When I was fresh out of college, I moved away for grad school, far from everyone I knew. I had been admitted to an English master’s program and as part of the deal, I worked as a graduate teaching assistant. The second year of my assistantship in the two-year program was spent in front of a college freshman composition classroom as their teacher.
To call me fearful would be a grave understatement.
I was 23, and my two freshman composition classes each had twenty-two 17 and 18 year-olds. One of the first warnings that sealed in my fear was the department’s strong recommendation that we newbies start off Day 1 by introducing ourselves as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Ms.’ so that we’d be “respected.”
Had I any experience in teaching before? Nope. Tutoring? Yeah — my whole first year was spent as a Writing Center tutor for the university. But that’s one-on-one tutoring. This felt like I was being thrown to the wolves — remember, four short years before that, I had been one of those wolves.
But one of my biggest fears was the possibility that I could fail these students as a teacher. My core responsibility was to teach them composition — how to write at a college level — and to set them up for compositional success in their next 3 years. I was supposed to be building their college-level writing foundation blocks. Talk about some crazy pressure.
My now-husband, the grand problem-solver that he is, recommended a book I had been hesitant to read in the past: The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt.
In the past, I was hesitant to admit I needed help — afraid to be vulnerable — but this really was a next-level skillset, and I was thankful for any tool I could add to my toolbox. So I finally picked up the book, and I still use the psychology in it today.
How to approach fear
The author Dr. Russ Harris is a therapist and physician who has helped thousands of patients harness their fear of failure. The principles he walks through in the book are based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a cognitive-behavioral therapy in which mindfulness plays a key role.
In short, as Dr. Harris puts it, ACT stands for these steps:
- Accept our thoughts and feelings.
- Choose a valued direction.
- Take action mindfully.
One of the keys to the first step is not trying to change negative thoughts or pump oneself up with positive affirmations. ACT holds that negative thoughts are not inherently bad — they’re merely thoughts — but when those thoughts inhibit you from doing something you want or need to do, then the thoughts become concerning.
How to use your fear
One of Dr. Harris’s most impactful notions for me in dealing with my fear of failing my college freshmen was how he recommends dealing with fear: “Don’t fight your fear; allow it, befriend it, and channel it.”
Top performing athletes get nervous before games; high-level CEOs still get anxious before big meetings; heck, your priest might still get the jitters before giving his homily. We’re all human, and it happens.
The defining factor that sets apart those who persevere from those who never take action is how they deal with their fears.
Top performers channel that fear into their performance — they use it as drive, motivation to expand their limits. They see that fear as a challenge to push themselves to that next level. If they want to get better, they have to push themselves out of their comfort zone — and as they well know, fear usually lies at the edge.
Though it requires a shift in perspective, we don’t have to be world-ranked athletes to model this thinking. If you’re pushing your limits, you’re growing; the next time you find yourself afraid, ask yourself if you’re up for the challenge of improving yourself, then let that fear drive you further outside of your comfort zone.
When I’m right in the thick of attempting something scary, that doubting voice inside my head likes to rear her ugly head and come up with tons of reasons why I shouldn’t go through with it.
Negative self-talk is a hard habit to break, but Dr. Harris emphasizes ‘unsticking’ yourself from those thoughts, not judging them as positive nor negative thoughts, and moving forward.
An on-going growth process
It’s a step-by-step process that personally took a lot of mindful concentration. I can look back now and give a huge sigh of relief, but in the thick of it, being mindful of unsticking myself through all the learning, adapting, problem-solving was labor intensive.
Stepping in front of that classroom of freshmen, carrying out the semester’s plan day-by-day, talking through student conferences, grading papers, providing feedback — these were all brand new challenges, all with nerve-wracking “unknowns” at every corner.
But when I broke them down to individual encounters, stayed mindful of my thoughts, ‘unstuck’ myself when my inside voice started doubting my abilities, I could keep moving forward.
Fear of heights is far different than the fear of not being able to accomplish something. Is this scary goal in line with your values? Will it move you forward in your vocation or toward your ultimate goal? Then take that self-doubt, acknowledge that it’s happening, and let it go.
Ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s a phenomenon, because it happens to almost everyone. With fear and self-doubt, as Dr. Harris puts it, “the actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”
You don’t need confidence to fight your fears. Channel that fear as a challenge to grow the limits of your comfort zone, perform the ‘actions of confidence,’ and put one foot in front of the other. I can say from experiences that the feelings of confidence will eventually follow.