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Ask the Consultants- Fear and Commitment

This month’s question comes from Tim Vanini, PhD, owner and partner in multiple businesses in the area of professional and residential turf and grass development, research and project management (

“So far 2011 has proven to be a fruitful year with record profits!  Even so, fears have set in about producing the amount of residual income that my partners and I are committed to in 2012 and 2013.  How do I move past this?”

Tim, thanks for your question.

Fear can be a big part of leadership, of committing oneself (with others) to something unpredictable and even unheard of. Depending on the context we have for it (the way in which and through which the situation occurs to us), it can be embraced and empowering or counterproductive and even debilitating.

It can be easy to, in our immediate reaction to experiences like fear, uncertainty and anxiety, seek whatever way we can most quickly “survive” the threat present. In the face of the gap created by the act of committing, we act- often automatically and blindly- to fix, change, avoid or tolerate our experience of fear. Consider that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, the access to transcending the fear and creating power and freedom is not to get out of it or conquer it, but to accept it and embrace it fully.

Let’s look at our automatic way of being and responding related to fear and uncertainty. It’s just biology: in the presence of an experienced threat (whether actual or perceived), our brain and whole organism set into a structured program of immediate survival. When the threat occurs “large” (or dangerous) enough, our possible responses are dictated by what is known as the “fight/flee/freeze” response. In fact, even when something occurs as a threat not to our physical existence but to who we know ourselves to be and/or our picture of the future, this reaction kicks in. Whether the story associated with the fear is about not being (whatever) enough, letting people down, being a disappointment/failure, financial unworkability or otherwise, we will react physically, emotionally and intellectually in a programmed and limited way. 

The symptoms of this response, termed an “amygdala hijack” for the small, almond-shaped organ in the brain that initiates and moderates the fight/flee/freeze program, include:

  • Short, shallow breathing
  • Tightness/tension in muscles of neck, back, shoulders
  • Uneasy/upset stomach
  • A mood of hostility, irritability and/or overwhelm
  • Limited vision or cognition of available options and opportunities
  • Defensiveness in communication
  • Loss of sense of humor
  • Backing off the commitment, often justified with external circumstances

When we are in the midst of this response, we are inherently limited in our ability to accurately perceive, and therefore act effectively in, the full scope of the situation we’re in. This works like Chinese finger-cuffs in the sense that the more we do, the further ingrained in the reaction we become, and the further we dig ourselves into an unworkable situation. Our first step in the process of transcending these vicious cycles is to bring awareness to the situation.

Awareness allows for choice, from which action can be taken consistent with one’s commitment, arising with a new experience of oneself, one’s situation and one’s future.

To begin, take 3 deep breaths and bring your full attention to your experience:

  • What body sensations are you experiencing? Do you feel any tension or tightness in your muscles or organs? Notice your breathing, your posture.
  • What is the overall mood present? What emotions are present?
  • Notice your thoughts. Notice any recurring thoughts, any themes. Are your thoughts familiar? Predictable? Notice your thoughts about your thoughts, any self-assessment and/or judgment happening.

This is your experience, right now, as is. Accept it, allow it. It’s just how it is. This isn’t about condoning unworkability, or wallowing, or “Zen” platitudes; this is about being present to the actual reality of a situation, including our way of being in and experience of it.

When you see that you are in a “hijack”, ask yourself,

  • “What threat am I reacting to? What expectation of myself or the future is not going to be met?”
  • “How does this threat occur to me?

o   What’s my story about this threat/problem, why it exists, what to do about it, etc.?

o   What if that’s not necessarily true? What would be possible then?

o   Do my story and experience express and reflect my commitment (showing up as taking responsibility, declaring and promising, creating new approaches) or are they in service of avoiding responsibility, justifying lack of results and/or invalidating others and conditions?

o   Is holding onto that story worth it, if it’s costing me my integrity?”

  • “What am I committed to in this area? What would it look like if I were being that commitment, right now and moving forward?”

From this place, we’ve created an opportunity to authentically choose a course of action consistent with the values and vision to which we’re committed. With integrity, and the active committed listening of our immediate community, we then have a pathway to realizing extraordinary outcomes and experiencing peace and satisfaction in the process.

In short, fear is not a “bad” thing. It’s a human-being thing. And in fact, with awareness and authenticity, it can be an extraordinary asset in fulfilling on our most highly-held commitments. The access to that possibility is acceptance, not resistance; the path to “getting past” it is to go right into it.

I hope this provided something, and welcome all feedback, sharing, questions and contribution.

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