Today I was asked by an interviewer to describe the greatest obstacle I’ve faced since deciding to leave medicine. I responded, “The fear of disappointing other people.” As I said it, I realized that this “obstacle” has felt very real to me at various times in my life. But when I look at it now, I can see that this fear is no more than a simple thought. In my mind is the story, “I can’t disappoint other people.” Why? “Because it will mean that I’m a bad person.” And why is that bad? “Because bad things happen to bad people.” And so on.
When I count the number of times I know that I have disappointed people, and imagine the number of times that I don’t even know about, it’s amazing to notice that I’m still alive and well, sitting here typing on a keyboard! The point is, when we examine our deepest fears, we will discover that they are no more than simple, unexamined thoughts.
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We move through our fears as we move through life, and when we stay stuck in the story of a fear, our lives get stuck there as well. The more we become aware of this, the more freedom we can experience in any situation. Learning to observe our thoughts, and play with them, as a regular practice, will help loosen the grip of fear in our minds.
I’ve been moving through fear after fear in my life, without having words to describe my process until now. If I had learned earlier to recognize my “fear of disappointing people” as a mere thought, and not a reality of the present moment, I might have gotten to this point with less guilt and more joy.
In 2001, I graduated from medical school without a job (disappointing many professors and especially my parents), but within a few weeks was interning for no pay at a venture capital firm, which hired me six weeks later and eventually promoted me to partner (I guess bad things didn't happen to me because I disappointed people). Three years later, having achieved some “success” and status in a high-profile industry, I wanted to follow my heart. I risked disappointing my partners, and took a step for my own life anyway when I moved across the country to California to open a violin school for children. This had been my dream since the age of four.
In January, after five years of successfully teaching three-year-olds to be more like grown-ups, I faced a huge looming fear of disappointing many people, and I brought my violin teaching to an end. I know that I disappointed many people for many different reasons, and I also know that this is the work I need to be doing right now.
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I now describe my work as teaching adults to be more like three-year-olds. As a speaker, writer, and life coach, I am on a quest to remind adults that we each have creative power within us that simply needs to be practiced in our everyday lives. We need to develop flexibility, strength, and balance in our minds, much like we do for our bodies on a yoga mat.
First Steps: “How To” Face Your Fears
- Take a moment to yourself, get very quiet and still, and name the obstacles that you perceive as the reasons you “can’t” make the changes you want to make in your life. Don’t try to make yourself look wise. Let them all come out and put them on paper for yourself to see.
- Then, one by one, gently notice the thought behind each of these obstacles. Usually these statements begin with the words “I can’t…” or “I have to…”, or contain the word “should”. For my example above, the statement might be, “I can’t disappoint other people because it will mean I’m a bad person.” Or I might reduce it down to, “I’m a bad person.”
- For each statement, come up with real-life examples (from either your own life or other people you’ve known or heard about) of how your thought is not absolutely, 100% true. In my example, I can look at my own life to see that I may (or may not) have disappointed some people with each of my transitions, yet I have opened myself to grow through each choice I have made. I’ve shown myself that I can disappoint other people, and create a fulfilling life for myself.
- Then practice examining alternatives to your original thought. In my example, “I can disappoint other people because it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person” is one alternative. Or, “I know I’m not a bad person, even when I disappoint other people.” Or, “I disappoint myself when I believe I’m a bad person.” This is the “yoga of the mind” piece of the process, where you spend time allowing your mind to be with thoughts that it may never have encountered before. The point is not to construct a list of equally solid, absolutely true statements, but rather to loosen the grip of your mind on any one thought as absolutely true, 100% of the time. There is no thought that holds up to this truth test, when you start to really do this work.
- Repeat the process with every obstacle you think you're facing, every time you believe you can't move forward.
Try this process – it’s powerful and simple, yet requires the courage to look at what’s really going on in your own mind. You might have that strange, unfamiliar yet exhilarating feeling you get when you’re trying something new (and fun!) for the first time.
With practice, you might even discover what every three-year-old already knows…anything is possible!
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