Let’s not mince words. Life can be a fucking scary place. Fear can be such a debilitating emotion that it can stop you dead in your tracks. There I was, 20 years old, fresh out of the military, standing outside a nightclub as the bouncer. Did I mention that the entrance age for the club was 24? Yeah. I was shitting myself.
Let’s just think about that for a second. I was the kid who was bullied relentlessly. Having my head flushed in the toilet and being cornered on the way home and beaten senseless were daily occurrences. Things got so scary that I started to skip school, feigning dozens of made up illnesses. When I saw the bullies coming my way, I would search for an escape route and haul ass, running as fast as I could, only to hear them laugh and heckle me as I did.
And at age 20, there I was, a bouncer. An occupation of violence. In other words, tossing the assholes and troublemakers out of the club. The most polite thing I did was punch them really hard in the face just once.
My first night on the job, shit started with a group of guys who’d been drinking way too much and decided it would be fun to pinch a girl’s butt as she walked by. Needless to say, the girl’s boyfriend wasn’t impressed. The call went out, and my fellow bouncers and I were there in seconds to break things up. As we ‘escorted’ the troublemaker and his friends out of the club, the head asshole turned to me and said, “What the fuck do you think you’re going to do, you little wanker? Looks like they’re hiring children at this club.”
To be honest, my knees were shaking so hard, I thought I was about to fall down. My stomach was churning, and I felt sick. My mouth was dry, and I broke out in a cold sweat. To make matters worse, or likely because of it, the head asshole was built like a brick shithouse. And there I was, all 170 pounds of me, ready to throw up. I was so scared and nervous that I didn’t think I’d be able to move.
The head asshole opened his mouth again and started to move toward me with his hand beginning to raise up, and there it was mid-flight a right hook aimed straight at my head. I ducked, popped up, and with one well placed right hook of my own, I floored him. Twenty minutes later, they still couldn’t wake him up.
Now, I’m certainly not saying you should go around punching people left and right, nor am I glorifying violence. On that day, I was defending myself, but that experience made a crucial impression on me as the years went on. The lesson wasn’t immediately evident that day, but over time, as I had more similar experiences, it became clear to me that just because you’re ‘afraid,’ it doesn’t mean you can’t make shit happen. That old saying, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway,’ took on a vivid, dare I say visceral, meaning.
Although I can’t know for certain, I can assume that as a fellow human being, we share similar thoughts, sensations, and emotions. Some of these emotions, such as fear, may arise from situations that remind us of past traumatic experiences, or our thinking mind can talk us into a fear state. In the latter scenario, what we tell ourselves internally kicks off a fear response. In the former, our body responds first, only to have our thinking mind classify that response as ‘fear’ later on.
Looking back, the guy I faced that night was actually scary looking, but he also reminded me of the guys who bullied me growing up. Before I could even process why I was so scared, my body went into survival mode as a way of letting me know, ‘We’ve been here before.’ I immediately began scanning my body and mind to make sense of why I was feeling the way I was, and my only conclusion was that I was afraid: afraid that I didn’t have what it would take to handle that guy. Luckily though, I didn’t have enough time to reflect on my fear in the moment. In a way, that asshole did me a favor. His quick reaction time between insulting me and throwing that punch didn’t give me much time to assess my fear. I simply had to react, without much thought to how I was feeling. Given more time, I might have allowed my thoughts to undermine my ability to react and therefore chickened out.
Two lessons stand out from this experience, but they are also, essentially, one. (Now there’s a Yogi Berra-style statement for you!) Our thoughts can trigger fear, or the physiological changes that typically take place in a fear response can happen first, and we then interpret them as signs of fear. They may seem different, but in fact, they’re virtually the same. The common denominator in both is the story, or narrative, we create. The story leads to fear, or feelings lead by a story become fear. But here’s the thing, and it may seem confusing at first: it’s only when we begin with fear-inducing thoughts, or we interpret or label a series of feelings as fear, that true FEAR emerges.
Allow me to explain… Every week I have to stand up in front of people I don’t know in different parts of the world and coach them. Since I take what I do very seriously, it’s not uncommon for me to experience butterflies, notice my heart rate elevate, sense clamminess on my hands, and feel my mouth dry up. This is my body recognizing stress and preparing for a performance. Sometimes, these internal stirrings are mild, but before a big event, they’re much more pronounced. I have two choices in that moment: I can interpret those feelings and sensations as fear and anxiety, or I can view them as indicators of excitement. There’s a stimulus (the upcoming coaching event) and a thinking response (my thoughts about fear or excitement). My response, the way I interpret that stimulus, is going to dictate whether I take action or buckle and fold under the pressure. I could engineer this process in reverse, too. For example, before the first whiff of fear, I could begin having fear-based thoughts, which would ultimately invoke a fear response in my body. This could include thoughts like, ‘I’ve never done an event this big. I’m not sure I can handle it.’ This process might begin with an apprehensive or self-limiting thought that if left unchecked and allowed to feed into the other stories I tell myself about why I won’t be able to do this, can quickly invoke physiological responses that I invariably end up labelling, consciously or subconsciously, as fear.
Although I survived my inner narrative that night when facing the head asshole, things haven’t always gone so smoothly. There’ve been more times than I can count when I was faced with the threat of interpersonal violence outside nightclubs — when situations had dragged on long enough for the narrative in my head to grow so powerful, so strong — that I was mere seconds away from becoming overwhelmed with intense emotional responses which would’ve rendered me useless. The phrase ‘a deer in headlights’ comes to mind here. You can become so worked up by the story in your head that you can literally freeze, leaving yourself completely unable to respond. To some academic types, this may seem like an oversimplification of the process, but it’s been my experience.
Here’s a question I’m often asked in martial arts circles: ‘What about when you go from zero (no thoughts of danger or physiological preparedness for danger) to responding when someone randomly attacks you? Is that a fear response?’ I typically reply that I love those situations simply because you have to respond without thinking. You have to rely on your training, and thinking can’t get you into trouble. But to be serious for a moment, I don’t see that reaction as a fear response per se but rather a survival response. The physiological changes that happen during or before a fight are simply the body’s way of preparing to perform and, ultimately, to survive. These precede any label, such as fear, anxiety, etc. Those labels are words we use in order to make sense of our feelings and even justify them. As I said before, we could just as easily interpret them as excitement. Why do people who bungee jump think it’s fun? They come out of that experience feeling amped. But just before they jumped, any one of their internal stirrings — in a different situation, under a different narrative — could be interpreted as intense fear and prevent them from acting.
Looking at things from this perspective has helped me to better understand the difference between fear and survival. Survival-based responses are essential as they keep you alive and safe, but fear is only fear because you created a story, a narrative around an experience that you then label as fear. This is why fears are often said to be totally irrational. To the thinking mind, however, giving strength to a story is rational. The question, therefore, is: what can you do about it?
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much luck with telling myself not to be afraid. So often, you wind up with two conflicting stories. One story tells you it’s rational that you’re afraid of the situation you’re faced with, and another one tells you that you’re being silly. So, which one is it?
The best solution I’ve found is not to argue with either story. Neither of them is true anyway, in most cases. They are only interpretations being sown in the mind that seem to be the right justifications in the moment. If every fear story were accurate, you wouldn’t be able to achieve anything. Every day, people are faced with real fearful events but manage to push through and succeed nonetheless. The question is: how?
Most people just find a way to get through it. They develop a strategy, mostly subconsciously. Most people can’t even tell you how they do it. But, what if they could? And what if you could recreate the same strategy? How would you turn something as debilitating as fear into action, or rather a more agile force that can work in your favor?
Step 1: The notion so often thrown around is that you can learn to ‘control your fear.’ I’m here to tell you: that is utter bullshit. There, I said it. Nothing irritates me more than when I see self-defense instructors and self-help gurus peddling that nonsense. All it ends up doing is making you feel like a loser when you can’t ‘control the fear.’ The fact is, you will never be able to control your fear or any emotion, for that matter. You can’t control fear anymore than you can control what life throws at you. In case you hadn’t already noticed, life is impermanent and imperfect. Nothing remains the same. Nothing ever goes exactly to plan. Control is an illusion often conjured up in a misguided attempt to avoid the fact that you cannot control anything.
For many people, the illusion of control feels much safer than accepting the fact that they don’t have any. But that’s not their fault. No one is ever taught what to do with emotions that become unhelpful. I want you to get this into your head now: in its purest form, there is no such thing as an unhelpful emotion. All emotions are inherently good. This is often dependent on context, of course. If you were walking in the woods, turned the corner only to find a grizzly bear staring you down, and you felt no fear, you might think it would be a good idea to go up and pet the bear. And we all know how that story would end.
After two decades of intense martial arts practice and over 20,000 hours of sparring with people from all over the world — including world champions, people who went on to compete in the UFC, and special forces military operators — I can tell you with full confidence that just because you’re thinking or feeling a certain way, it doesn’t mean you can’t get in the ring, do your best, and kick ass. Without exception, the only time thoughts and feelings have caused me problems is when I either tried to control my fear, anger, anxiety, etc., or I allowed my inner narrative about what I was feeling to get the best of me.
Step 2: The physiological changes that happen in your body, which you then define or recognise as fear, are going to happen with or without your consent. Said another way, if we go back to my grizzly bear example in which you turned a corner in the woods and ran into one, tell me you’re not going to instantly shit yourself. And now try to tell me that somehow magically you’re going to control that fear. Probably not, right?
If you can’t control your fear, or any other emotion (anger, anxiety, etc.) for that matter, what can you do about it? I hinted at the answer in Step 1.
What you can do is acknowledge your capacity to manage your inner state. By definition, ‘managing’ is very different than ‘controlling.’ When you manage your inner state, you recognize that it exists but then change your relationship with what is holding you back in a way that still allows you to achieve success. When you attempt to control something, you try to exert power to influence or direct either your behavior or the course of events. For example, trying to influence your behavior by telling yourself not to be afraid doesn’t help. In actual fact — and I know this from first hand experience sparring against some of the toughest men on the planet — the more you tell yourself not to be afraid, the more worked up you get, and the more you second guess yourself.
As such, your first goal is to change your relationship with the emotions that are holding you back. You must develop a subtle awareness of what it actually feels like to be hooked by strong emotions. This starts by learning how to notice feelings when they first arise. Returning to my earlier example, when I’m coaching around the world, and I feel the butterflies in my stomach and the dryness in mouth, I recognize these signals as the typical precipitants of a strong emotion, like anxiety or fear. Noticing these feelings early on allows me to catch them more quickly, before they consume me. With enough practice, you can feel what will become fear before you even label it as such. The label is the hook. It’s our story, the narrative we use to describe and justify why we’re feeling a certain way.
Step 3: Step 3 is the crux of this practice. Once you’re able to recognize the beginnings of a strong emotion, you’ll learn to interrupt the momentum of these feelings by slowing down your own reactions to them. In other words, you’ll teach yourself to interrupt the cycle of stimulus and response. Between the stimulus (i.e., the event that triggers the feelings) and your response (i.e., the story or narrative you use to make sense of the feelings) is a gap. Admittedly, it’s a really small gap, but once you learn to manage it, your way of dealing with unhelpful emotional states will shift. Put another way, your story will stop running you.
Step 4: This step is all about what you do during the gap between stimulus and response. Allow me to give you an example. Imagine this scenario: I wake up in the morning in my hotel room. Today is the big day. In 2 hours, I’ll be in front of dozens of people who I’ve never met before, and I’ll be sparring with all of them. Picture it: dozens of people, all with amazing fight games, trying to punch me in the face. Now imagine repeating that experience dozens of times throughout the year.
From the moment I begin to think about the upcoming event, even as my eyes open, my physiology begins to change. But I immediately recognize that the onset of these feelings is actually my entire embodied self preparing to perform. Instead of creating a narrative around those feelings — like telling myself, ‘I’m afraid because…,’ ‘I’m anxious because…,’ or ‘I’m tense because…,’ — and then finding myself neck deep in internal dialogue about either trying to change the story or justify it, I simply label what I’m feeling. ‘Ah, tension’ or ‘Ah, anxiety.’ Nothing more, nothing less. With practice, I’m simply being mindful about the inner stirrings in my mind and body. I’m also slowing down my reactions to what’s happening.
Mindfulness means paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience from moment to moment. When you’re mindful, you’re able to enter into the places that you fear because you do so fully and non-judgmentally embracing the unfolding of experience from moment to moment. More importantly, you’re no longer run by your emotions. Don’t get me wrong: all the inner feelings you usually recognize as fear or anxiety are still there. The difference is that you’re not having an inner dialogue about them. You drop the story, the hook.
Being mindful enables you to be more present, focused, and astute, aware of the experience unfolding in front of you. This means your responses will be precise and not clouded by emotions which are almost always attached to unhelpful thoughts.
Outside the night club, when I threw that guy out, and he came back at me with a right hook, I simply reacted from my fight training. In that moment — and not even realizing it at the time — my thinking mind was switched off. I didn’t have time to overthink the feelings I was having. The right hook coming my way simply didn’t give me the opportunity to. There was no gap. This is what I meant earlier when I said that the head asshole did me a favor. If we had pushed and shoved each other around for a while, as often happens scuffles, I may have begun to interpret my thoughts and feelings as apprehension and fear and I might have attached some sort of self-limiting thoughts to it.
I want to make this abundantly clear: it’s not what’s happening outside of ourselves that’s the problem. It’s not even what’s happening inside that’s the problem. The problem lies in the ways in which we interpret what happens to us, inside and out. I’m not saying you shouldn’t acknowledge how you feel. I can label my feelings as fear, but as long as that’s where it begins and ends, I give no further power to my feelings — especially not the kind of unhelpful power that attaches a story or narrative to them — which has the potential to cause you to quit or freeze.
I’ve used this approach successfully in thousands of sparring matches with some of the world’s toughest opponents. I’ve also used it successfully in business as an entrepreneur. I’ve even used it successfully when asked to speak publicly, my least favorite thing in the whole world. I’m not trying to blow my own horn by telling you this. I’m telling you this because if I, the kid who grew up in total fear, the kid who lived with uncontrollable anxiety, can do it, I know you can do it, too. I know that you have greatness in you. I know that you want to achieve success in your life. I know that this thing called fear is likely holding you back. I’m here to tell you that fear is only as powerful as the story you weave around and through it. Short circuit that story, go out and do what you’ve always wanted to do, and I’m telling you, you will be so surprised. You’ll realize that just because you’re thinking or feeling a certain way, those thoughts and feelings don’t define your results. The only things that can define that or stop you from reaching your personal success are the self-limiting stories you hold on to. They’re only stories, fragments of history enmeshed together to make you believe they’re real. Me punching you in the face is real. The story you choose to tell yourself about it is exactly that, whatever story you decide to tell yourself.
Now, get out there and just [email protected]£king do it! Implement this four step plan. Success is yours for the taking.
Just [email protected]£king Do It Anyway Cycle of Success:
•An emotional response begins.
•You recognize it and label it, ‘Ah, fear.’
•You don’t do anything more with the label.
•You stay with how you’re thinking and feeling, without judgement (i.e., no story).
•You embrace the fullness of how you feel, don’t run from it, and just [email protected]£king do what you were about to do anyway.