Using Adaptive Action to Overcome Fear

Fear loves stories; it thrives on them. The more fearful the stories you can tell, the more your fears grow.

Stories expand your fear, and they distract you from the feeling, disconnecting the thought about the story from the emotion it triggers. You tell yourself this discomfort you’re feeling has nothing to do with the fear you are experiencing, as long as you tell the right stories.


I have many stories around my fear of water. I tell myself it's not really fear, because I know how to float and can move myself with basic strokes. But the truth is, even if I'm manoeuvring in water, I'm experiencing stress. I'm not able to relax in the water. I feel fear.

I can carry on living with this fear. It doesn't affect my job or my relationships. But giving into my fear means I will not challenge the stories I have around my relationship with water. I will not challenge myself to embrace new relations with water. It means cutting myself off from many pleasurable summertime moments.

So how to overcome this fear? Use adaptive action. There are three steps to adaptive action: identify what is happening, find out what it means to you, and take action.


1. Identify what is happening

For adaptive action to work, you need to be honest with yourself. What is the real “what”? In this case it means admitting the fear, naming it, and facing it head-on. It means taking responsibility for what is happening to you.

I can tell myself stories that I'm not afraid, but this is a story that holds me back. Fear-based stories try to justify, blame others, or see oneself as a victim. This is a story that keeps me stuck. The truth is, I am afraid of the water and don't want to be vulnerable in the water. This is a new story that points me in a new direction.


2. Articulate what this fear means to you

Naming a fear is the first step, but ultimately you need a good reason to take action. You get this reason when you uncover the meaning behind the “what” (in HSD terms, this is called the "so what"). Be honest with yourself about the impact of your fear on yourself and on others. Name the ways this fear shapes your behavior and constrains your choices. Consider what’s possible for you if you move away from this fear.

To articulate what this fear means to me, I need to ask what does it open? What does it close? What are the feelings, needs, and values surrounding the fear, and how is it bound up in my identity?

Feeling fear around water means I cannot enjoy activities with my partner and friends. It means I'm holding back from an element of life that I don't want to hold back from. I don't want to be left on shore.


3. Take action

The next step is to identify what small steps you can take to face this fear. This leads you to your next "what" and your next actions.

In my case, I have started taking swimming lessons. I'm being honest with myself and with others about my feelings of fear in the water. This step—developing my swimming technique and learning how to relax in the pool—can take me to the next “What?”, shaping a different story about water that will empower me to swim into this challenge.

With clarity around my feelings, I am finding a lot of compassion and help from friends. I also can be clear about what I need to do to learn, challenge myself, and find support when I need it.

Fear is overcome in many small steps. It takes time, and it takes adapting at each new step. It is an iterative process, one that has no final outcome, no real end. Overcoming fear is what gets us, ultimately, swimming in the deepest oceans, and climbing to impossible heights.



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