The End of Limits: How to Flourish in the Face of Fear

Our guest today is Gail Brenner, psychologist and blogger from A Flourishing Life: Practical Wisdom for Clarity, Freedom, and Happiness. I met Gail in San Francisco last fall. I know you'll enjoy getting to know her as much as I did!

"The single clenched fist lifted and ready, or the open hand held out and waiting. Choose: For we meet by one or the other.” ~Carl Sandburg

When it comes to fear, we can be so hard on ourselves. We take this tender part of our experience, and we reject it, change it, ignore it, banish it. Anything but deal with it.

We think that if the fear would just go away, we will be able to get on with it. And in the meantime, we are suffering tremendously, watching the moments of our lives tick away, waiting to live.

As much as we try to get rid of fear, it seems to have a mind of its own. So what to do? There must be another way.

There is, and it is called friendship. When fear arises, we are being called to befriend a part of ourselves that is asking for our attention. Just like a friend, we invite it in, get to know it, and treat it with loving care.

The Essential Life Choice

When any painful emotion comes to our awareness, we are faced with a choice. We react against it, or we welcome it. We feed the inner war, or we begin to wage peace. We put off our happiness to some future time, or we relax into the experience of the moment as it is.

What is amazing is that we have this choice. By aligning ourselves with our deepest longings, we don't need to follow stress, unhappiness, and limitation. We can move out of the way to let the light of our lives shine in every direction.

Fear 101

Are you paralyzed by fear? Are you keeping yourself small by allowing it to guide your decisions? Maybe now is the time to consider befriending fear. Get to know it so well that it loses its power over you. Learn to address it so it doesn't overwhelm you. Then go on out there and enjoy yourself.

If you look closely, you will discover that fear is made up of thoughts and physical sensations. When fear is running, we channel our inner boogieman and create scary stories in our minds about every negative outcome imaginable. At the same time, our bodies are tense and contracted.

If you want to befriend fear, tune into your body and explore your thoughts. Here's how.

Befriending the Fear Body

The hallmark of the body in fear is an overactive nervous system ready for fight or flight.

  • Notice. Find your inner witness, and simply notice the bodily sensations you are experiencing. Allow them to be as they are without running or fixing.
  • Breathe. Take a few slow, deep inhales and exhales. Inhale the nourishment of air and exhale to let go. Just a few breaths can be so centering.
  • Relax. Close your eyes, and invite relaxation into your whole body, head to toe.
  • Move. Swing your arms, run or walk, take a few yoga postures. Make a space for the energy in your body to move.

Befriending the Fear Mind

Fear-based thoughts swirl like a tornado. Have you noticed?

  • Orient. Embody resilience, strength, and empowerment.
  • Notice. From the place of the inner witness, put some space around your thoughts.
  • Question. Investigate the thoughts to see if they are true. Hint: they aren't. Fear thoughts create negative scenarios about the future. See the futility of buying into them.
  • Don't know. Realize that you don't actually know what the future is going to bring. Stay open so that creative solutions and insights can emerge.
  • Listen. Don't listen to what the fear thoughts are saying, and find the quiet whisper of your soul speaking.

Once you turn to meet the experience of fear, you set in motion the possibility for thoughtful and compassionate responding. Every part of your experience has a place to be. And in this acceptance arises the knowing of your next step.

Befriending fear allows you to tap into the natural wisdom and intelligence that is the truth of your being. Right now, in this moment, what do you choose?

Does fear hold you back? Have you learned to flourish in the face of fear? 

image credit

Gail Brenner, Ph.D. is a psychologist and blogger who writes at A Flourishing Life, where she delights in offering practical wisdom for untangling self-defeating habits and realizing happiness.

You can receive her posts by RSS or email, and contact her regarding personalized sessions to help you get unstuck.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Clearly Composed December 26, 2010, 9:32 pm

    *smiles* Classic Gail wisdom at its very best! Wise and kind is a pretty great combo…and hey, next time an SF meeting is happening I want to come too! I am a not so long ride from there and would do it in a heartbeat if I was blessed to meet two of my favorite bloggers. 🙂 Thanks for sharing the love, and Gail too, with us all. Fear isn’t an easy topic and when great advice rings true you just feel it…and I am feeling it. 🙂
    .-= Clearly Composed´s last post… Full Tank- A Short Story by Clearly Composed =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 9:36 am

      Being wise and kind when it comes to fear. That’s it in a nutshell, Emma. I think the most important thing is that we deal with it rather than letting it run our lives.

      Next time I’m in SF, I’ll be sure to let you know. I’d love to meet you!

  • Nea | Self Improvement Saga December 26, 2010, 11:21 pm

    Hi Gail and Tess. I always enjoy reading about fear because it is something that is so common. I think that we all have fears that somehow get in the way; but it’s important to move past them as Gail has said here. In most aspects of my life, I have definitely learned to do that. It is never easy, but I find solace in remembering that I am not my mind. Fear can creep in and make it’s presence known, but it can’t stop me unless I choose to allow it.
    .-= Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last post…Why You Can’t Go Far Without Congruence In Life =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 9:41 am

      This is the essence of it, Nea – “I am not my mind.” Fear loves to convince us that bad things will happen if we follow our hearts, and these scary thoughts are repeated over and over. But they are just thoughts. They aren’t wisdom, and they aren’t truth.

      It’s the critical first step to not believe the thoughts. This then frees up our attention to take care of our bodies when we are in fear and to listen deeply for the true answer.

      Thanks so much for adding in this point of clarity.

  • Caroline December 26, 2010, 11:28 pm

    I never tire of posts like these Tess. I always need a good kick in the butt when it comes to conquering fear. I think I am getting better at it…so that’s a good thing. But a reminder now and then is priceless!

    Anyway, I wish you a wonderful New Year and hope 2011 is filled with many blessings and much happiness! You rock Tess!!!

    xo
    .-= Caroline´s last post…A fine ending to 2010 =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 11:26 am

      Hi Caroline,

      I’m so glad you found this topic useful. We get better at dealing with fear one moment at a time, and it takes conviction to not let it rule our lives – which it sounds like you have!

  • Joy December 27, 2010, 3:54 am

    Hi Tess,
    Thank you–what a gift!

    Hi Gail,
    I love what you present here–thank you!
    Fear is my friend. It took a whille, but I learned that fear is much like a toddler trying to get attention–if I ignore it, it creates havoc; but if I invite it in and acknowledge it, it then sits quietly as I go about my business..
    For me, the best complement to fear is faith..I know if fear is present I am having a less than faith filled moment, so I praise for the good I see in it, and allow that praise to bolster my faith..I Know that *everything* truly is possible and my life is as magical as I allow it to be!

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 11:32 am

      Your words exude a great sense of peace, Joy. Ignoring fear only creates trouble. And if we buy into what it tells us we are choosing a mind-driven life filled with worry, doubt, and negativity.

      You describe the alternative, living in faith, so well – seeing the good and trusting in the possibilities. Acknowledging fear, then going about your business. So free!

  • Tim December 27, 2010, 6:43 am

    Hi Gail and Tess:

    This is a great and timely post for me. Within the last month or two, I came to the realization of how fear has affected my life and many of the decisions I’ve made through the years. Let’s put it this way…I wasn’t happy about my conclusions. I can remember a time, especially when I was taking improv classes, when I faced my fears more frequently. In improv, you face your fears and just jump in. The exhilaration after facing these fears…is pretty strong. Gail, you offer some great strategies for facing, conquering and most importantly befriending your fears. Good stuff, thank you!
    .-= Tim´s last post…Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 11:38 am

      Tim, you describe a very important step in dealing with fear, which is acknowledging how we have made fear-based decisions in the past. We may not like what we see, but seeing how we went astray, and how painful that is, can be so useful in committing to the conscious path.

      Knowing what we don’t want and what doesn’t work helps us to become clear about what we do want. I can only imagine how exhilarating a time this is for you to have recently shifted to jumping in despite fear. A great way to start the new year!

  • Tammy December 27, 2010, 8:34 am

    I wish people would talk about fear more often. It is silly to live our lives threatened by it yet we do it so often that we fail to recognize what it is. Thank you Gail and thank you Tess.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 11:41 am

      Hi Tammy,

      Becoming aware that fear is present is necessary before we can do anything about it. I am totally with you. I say, let’s get fear out in the open, let’s see how it operates in us so we can begin to truly live!

  • Andrea DeBell - britetalk December 27, 2010, 9:08 am

    Hi Gail! I love the idea of befriending our fears. When we become aware of our fears and look them in the eye, we notice that there was nothing there to start with, only what we created with our ideas of it. Befriending our fears allows our ego mind to relax.
    Thanks for this wonderful insight into fear. Loving blessings!
    .-= Andrea DeBell – britetalk´s last post…The Unique Joys of a Simplified Christmas =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 11:45 am

      So beautifully clear, Andrea! You suggest that we look fear in the eye and see that the only thing there is the ideas we have created. So true.

      And when we befriend our fears and the ego mind relaxes, we have the space for creativity, wonder, awe, happiness. So much possibility in this very moment!

  • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 9:12 am

    Thank you so much, Tess, for the opportunity for this guest post. There is always a love fest going on over here at The Bold Life, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

    Love,
    Gail

    • Tess December 27, 2010, 8:42 pm

      Gail,
      I think your timing with this article is perfect as we move into 2011. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  • Dandy December 27, 2010, 1:10 pm

    Hi Gail,
    Great post. I’ve spent way too many years a victim of fear. But I’ve learned to make friends with it. I’ve learned it cannot be avoided or overcome. It is in our biology. I’ve become grateful for what fear has made me take notice of. I’ve avoided tradegy because of fear. But I’ve stopped allowing it to rule my life and squash my spirit. Fear needs to be balanced out like most human emotions. Thanks for your great writing Gail!

    ~Dandy
    .-= Dandy´s last post…The Highly Sensitive Person part 1 =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 2:21 pm

      Hi Dandy,

      I appreciate your common-sense approach to fear. It sounds like it is serving you well.

      And I love how you are listening to the fear. Maybe it does have something valuable to tell us. But ultimately, we are best served by not “allowing it to rule my life and squash my spirit.” Well said.

  • Brenda December 27, 2010, 3:51 pm

    wonderful post Tess and Gail…fear has so many implications in our lives…so empowering to note that it does not have to be the enemy…so calming to realize that we can befriend it and live more fearlessly!!!

    thanks for the widsom!!
    .-= Brenda´s last post…Thoughts on Forgiveness =-.

  • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 4:13 pm

    Hi Brenda,

    I appreciate your point that it is empowering to know that fear doesn’t have to be the enemy. We have a choice – it can be an enemy or a friend. We can be empowered or victimized by it.

    I think the fear is that if we get to know it, it will overpower us, when exactly the opposite is true!

  • Rand December 27, 2010, 5:05 pm

    Hello Gail,
    Many of us have known the raw “fear” of potential great injury, war, survival of life at it’s perimeter, before the face of God. The “fear” you have presented is the one that we all deal with day in day out…a tough customer that needs constant attention. Yes if ignored would like to just lick you up and spit you out.
    Listen. “Don’t listen to what the fear thoughts are saying, and find the quiet whisper of your soul speaking.”
    That is the key!
    Our souls are so loving…beyond all what “fear” has to offer.
    Thanks once again Gail, and thanks for the Carl Sandburg quote…nice to know you like him…
    Your loving friend,
    Rand

    • Rand December 28, 2010, 12:13 am

      …just to clarify. Regards to “raw fear” my personal fear I was relating to was Not War, but that passage from Australia to New Cal…remember that Perfect Storm scenario on the little sailboat?

      The day to day fears I was dealing with… Carl Sandburg mentions them in ‘From The People, Yes’. Gail you know from when I entered posting comments what I’m talking about. The dreams are gone. I feel a great deal of peace.

      I’d go back out to sea at a moments notice.

      I’m so much better at dealing with the other fear now.

      Gail you know how much I love you for this…

      • Rand December 29, 2010, 4:40 pm

        THIS OPEN HAND

        See before you this hand?

        It is becoming old now.

        See before you scars, callus texture, and crooked fingers?

        The hand at time hurts with pain, but still goes on working…God only knows how.

        See before you this hand?

        It wants to tell you where it has been and the things it has done.

        In childhood it held a cold ice cream cone under a sweltering sun.

        Spun a Yo-Yo in tune to my mood and then put it back safe away from everyone.

        Carrying Dad’s milk bottles from truck to house I would run.

        Being a young man recklace and rebellious in a fight I broke this hand.

        Held it out with thumb bekoning for a ride at a corner street light.

        She was my first love who received the Navajo ring off my finger…we kissed and held tight.

        And so before me the years went on.

        And my hand went on clasping, claping, fixing, gathering, and gesturing.

        Until the day came when it was raised in solemn wedding oath.

        Our hands worked together doing all what was needed to protect the bond…caressing, calming, and communicating.

        They worked their way towards the climax of love.

        Daughter’s hands I have held…premature hands so very small.

        Through incubator door we held…

        the warmth

        the delicate feel

        the smell of life left on this hand

        I remember well.

        My wedding band is gone from this hand.

        The ring I now wear on my finger waits for a Persian sunbeam to fall upon.

        For before me I have held my brother and sister’s hands at their moment of last breath

        Each I kissed before they traveled beyond.

        For see before you this hand belongs only to a man that is common.

        Just a man that is common.

        So be not afraid to reach out with your own hand.

        For my hand only wants to tenderly receive yours and feel it’s textured years.

        Grasp then let go for another to hold.

        For with each New Year the chance for peace and welfare for all will increase throughout the land.

        If we only offer an open hand.
        ———–
        Love and Peace to All this New Year!
        Rand

  • Chris Akins December 27, 2010, 6:13 pm

    Hi Tess,

    Facing fear is the only way to overcome it. Most people run from or avoid their fears, and are held captive by them. One of the things we learned at the Naval Academy is that we can accomplish far more than most of us think we can, and usually the barrier to achieving is not capabilty, but a fear of failure.

    Chris
    .-= Chris Akins´s last post…When inspiration strikes =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 9:06 pm

      Hi Chris,

      I appreciate hearing the perspective of someone from the military who has learned a thing or two about fear firsthand.

      This point is so important: when we run from or avoid fears, we are held captive by them. Meeting fear is the only way to not have it control us.

  • Sandra Lee December 27, 2010, 9:29 pm

    Hello Gail,
    It’s so nice to see you here on one of my favorite blogs! This is an excellent article. Fear has been a big part of my life. I’m so glad you spoke about the “fear body.” I believe that fear becomes embedded in the body. In the case of trauma, it takes time, persistence, and patience to unravel the impact. It’s exciting to see the new approaches to trauma that are finally helping people to heal. They include so many of the helpful methods you mention here like mindfulness, breathing, and examining the fear. Thanks so much for this synopsis and wonderful guidance.
    .-= Sandra Lee´s last post…Is a Lack of Forgiveness Holding You Back =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 27, 2010, 10:52 pm

      Great to see you here, Sandra. If we are serious about dealing with fear, we need to bring our attention into the body, as you wisely suggest. It is the repository of trauma and repetitive patterns. The body memory can be so strong, yet unnoticed.

      Becoming aware of physical contractions, allowing them to be, and making space for their release can be transformative. Many of us live in our heads, but the body holds the key to deep healing.

  • Angela Artemis December 28, 2010, 6:17 am

    Hi Tess – thanks so much for hosting and sharing Gail with us here.
    Hi Gail,
    You’ve painted fear into a living breathing person, and revealed his many disguises. When I was still quite “unconscious” he crept into my life like a cat burglar and stole my sense of adventure right out from under me! How many opportunities have I backed down from because of him? There are at least a half dozen big things I wanted to pursue but didn’t – that would have changed the direction of my life – that I talked myself out of all due to fear.

    But, I’m happy to say I’m finally getting better with each passing year. I am living consciously now and that has made all the difference in the world. Fear won’t sneak up on me again!
    Thank you Gail for this powerful article on such an important topic.
    .-= Angela Artemis´s last post…Love is The Greatest Gift – A Holiday Message =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 28, 2010, 7:56 am

      Hi Angela,

      What a vivid image you have portrayed here! I’m sure we can all feel it – fear as the cat burglar who stole our sense of adventure from us. And when we look to the past, we are asked to forgive ourselves and learn as we move forward.

      Which you are certainly doing. It’s wonderful to hear your testimony to a conscious life.

  • HappinessandWisdom December 28, 2010, 9:12 am

    Great post! So many view fear as something that must be overcome, when in fact, it simply needs to be witnessed and moved past. Thanks for this great reminder!
    .-= HappinessandWisdom´s last post…Resolve to Choose Happiness =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 29, 2010, 10:15 pm

      Witnessing and moving past fear – so simple. So much more relaxing than trying to overcome it. Thank you for this clarity.

  • jonathanfigaro December 28, 2010, 6:34 pm

    Never allow fear to keep you down. Life is way to short to lose your self in the ideologies of fear. Which is really, False Evidence Appearing Real. Its not real, just a illusion. Remove your emotional attachment to your fears mentally and it will arrive in the physical world.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 29, 2010, 10:17 pm

      Very wise words, Jonathan. “Life is way too short to lose your self in the ideologies of fear.” Simply experiencing fear, then moving on, is all that is needed.

  • Cathy December 28, 2010, 7:06 pm

    Wonderful post. Fear can consume us. Our mind can go to the darkest places if we allow it to. I love your tools for coping with your fear, especially the idea of treating it as a friend that needs your attention. Thank you.
    .-= Cathy´s last post…7 Great Authors Who Have Inspired Me =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 29, 2010, 10:20 pm

      Hi Cathy,

      Fear can take our minds to the darkest places, as you say, which is another reason not to buy into fear-driven thoughts. When we treat fear like a friend, we include it rather than fight it, which creates the space for clarity and wise responding.

  • Peggy December 29, 2010, 12:23 pm

    Dear Tess – thank you for introducing me to Gail!

    Dear Gail – Beautifully written! I like to tell people that FEAR is nothing more than False Evidence Appearing Real 🙂

    xo
    Peggy
    .-= Peggy´s last post…Battle Scars =-.

    • Gail Brenner (AFlourishingLife) December 29, 2010, 10:22 pm

      Hi Peggy,

      Jonathan mentioned that acronym also, so it bears repeating. False Evidence Appearing Real. This is a great reminder not to believe fear-driven thoughts. Why? Because they aren’t true.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Rand December 30, 2010, 3:17 pm

    Tess…this is for you.

    Mom’s boy was born on Halloween…just like you Mom.

    There’s just some things that have never scared me.

    Thank you and God Bless.

    Rand

    • Rand December 30, 2010, 7:33 pm

      Typo error…meant ‘your mom’.

      Fairy Forts in the dead of night on a lonely West Clare, Ireland road never frightened me.

  • alice January 22, 2011, 8:06 pm

    Thanks for this article! I have also found that fear can’t just be pushed aside. Without acceptance there’s no letting go.
    .-= alice´s last post…So- who is this blogger and how is she qualified to talk about personal development =-.

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