Mindful strategies to shift our flawed thinking and patterns that invite the illusions of fear and failure
I can barely breathe. The possibility of failure on an epic scale threatens everything my team and I have worked to achieve. I feel paralyzed. How in the world do I reach deep within and clear the way for my best self to emerge? I need her. She’s in there. Somewhere.
Will she show?
Brain science teaches us that how I feel and how I handle myself when the stakes are high is a function of how I have handled myself in the myriad threats that preceded the current crisis. Each earlier threat, big or small, has pre-conditioned my mind based on my thoughts, reactions, and my beliefs about my capabilities, culpability, and support. These past factors determine with near certainty whether I will be crippled by fear or transcend it, in this situation and each time fear rears its monstrous head in the future.
So, what can I do — what can we do — to ensure that our best self shows up when we need her most?
We can condition our response to fear to strengthen our inner certitude rather than cause a loss of confidence.
Unmanaged, fear can confuse us, hinder our achievements, and limit our potential. Fear often hijacks our thinking, throwing us into a downward spiral. With each successive failure, fear gains strength and we lose power. Worst of all, fear can block the very thing we need to bring forth our best self: conscious thought.
Conversely, each time we conquer fear, we increase the likelihood of success which boosts our confidence that we can handle more significant challenges. Every past moment of success positively influences our mind’s interpretation of the next pressure-filled moment. You can summon enough strength to do it again because you have done it before. Best of all, once we learn how to rebound from failure, subsequent failures are interpreted merely as springboards for our success.
Faith in our capabilities and support is our strongest defense against fear.
To reliably bring forth our best self in the worst of circumstances, we must prepare our minds intentionally in advance. We can teach ourselves to detect the flaws in our thinking that are either caused by fear, influenced by fear, or honor fear and rewire our brains to interrupt them. We can reverse unproductive habits in our thinking by deliberately replacing them with upgraded thoughts that pull for our success through mindful practice.
What’s the difference between habit and practice?
Until 2014, I thought habits and practices were the same things. They’re not.
I enrolled in a four-month course called the Well Being Challenge, led by transformation expert and CEO of POP Associates, Andrea Bednar. The course was simple. Design a series of things that you will consistently do every week (preferably every day) and report back to the group every day without fail whether you did them or not. There was a financial penalty due immediately if you did not provide a report or if you did not do the things you committed to doing at the start of the course. The penalty was just big enough to discourage you from the daily temptation of not following through and grew painful quickly if multiple days were missed. I believe they call that incentive.
I chose an ambitious combination of practices that included daily planning, regular exercise, a healthy diet, daily meditation, and the most unnatural routine of waking and going to sleep on my husband’s early bird schedule. I also picked four other practices designed to stretch me and yield a boost in my productivity:
- Dance from beginning to end to one full song every day, 7 days a week
- Express love and appreciation in hand-written form three times a week
- Review my written intentions for the year every day
- Journal each evening and make note of the absence or presence of love, joy, peace, gratitude, freedom, and curiosity during my day
I thought the course was about establishing healthy habits and strengthening the muscle to get more things done in a day. What I discovered was the course is about your mind – the things you think and the games you play. What was going on inside is what determines what happens outside. Each day, you either succeed or fail. Each day you are confronted with different circumstances and events that stand in your way of keeping your word, so fear of failure is present from the moment you open your eyes.
Fortunately for me, my life during those months was unpredictable and tumultuous. My mind was on full throttle, making it hard to miss the internal dialogue screaming between my ears. Fear was a frequent companion. As the days and weeks passed by, I observed the daily argument going on in my head, THE BIG LIE that would pop into my mind: “I can’t do this. I can’t.”
But I could.
Each night, I reviewed my list of practices and figured out how I was going to eat healthy meals, squeeze in exercise, wake up early (ugh!), get everything done I promised to do to escape having to put $30 in the kitty. Noting either the absence or presence of joy, I would renew my resolve to generate joy the next day in spite of whatever circumstances would be thrown my way.
Along the way, I discovered my relationship between me and my word was weaker than I thought.
I became acutely aware of where I invest my attention and time, and how much of those precious, unrecoverable resources I waste. When life was its ugliest and I was the most vulnerable, my practices grounded me. Meditation muted my fear. No matter how bad circumstances were, if I kept my word and danced from beginning to end to just one song while brushing my teeth, no matter how much I didn’t feel like it, joy would make a sneak appearance. As a result, my awareness of the relationship between mind and body increased.
I also learned the invaluable distinction between habit and practice in thought and how inseparable they are from fear and overcoming failure. They are the keys to knowing, nurturing, and surrendering to our best self.
This is how I see the difference between habit and practice:
- A habit in thought is a recurrent, unconsciouspattern of thinking and associated feelings I have acquired through frequent repetition. The thought fused with its accompanying emotions becomes engrained in my thinking. I think it without thinking about it. Here is the scary part: The now familiar thought becomes true for me – regardless of its conformity to truth or fact. Isn’t that comforting? My habitual thought patterns are automatic and are guaranteed to kick in when the same or similar conditions or events trigger them.
- Practices in thought, on the other hand, involve the same repetition but are performed consciouslyso that I can improve my proficiency through observation and calibration. The discipline is to see things newly (no matter how many times I have seen something before) and to stay present during the process. Practices are the fulfillment of the inner commitment to improving.I intentionally choose thoughts that dispel doubt and are linked to positive emotions that boost my feelings of confidence and certainty.
Habit is by default; mindful practice is intentional. We can prepare our minds to reliably draw out our best self by examining three thought habits and instituting three thought practices that most influence our effectiveness in dealing with fear and failure:
- Our perception of our own capabilities
- The degree of personal control we believe we exert over our world
- What we credit for our failures and successes
Confronted with an emotionally taxing family situation, I started almost every day with the big fear-based, lie-inspired belief, “I can’t.”
I ended up proving I could. I knew I could under normal circumstances, but truly believed I wasn’t strong enough under the extraordinary duress I was experiencing.
I shifted my perception of my own capabilities, because “I can’t”was a lie, a habitual thought that was true for me and central to my belief system. Through practice, sometimes failing but more often succeeding, I was able to see my belief as a falsehood and replace it with “Oh, but I can. And, boy, can I!”
Another habitual thought was, “I am under stress. I should be able to sleep late. My body is telling me it needs this cookie. I should listen to it.” Lies. I collapsed intuition with feelings (the same feelings almost always accompany the habitual lie). Honoring the lies merely resulted in indulgences and a $30 penalty — not self-nurturing at all! Oh, the mind is tricky.
When it comes to belief in having control over my life, the second thought habit that most influences our effectiveness in dealing with fear and failure, I rate myself high. I believe I have a strong degree of personal control. I don’t have a college degree, yet I worked my way up to become an executive and have led multiple companies. I excel in the most stressful phases of business: startups, rapid growth, and turnarounds. I am successful and happy. But, if one of my children are in pain, that confidence evaporates.
Put me in a situation where I have done everything I can think of but cannot spare my child from pain or the consequences of their own poor decisions and watch my personal power plummet to the brink of helplessness and despair. And, of course, that is precisely what was happening during the Well Being Challenge. The urgent lie and habitual belief, “I have to fix this now!” joined “I can’t”to seize control of my thinking. What practices could possibly displace dread for what might happen in the future with peace of mind?
Remember how I had this daily practice to review my intentions for the year and journal on the absence or presence of love, joy, peace, gratitude, freedom, and curiosity each day? Here were a few of my intentions for the year that I reviewed each day:
- Daily acknowledgement that there is no such thing as inadequate. There is nothing that I need that is not available. There is nothing lacking in me.
- The world is sufficient. Circumstances are sufficient. I am sufficient. There is nothing I don’t have enough of. When I think it is not enough or I am not enough, there is something I am not seeing that is there, waiting to be discovered.
- I want for my children to know and experience profound love, acceptance, and support
- I shall expand my capacity to be present and joyful
Isn’t it synchronous that I wrote these priorto starting the course? I stored my intentions as a note on my smartphone so they could always be accessed.
Here, the magic of repetition stepped in to do its part.
By reading my intentions every single day and reflecting on the absence or presence of love, joy, peace, gratitude, freedom, and curiosity every evening, my brain was rewiring itself.
Slowly but certainly, repetitive thought becomes belief. And belief becomes habitual and unquestioned. Rather than dwell in what-if scenarios, I practiced staying present. In the moment, there was no pain. Nothing to fear. The danger was only in my head — in my thoughts!
The last of the three thought habits that most influence our effectiveness in dealing with fear and failure is what we credit for our failures and successes. After years, I have learned that fear shows up before I have words for it. I am usually first aware of being edgy and having tension in my shoulders. Undetected, fear starts to influence my behavior. I start withdrawing socially. My communications are more guarded and less frequent. I am in my head more. Almost always there is resistance, or plain neglect, to do things I know I should do. I tell another lie, “It doesn’t really matter.” Or “I don’t have time.”I move on.
Fear of failure is gaining momentum, fueled by my denial. Then, I start fault-finding, which is not my usual state. This is a red flag for me. I am in the deeply grooved thought pattern of “It’s not my fault.”Without me even realizing it, I am looking for someone, something, some circumstance to blame. There is no power there because I am responsible for my successes and failures.
Then I catch myself. Oh. I am afraid of failing. Again. You see, the habitual patterns of fear-based thinking never really go away.
The practice is to catch those patterns of fear-based thinking and interrupt them, then redirect your attention to something fruitful.
My favorite way to redirect myself is to ask the question, “What are you going to do?” That puts me back in action, responsible for my success and my failures. I know it’s the only place my best self can emerge. My second favorite question is, “What experience do I want to create out there (my outer experience in the world) and in here (my inner experience)?” The key is clarity. Get clear on what you want, then act.
In short, our ability to transcend fear is a function of our relationship to self.
This includes our belief in our ability to succeed, how easily we recover from mistakes, using self-referential standards as our measures for success instead of comparing ourselves to others, brutal self-honesty, narrowing focus to only those factors we can control, believing we are the ultimate source of our success and failures, and having an inspiring vision to pull us forward.
Detecting our flaws in thinking requires three practices:
- Observing our thoughts in the moment
- Reviewing our thoughts after-the-fact
- Upgrading our thinking by reframing or replacing disempowering thoughts
Each of us has our own individual patterns in thinking that sabotage us and weaken our relationship to self. Through the practices of self-awareness and self-reflection, we often discover that our thoughts and beliefs — which we assume are grounded in wisdom and reality — can be faulty and surprisingly immature. Lies.
Each time we detect a flaw in our thinking, whether in the moment or after-the-fact, we have the opportunity to rethink.We disrupt the pattern of favoring the negative over the positive by doing the opposite. We think the thoughts only our best self would think. Eventually, the thoughts we intentionally think through practice become engrained to form new and desirable habitual patterns in thinking and reacting. That’s when our best self cheers!
Of course, developing a consistent practice can be every bit as challenging as breaking a habit. Both take time and repeated effort. At first, it is cumbersome and feels unnatural, but eventually, repetition yields a habit we can do unconsciously, or a practice we can benefit from doing with attention and intention.
Winning is a habit. So is losing. So is playing safe.
When our performance suffers, or stakes are high, self-doubt is likely to creep into our thoughts without us noticing. An automatic response to self-doubt is to suspend action or take only timid action. Both honor fear, rob us of our natural power, and suppress our best self. Rather than insert caution into ourbehavior, we should insert caution into our strategy. We should take steps we are sure we can execute so that we move boldly into action.
Each small success fuels the confidence-building momentum we need and frees our best self to take over. Resilient self-confidence requires battle-tested experiences to overcome even greater obstacles. It is through future high-pressure situations that the effectiveness of our practices is revealed. The quality of our performance will be equivalent to the quality of the habits we developed through practice.
In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, “From caring comes courage.”
Those of us that work for a heart-centered business have a huge advantage to overcoming fear because clarity in purpose and devotion to something greater than yourself makes it far easier to elevate the needs of others above concerns for personal safety (or expedience).
You will be ready — and your best self will lead the way. She is there. Always. Your heart is on your side, and your heart indeed isyour best self.
Interested in learning more about tapping into your best self? Check out Sheila’s first novella, Journey Back to Me: Touring the Landscape of My Mind. Consistent with recent research in brain science on fear and happiness, this imaginative tale giftwraps all the power of a groundbreaking self-help book into one rollercoaster of a story. Colorful, thought-provoking lessons stay with the reader long after finishing the last page.
Happiness is just a thought away…with practice.
The book serves as an ongoing resource for those interested in the art of intentional living.
Journey Back to Me: Touring the Landscape of My Mind– A car accident leaves Liza, a successful single mom, unconscious. Trapped inside her subconscious and hijacked by her imagination, Liza learns firsthand how her thinking shapes her life. Her thoughts carry her away to dangerous and mysterious places, each gifting a lesson of how fear influences her thoughts, beliefs and the fullness of love in her relationships. Happiness, she discovers, is a function of her thinking. During her journey Liza uncovers secrets to rid herself of the fear-based behaviors that are inconsistent with her true self. To her delight, breaking free from the shackles of fear is simpler than she ever dreamed.