As I embarked on my endeavor to become a leadership coach, I set out to achieve one thing: to better understand what holds us humans back from living our full potential and support them to go after it.
Working at the outer boundaries of my clients’ awareness, I have now born witness to a number of situations where incredibly and successful people tremble at the very edge, not ready to take the leap.
Simultaneously, I also encounter this invisible wall as I enter new, undiscovered territory, finding my own path as a leadership coach.
Why did it take so long before I had the courage to have my first coaching session in German, a relative new language for me? Why is it, that I can feel a heavy, damp blanket wrapping itself around my heart when I receive feedback from clients that they wish less of this and more of that from me?
Aware of the dangerous traps of self-illusion, especially as a coach, I had to figure out what was going on. Through meditation, as if I was holding up a mirror to my own soul, I could make sense of what was stirring in the depths inside.
I discovered something, which in a quite profound way is embedded within many of us in society today.
The invisible wall was fear.
How often do we feel a sense of fear? Everyday? Or perhaps have you encountered its lighter little sister, the worry. “I worry about this, I worry about that, if it only could be this way…”. We use it all the time in daily speech without realising how it can hold us back.
The ancestor of worry, the Old English verb wyrgan, akin to Old High German wurgen, mean “to strangle”.
I have chosen to name this post “That bird got my wings” because even though we believe us to be free human beings in a factual sense – by not facing or suppressing our fears we build walls around ourselves, in a way like a wing-clipped bird.
It is a paradox. By worrying we strangle ourselves and we loose what we cherish the most – access to a wholehearted life.
Fear is our most primal emotion. It is rooted deep in the reptilian brain and it runs deep. Often for a good reason.
Fear protects us from danger and can many times save our lives. However, through evolution and the development of the pre-frontal cortex, fear today has so many faces and ways to express itself that go far beyond escaping from a lion. This fight-flight-freeze mechanism built into us has also brought something else with it; the development of this notion of a separate self, the ego, and the need to nurture and care for it for us to be happy.
This sense of ego is what makes us go on war against each other and destroy our beautiful planet.
What lies underneath this desire is fear.
What I like to explore in this post is what happens when we remove the outer layers to get to the core of what these fears truly represent within us. We casually toss around expressions such as “fear of failure” and “fear of missing out” without properly understanding what they represent, or how they become these, often invisible, walls of hindrance in our lives.
When those fears are activated, the parts of our brain that can feel empathy and compassion are cut off, making us respond using only very primal emotions.
This way, through ignorance we believe we can control our lives and that we act based on our own will, whereas in fact our unconscious has become the master of our own ship.
It was not until I did my MBA at INSEAD that I truly experienced the menacing stress from “fear of missing out” and it was not until the company I worked for went into liquidation and I stood on the street with my laptop and a jar of coloured staples, that I had to live through the embarrassment from a “failure”.
Fear of failure says, “Something is wrong, or about to go wrong”. When you put the feeling under the magnifying glass, it becomes apparent that it represents our fear of losing respect, love and a sense of belonging. It speaks into one of our most basic needs, the sense of security that comes from belonging to a group.
This fear, when not addressed, breeds shame. Shame is “there are things about me that I don’t like, and I don’t want others to see those dark sides. I am not good enough as I am, therefore I need to put my shiny jumbo spacesuit on, hiding my true self and my insecurities and go out there and look strong and confident, and post amazing photos on Facebook so people will accept me”.
Fear of missing out says, “I need something more, something is missing”. It cries out when we are not achieving what we want or not receiving the affirmation, fulfilment and attention needed to nurture our sense of self. Our egos, wired into high alert from the dependency on pleasurable dopamine-rushes received from number of likes on Facebook, the completion of a workout or sugarcoated compliments, need to bask in the limelight of others. If not, it will start to feel insecure. This insecurity drives us to judge or to grasp, because judgment and attachment give us a sense of power.
When was the last time you either became overly judgmental towards others or craved that second bowl of ice cream? What was that really about?
By giving in to these fears, we take false refuge in what at first glance feels like a desire “Oh I really have to go to that party, otherwise will I regret not having the chance to see people”. By looking a little closer, that says “Oh I really have to go to that party, so I can reaffirm my sensitive ego that there are people who care about me, albeit merely acquainted”.
So what? Why is this an issue, you might say?
Fear belittles us and forces us to give over the joystick to our egos. When we are caught in fear we keep ourselves small, we limit our ability to be creative and to explore. Our right hemisphere, that holds our capacity for abstract thinking, deep reflection and wisdom, becomes the emissary of the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is scrambling for order, logic and reason. The orders from the left hemisphere are to immediately suppress or find a quick fix; rather than focus on love and care for others that we know makes us happy, we narrow our view dramatically to the sense of me, me, me.
For a long time I thought that by playing it safe and listening to my ego, I would avoid both failure and missing out and thus be happier and more peaceful.
When it so nevertheless happened that people left me, or I felt unworthy or unsuccessful, I found myself powerless against the disappointment, hurt and judgment that raged my mind.
What it took me years to understand was that I had unconsciously been banging my head against that glass wall. My ego hat built those high walls and made them my reality.
Battered, having just lost my job and with no direction, my grasping mind looking for attachment made me a destitute girlfriend, a nervous little soul constantly seeking external affirmation and affection and barely not having the courage to go for job interviews. The way I acted was like curing a patient with heart failure by giving her a Band-Aid.
Had I then understood the root cause of what I was facing, had I instead been equipped to deal with the situation with more wisdom and grace and without over reliance on people around me to help me send my CV around.
To make those glass walls crumble and fall, to recoup those wings of freedom, we need to develop a level of vigilance towards ourselves that go beyond that sense of a grasping ego, that embraces everything we are beyond an ego bound by fear.
With a curious mindset and an interest to explore our fears without judgment, we can make the awareness conscious and acute.
To tame our most primal instinct will indeed take commitment, patience and endurance. Perhaps can we not even overcome all our fears in our lifetime, but we can live from a place of wisdom, where we through awakening welcome the fear, challenge it at its very roots, and observe it fading into the sideline whilst we take the leap towards freedom and greater joy.
It is only when we have fully understood the root cause of our behaviours that true transformation can happen.
I am going to go out there and look for those fears. Want to join me?