What is the first â€“ perhaps the only â€“ difference between living your dream and stagnating?
The fundamental difference is fear. Fear of losing it all; fear of what another might think; fear of being less than enough.
Penetrate your inner world; stop running, turn around and face your fears. We’ve discussed purpose and passion in life (Part One, Part Two); allow me to offer some thoughts on removing the obstacles in our path.
Your Answer to Life is Your Own
There is a most inspiring man; you must have heard of him. Viktor Frankl, a man who survived the Holocaust and found meaning through his ordeals. One of my favourite quotes:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
Our purpose is our own; life is asking and we answer. Do we meekly submit and let life, let those around us, decide where we are headed? Do we whisper out a meek maybe in response to life?
Or do we stand tall and hold true to our innermost desires; to live a life of virtue and fulfilment â€“ a life of responsibility?
We are responsible for our own lives. No one is exactly like us; not even an identical twin. Our sources of joy are our own; our purposes are as unique as our fingerprints. Take their counsel, yes, but we cannot let another decide for us.
The Spectre of Fear
Standing between us and our purpose is unhealthy fear, a survival mechanism gone wrong. There will be times it is healthy and normal. But fear has gone rampant when it never leaves us. It becomes an apparition, only visible in brief glimpses, but is always right besides you. No longer does fear take over when needed; now it silently colours our vision, so that we see everything as threatening.
Fear destroys self-reliance, enthusiasm, and initiative. It encourages procrastination, and leads to weak character. It kills love, beclouds memories, and ultimately leads to misery and unhappiness.
And yet take heart, for a lack of courage is nothing more than a state of mind. It can be overcome. Be always on the alert for it. Fear is obvious when someone holds a gun to our head, but it is harder to recognise in our everyday lives. Be wary of indecision and doubt, for they harden into deeply entrenched sense of dread.
I was discussing the ideal job with a friend of mine recently; he is the perfect example of fear disguising itself with clever words and rationalisations. He didn’t believe in the happiness archetype. He called it too idealistic; advice from people who were out to sell books, or did not have the limitations real people in the real world have. His arguments sounded so believable. That is, until we dissected them, for we found the spectre of fear.
Alibis, Not Limitations
When we lay bare our fears, when we examine them with an honest and courageous eye â€“ what we find are not limitations. What we find are alibis. Sometimes these are unconscious. They stem from events, insults, and harsh judgements that we have taken to heart. Without examination, we have allowed them to control our lives.
Each individual has their unique alibis; no one can ever hope to provide a comprehensive list. But here are some of the common ones:
If only, they say. If only I had met the right people; if only I dared to assert myself; if only he never did this, if only I never did that.
So many more ifs!
If only my parents were rich, if only I had a good education, if only I wasn’t held back by my responsibilities, by my family, if only I had a lover who supported me, if only people weren’t so cruel.
If only I wasn’t so old, so young, so ugly, so stupid â€“ and more and more. Barring extreme circumstances, most of these are just alibis.
Finding your Fears
What are your alibis? What are the fears that lie behind them?
This will be hard work and time consuming, but the benefits will be tremendous; a far better way of passing your spare time than on mindless entertainment.
Take a moment to write down your fears. Start with your purpose in life on the top of the sheet, and then let your thoughts flow underneath. Aim for volume. Let your thoughts repeat themselves, and don’t stop until you’ve found each and every one.
The 3 Methods
A personal example might be helpful here:
My current passion is to be a psychologist; probably a counsellor or a therapist. I have made the necessary sacrifices to return to university as a mature age student, but recently I suffered from a lot of doubt. There were many reasons for it, but let’s analyse one.
I have friends who are already working in psychology. One famous story in their circle revolved around a suicidal client. I don’t know the exact details, but the distress he had put on one of my friends was tremendous. He threatened to kill himself and said it would be her fault if he did. And one day he disappeared after leaving many incoherent messages on her phone. She was devastated, thinking he had actually done the unthinkable. Luckily, he hadn’t. He returned to therapy a few weeks later and is making progress.
Her distress affected me tremendously. I know myself to be exceptionally sensitive; my empathy extended beyond knowing what another felt â€“ often times I felt what they felt. What if I met a similar client? Would I take on their suicidal tendencies? My friend lost nights of sleep; my sensitivity would mean my anguish would be many times stronger than hers.
Examination and Realism
This was my alibi, my source of fear. But I had to overcome it if I was to continue along my path. One day I sat down to investigate. Was I really as emotionally weak as I thought I was?
The truth of the matter was: I wasn’t. I am sensitive, but I am not emotionally as weak as I thought. A few isolated incidents, without examination, had simply distorted my self-image.
The exercise was not about distorting my fear in the other direction, pretending I was made of rock. It was about bringing my perceptions as close to reality as I could. I knew that if something similar happened to me, I would be affected, but it will not mean the end of the world. It would be something I could handle.
After investigating the other alibis, I turned my attention to the event. How many suicidal clients would I meet? What were the chances of them behaving that way?
And even if they did â€“ what would that mean? Would it mean I was a failure as a psychologist, or worse, a murderer? Would it be a reflection on me or my worth? Is there any career that did not involve a measure of distress?
Further Reading: The process, and distortions that had caused my fear, were covered in further detail in Fear and Anxiety Cures.
An Emergency Plan
There is an expansion to that post. Much of our fears in the area of purpose revolve around time and money. We can stifle these fears by realistically planning for the worst.
Start out by writing out the absolute worst case scenario. What are you afraid will happen if you made a change? Make your scenario a nightmare: imagine that everything has gone wrong.
Now, what steps can you take if that does happen? What would you do if you were cut off from all sources of income tomorrow? What would you do if all your savings were stolen? What if you suddenly had 20 hours in a day instead of 24?
Please note that this is not a placebo, another lie you tell yourself. This is similar to knowing where your nearest hospital is and planning a route to get there as quickly as you can. It has to be something that you can and will actually do.
Releasing the Emotions
Lastly, I spent a few nights at home, fully exploring and releasing the emotion of fear. I imagined the worst case scenario, and released the fear that I felt around it happening. The Sedona Method also has a unique meditative technique for dealing with fear.
The Need for Action
I remember my boxing years; one quiet young man in particular. He was new to the gym, and my coach asked me to show him the basics. He was excruciatingly scared and awkward; he couldn’t muster the courage to even punch the bags properly. After half an hour of fruitless effort, I got frustrated. “Why do you even want to do boxing?” I exhaled.
“Because I am afraid, and I don’t want to be anymore,” he replied. The answer stunned me into shame, and I felt a sudden burst of deep respect. A coward? No â€“ he had more courage than I had, than many of us have. He was taking action.
The danger of all this internal work is, of course, that many will use it as another alibi. Inner work becomes another obstacle, another reason to remain in a rut instead of taking steps.
Sometimes, the best way to overcome fear is to simply do it.
The 5% Statement
Nathaniel Branden, considered to be the father of the self-esteem movement, gives a brilliant step in his masterful work The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
If you are stuck in a rut, not being able to take action, the 5% statement will be tremendously helpful. It works in small increments, as the name suggests. I’ve used it in so many ways â€“ to begin exercising again after a long lay-off, to reduce procrastination, and even to improve my relationships.
A 5% statement is split into 2 halves. Examples would be:
If I was to be 5% more responsible today, I would ___________. If I was to be 5% less lazy today, I would ___________.
Here was one I filled in this morning: If I was 5% more loving today, I would buy my mother dinner and spend time chatting with her over dinner and afterwards.
Pause, and think about your particular alibi, fear, or weakness. What would you need? What would the first half of your statement be?
Next, fill in the statement every morning when you wake up. The action you need to take might change everyday, but regardless of what you do, your life will keep moving in the right direction.
The wisdom in this is obvious, for trying to change completely overnight is almost impossible. It would stir up much inner resistance. 5% increments are plenty, and there will be reduced resistance.
Once momentum begins, sometimes the difficulty comes in stopping!
The Cost and Benefit Analysis
The final technique for galvanising ourselves into action is to list the costs and the benefits of remaining in our current path.
The Costs: Keep a list of this, and carry it around throughout the day. Does it make you unhappy? Does it keep you earning a pay you don’t like? Does it keep you lonely? What would happen in five, ten, or twenty years if you continued down your current path?
Read this list whenever you can. This might keep you stuck in the level of fear, but at least you’re using it in the right way.
The Benefits: What do you get out of not living your purpose? Perhaps your friends and family are giving you emotional support and a lot of attention when you complain of your misery. Perhaps you might need to move to a different city to pursue your passion, and you want to avoid the hassle. Maybe you don’t feel you have the skills to make new friends once you move.
Run the benefits through the entire three step process described above.
Again, these exercises might seem to be a lot of work â€“ but please realise that a hesitance to journal and investigate yourself is the same hesitance that holds you back for your fear. Perhaps completing this work could be the first action in a 5% statement.
Thanks for sharing this. I was actually just starting to work on creating an online course about releasing fear (among other things) and your article is quite helpful and inspiring. I just read Victor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" and I found it was eye-opening to read the perspective of someone who found meaning and purpose in the worst nightmare imaginable. If he could get through that and provide hope to the world, then what can we do in our own more normal lives?
Albert, I want to say that your postings are very inspirational and I've gotten to reading one article of yours a day (from your website). I find that using each as a topic to think about/build my day around has been really useful in getting closer to living my life's purpose. Thanks again for your thoughtful, beautiful words!