione in Feeding Your Demons, states: "If we look at what we most despise in others, we usually see one of our own demons reflected back."
I recently coached a client who felt she was missing out on opportunity in life because of a reluctance to speak up for herself. As we discussed this, it became clear that she was prone to judging others when they expressed themselves. Quick to criticize when they spoke up because, in her mind, they were just wanting to "take the spotlight".
As we explored this further, it became apparent to her that it was precisely because of this judgment of others that held her back from speaking up. It was her own fear of being judged that stopped her. When this emerged - seen for what it was - it created new perspective that could be explored.
Do a deep-dive:
Resolve to "un-package" your fear. With my own fear of public speaking, I decided to do a deep-dive. Interestingly, I discovered myself rooted in a need to be seen as strong. And that anything less than a perfect performance would somehow be seen as a weakness by others. Once I was able to see this, I had something to work with.
My terrain was now mapped out. So, what then?
Make fear your ally
"When you find the enemy's agents spying on you, offer them bribes, lavish care on them and lodge them handsomely."
I love this quote. Sun Tsu makes it quite clear. Where you can, turn your enemy into your ally.
Allione defines a "demon" as anything we hold onto that "hinders our liberation". Fear is a demon because fear, if avoided or battled, roots us in place. Creates ruts that we cannot seem to steer away from. If we allow it, fear takes from us our freedom to choose what's right for us.
What's the alternative then? Give your fear - your demon - what it demands. In my own experience with public speaking, my fear wanted to be respected and accepted. And to be seen as strong.
So, I made a decision. Rather than continue to wage war with it - challenge it - I decided to embrace it. I choose to acknowledge what my fear craves and to show it compassion. I now make a conscious decision to seek our its help and support. And, when the familiar surge of adrenalin begins to course through me as I approach the podium (and it still does), I funnel it to my ally.
Now, my former foe accompanies me onto that stage as an old friend - there to protect and sustain me. I cannot express how liberating this has been for me. In any situation now where I find fear rearing its head due to my own insecurities, I turn to my new ally for support.
Leave the past behind
"...a protracted campaign depletes the state's resources..."
Sun Tsu, The Art of War
Dwelling on what may have given rise to your fears in the first-place can leave you frustrated and expending energy on something you cannot change.
Yes, it's important to acknowledge that fear has roots in our past. In what we have experienced, observed, and learned. But then leave it there, where it belongs - in the past.
Conserve your energy by focusing instead on what you can control. Redirect your attentions to today and creating a future in which you have embraced the fears that have held you back in the past.
To fear is to be human. But allowing fears to control your actions - whether in waging war with them or shrinking away from life's opportunities - can severely limit your performance potential. Not to mention have a negative impact on your fulfillment in life.
The answer? Get strategic. Take control over your fear by illuminating its true nature and developing an alliance with it.