Finding the Silver Lining in Spite of Fear

Find the silver lining in spite of fear

To be human is to know failure. It’s an inevitable part of life. One of the frailties of the human psyche is our fear of failure. Yet without overcoming this fear, we can’t innovate, create, or push forward as we are paralyzed by it. As I wrote in Taming the Saber Tooth Tiger – Three Ways to Cope with Stress at Work, fear is an inevitable emotion. We encounter it in all aspects of our lives, at work, at school, and at home. The key to success is in how we manage it.

For leaders, consistently overcoming fear is essential. Being tenacious in tough times takes the courage of conviction and a strong belief in your choices. Leaders are expected to bring others along with them, sharing the vision and translating it into a methodical plan for execution. A leader who is paralyzed by fear cannot fight for his cause and cannot fight for the team. Holding steadfast to a decision during the tough times also lets others know that the leader will fight for what she believes, despite the odds.

We all know resilient leaders who always bounce back despite setbacks and seem fearless. These leaders demonstrate several key attributes:

They tap into commitment.

Motivation is not enough. Sheer willpower will not keep leaders motivated to stay the course. Effective leaders know that being motivated will get them started but won’t get them through the rough days that lie ahead. Real dedication is the only thing that can empower this journey. And to find this, each leader has to ask themselves just how resolute they really are. By understanding their level of commitment these leaders tap into this internal resource when times get tough. Finding your “why” helps you power through fear.

They identify challenges.

Visionary leaders anticipate setbacks. They are realistic about obstacles getting in the way of their goals, and they are ready to meet these challenges head-on. Some challenges are unavoidable, others are within our control. Leaders who recognize the difference put plans in place to overcome those that are in their control and  minimize or accept those that are unavoidable. Assume bumps in the road to be as prepared as possible to deal with them.

They practice positivity.

A positive attitude buffers fear. Accomplished leaders know that a single negative event is not part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. If they screw up, they learn from it and move on. Shifting their focus to a positive perspective breaks the cycle of fearful rumination that can paralyze and galvanizes them back to action.

They detach from the outcome.

Jack Canfield wrote: “If you want to remain calm and peaceful as you go through life you have to have high intention and low attachment.” Effective leaders know that not always getting what they want or having things go their way is just a part of life. They are skilled at letting it go, while still moving forward in the direction of the goal. By detaching from a particular outcome, they remain agile and stay open to experiences and opportunities that they otherwise may not have seen.

There is a saying in prizefighting: “You’re going to get hit. The getting up is up to you.” What a gift we give ourselves, our colleagues, our teams and our communities if we can push through the fear and see the world of possibility that exists in every interaction, every relationship, and every experience of our lives.


Taming the Saber-tooth: Three Ways to Cope with Stress at Work

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Stress and anxiety are increasingly becoming issues in the workplace. A study by the International Labour Organization revealed that increased competition, longer working hours and higher performance expectations are all contributing to an increasingly stressful work environment. Digitization and always-on technology have blurred the boundaries between work and personal life, removing the natural buffer between them and costing us our health.

When humans lived in the untamed wilderness, we had to deal with threats in our environment. If a hungry saber-tooth tiger targeted you as a tasty treat, you needed to quickly decide whether to put up a fight, run flat out in the opposite direction or do your best to look like a rock.

This automatic fight, flight or freeze response is no different today. Our minds and bodies still respond in the same way to everyday stressors. If we’re dealing with a crazed knife-wielding lunatic, this response makes complete sense. But most of the threats we encounter are purely psychological. The saber-tooth has evolved. Our brains haven’t.

The tricky thing about stress is that it’s a necessary emotion. Studies by the University of Berkeley have found that stress entices the brain into growing new cells that improve memory. If the stress isn’t prolonged, it’s harmless and can even be beneficial as new nerve cells keep the brain more alert and improve performance. The irony is that as soon as stress continues beyond a few moments into a prolonged state, it suppresses the brain’s ability to develop those cells. That’s when our hardwiring works against us. Chronic stress exhausts us, mental performance suffers and our health deteriorates.

What to do about it? We cannot necessarily change our environment, but we have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience.

Shut down the committee.

The voices in our heads are great at pointing out our failures. They use words like “worst,” “always,” “never” and “should” to make any event seem catastrophic. Becoming aware and detaching from these thoughts can be challenging. It’s easier to play the victim than it is to take responsibility for changing the situation. Think you’ll never get that project so you shouldn’t even ask? Check in with a trusted friend or colleague and ask for their insight and advice. Using your support system shuts down the cycle of negative thoughts. Dealing with real data instead can help you reframe a situation, find a solution you may not have considered and take action. And if you do fail at something, it doesn’t mean you are a complete failure. You’ve experienced a setback, but you also have an opportunity to approach the next challenge in a different way.

Stay positive when the going gets tough.

When all is going well, it’s easy to stay positive and upbeat. When you’re having a really tough day, it becomes more challenging. When you find you can’t stop thinking about that snarky email, consciously shift your thoughts to something positive. Write down three amazing things that happened to you recently. The key is that these amazing things don’t have to be life-changing. They can be tiny, simple things that you would usually take for granted — simple pleasures in life that make you feel peaceful, joyful or grateful. The act of writing them down takes cognitive effort that shifts your perspective to a more positive one and breaks the cycle of rumination. Extra points for reviewing the list the next morning to keep things in perspective.

Find courage in the face of fear.

Fear is an inevitable emotion you’ll encounter at work. Fear of failure, rejection or humiliation can be paralyzing. Maybe you’re afraid to ask your boss for that raise, or you’re afraid to challenge a colleague or client. Facing your anxiety can be easier if you recognize that discomfort in these situations is to be expected and focus instead on the end result you’re striving for. This is high intention with low attachment. Shifting your focus to intention changes your perspective — high intention. Taking the long view helps you pick yourself up and try again, even if you are rejected this time around — low attachment. It takes a lot of effort to embrace the discomfort of fear and stay the course. Acknowledging that gut-wrenching fear is a natural part of the process helps you come out on the other side both wiser and braver.

Shifting your perspective is a powerful tool when dealing with stress. Changing the way you perceive day-to-day pressures gives you an opportunity to take back control and become more confident in stressful situations. Building resilience is not a series of isolated activities — it’s a practice that can help you turn your saber-tooth tiger into a kitten.

Capturing Small Moments of Wonder

I had a breathtaking experience recently. While I was watering my garden, a hummingbird decided to take a bath in the hose stream. Clearly finding the cool crisp running water of the hose preferable to the birdbath, this tiny bright green and blue speck followed the stream all the way up to my hand, where he proceeded to dip his feet and tail in the water in an astonishingly similar movement to humans paddling around in a pool. I stood transfixed, not daring to move or even breathe, as we regarded each other, eye to eye for what felt to me like an eternity but must have only been moments. In a world that seems to move ever more quickly, this encounter left me with a sense of wonder at the incredible gift this magical little creature had just given me.

There is so much that is beautiful in this world, and so much that we don’t notice as we go about our hectic lives. Sometimes I wonder if anyone even looks up at the sky anymore, so busy are we with email, texts, social media, and the double edged sword of technology that keeps us constantly connected, yet in other ways, disconnects us from taking the time to appreciate the spectacular world we live in. Recognition of those little, often mundane events in our lives gives us an opportunity to press the pause button, just for a moment, and experience the incredible beauty all around us.

There is a saying that it’s not the breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away that count. This was one of those moments. It was a moment that gave me time to appreciate the beauty of nature. A moment that let me connect, however briefly, with another living creature and for just a fleeting moment, perhaps even see the world through its eyes. It was a small moment, but it was a moment that I will never forget.

It’s in the smile of a stranger, the helpful person at the grocery store, the laughter shared with a friend or loved one, that song that you can’t help but sing along to, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, or the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to look up to see them.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

I was pondering fear the other day. We all deal with fear.  It is a natural part of life, and in some cases, it is what galvanizes us to action.  Starting a new project, a new venture, a new relationship, or even learning a new skill all come with some form of fear built in. The trick of course is taking the fear and using it to move forward rather than letting it paralyze us.  Fear is something to be acknowledged and experienced, and it will always be there, no matter how good we get at something. Sometimes the fear we feel is not what we think it is, and it is masking something positive.  A client once shared a recurring dream she had of a mysterious warrior appearing in her doorway, an image that brought up feelings of fear for her.  When we explored this image it became clear that it was not something to be feared, but was instead an image of her own internal warrior, one that came to her when she needed to find her courage or strength to deal with a situation in her life. Once she saw the warrior as her ally instead of a threat, she was able to use this image to help shore up her resources and move forward.

You have to be willing to feel the fear and do it anyway.  None of us are comfortable with the feeling, and it takes a lot of effort to embrace the discomfort of the fear and stay the course. I am realizing that the gut-wrench of fear is a natural part of the process I have to go through in order to come out of the other side both wiser and braver. And I am working on letting go of the need to be right.  Jack Cranfield wrote that if you want to remain calm and peaceful as you go through life you have to have high intention and low attachment.  Not always getting what we want or having things go our way is just a part of life. Let it go. The secret is to keep moving forward in the direction of your goal until you get there, and not to give up because it didn’t work the first time, or you didn’t get the result you wanted in the time you expected. Making a mistake is human, forgiving yourself that mistake is what takes us one step closer to the divine.  Detaching from an outcome and also opens us up to experiences and opportunities that we otherwise may not have seen. If something goes wrong, how many of us are able to look at setbacks as a potential opportunity for something even better?  What a gift we give ourselves if we can see the world of possibility that exists in every interaction, every relationship, and every moment of our lives.

A man dreamed every night that he was being chased by an enormous lion.  Every night this man tossed and turned and woke up in a terrified state.  Eventually, one night the man stopped running, and turned and confronted the lion saying: “Who are you and why are you chasing me?”. The lion stopped in front of the man and replied: “I am your courage. Why are you running from me?”

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

Considering motivation…

Motivation is a funny thing. People routinely seem to underestimate how tricky it can be to achieve a personal goal. It’s all well and good to wake up one day and decide to lose those pesky 10 pounds, or start a workout routine, or stop eating junk, but it’s quite another to stick with this plan all the way to the goal. Over the years I have realized through my own experience and working with clients that sheer willpower will not do the trick. The key to motivation is to tap into commitment. Motivation gets you started (although it is often externally driven such as when a doctor tells you to quit smoking or lose weight for example), but it won’t get you through the rough days that lie ahead. Real dedication is the only thing that will empower your journey. And to find this dedication, you have to ask yourself just how resolute you really are, and understand that your level of commitment will vary throughout the experience.

Commitment takes place over time, through a repeated act of constraint and self-discipline, not a single action or decision. Inevitably your level of commitment is challenged by the pain and discomfort of exercising to get into good shape, or the overwhelming desire to eat that piece of cake or the cookies staring at you from the cookie jar. These challenges or costs to our commitment are to be expected, but they often leave us discouraged (if we give in to them), exhausted (if we push ourselves too hard too soon) and ready to give in (the old “I’ve fallen off the wagon so I may as well give the whole thing up” syndrome). Having strategies to overcome these challenges is crucial if we are to succeed. Positive rewards and benefits of the commitment can help you balance out the challenges. These rewards can be innate, such as a sense of accomplishment when you have worked out for several days in a row, or extrinsic, such as getting that new job you were going after, or being able to buy that little black dress you had your eye on and can now fit into more easily. Find ways to reward yourself, and explicitly associate those rewards with your commitment (not with the final goal), and hang onto them for dear life when the troubles come your way.

Internal conflict about your commitment also presents a challenge to your motivation. As soon as we are presented with choices, alternatives become increasingly attractive (particularly when dealing with some form of sacrifice such as eating less junk food, cutting out sugar etc). For many clients, this is the moment of truth, and it is the moment when they have to ask, “What am I really committed to?” and then think about possible alternatives that create new commitments that help them to make better choices. Having a commitment that is realistic, that you can stick to and feel progress against, is often the difference between success and giving up.

Define your commitment – specifics count here – don’t say you want to lose weight, instead be specific about the actions you will take – work out at the gym at least 3 days per week (even specifying the days can help, along with what kind of workout you intend to do). Small goals can help too and will give you opportunities to make progress and celebrate successes along the way

Reflect on rewards – write down the positive experiences that will make attaining your goal fun and enjoyable – tangible rewards such as a more positive self image, looking good in that little black number, more energy, being able to climb a flight of stairs easily, enjoying new and healthy recipes

Increase rewards – put target dates on the specific goals you want to achieve – say working out 3 days a week by the end of the month, or look into new exercise possibilities like a yoga class by September 1. These actions focused around benefits not only get you moving in the right direction, but are create attainable small goals you can check off your list with glee

Identify challenges – write down the setbacks you anticipate – be realistic about life getting in the way of your goals sometimes, so that you can be ready to meet the challenge head on. Some challenges are unavoidable (cost of attending the gym, or having to schedule workouts around carpool schedules for example). Others are flexible (not liking green veggies but being willing to try new ways of preparing them to make them fun and interesting, setting two alarm clocks to get you out of bed early to workout if you struggle to get up, or telling friends who routinely invite you to the local bar on your workout day that you won’t be available in advance so you won’t have to make a choice in the moment)

Decrease challenges – think about how you can overcome the flexible challenges and minimize the unavoidable ones – working with a coach to brainstorm creative ideas can be very helpful, along with having an accountability partner to share encouragement when the inevitable challenges arise

Don’t take your resolution lightly. Your life satisfaction and wellbeing may depend on keeping your commitment. If you can align your values with your commitment, you are likely to stay motivated well beyond the original goal. By deciding what options are manageable and incorporating the best ones into your lifestyle, you are setting yourself up for success. Motivation kicks you into gear, but commitment is what keeps you going. And remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. All good things take time.

Keep your gratitude higher than your expectations

There is an art to the practice of gratitude. Gratitude is about having an abundance mindset. When you think abundantly, your perception of everything and everyone around you shifts in a positive way. It is no wonder that gratitude is called the “mother of all virtues”. Of course there are those everyday stressors out there that we all have to deal with, and there are life events that leave us feeling that we’ll never be whole again. Some days, it’s difficult to feel gratitude amidst the barrage of negativity and noise out there. But cultivating an attitude of gratitude gives us a coping process that helps us to deal with circumstances that are often beyond our control. And this doesn’t mean going through life with rose colored glasses. The gratitude attitude is one that allows us to experience the authenticity of our emotions, good or bad, without judgment. It also helps us to move through those emotions and come out on the other side relatively intact, rather than crumbling into a small heap and hiding from the world. So how to cultivate this attitude? It’s all in your mind:

  • Pick yourself up – if you fail at something, it doesn’t mean you are a complete failure. You’ve experienced a setback, but you also have an opportunity to approach the challenge in a different way.
  • Isolate the issue – a single negative event is not part of a never-ending pattern of defeat – just because something happened doesn’t mean that nothing good ever happens or will ever happen again in your life. Make a concerted effort at the end of each day to write down 3 good things from your day and review the list the next morning to put things back in perspective.
  • Shift your focus – try not to dwell constantly on the negative details of the event – find something good to focus on to give your mind a break – talk to a friend, or take a walk in a lovely park to take your mind somewhere else for a while.
  • Validate your assumptions – just because someone hasn’t called you back doesn’t mean they are angry at you or you have  done something wrong. Don’t assume – if you want to know why, ask.
  • Anticipate good things – don’t anticipate the worst in situations. Be prudent and prepared for the unexpected of course, but still hope for the best.
  • Appreciate the simple pleasures in life – take a moment each day to look around you and take a breath, focusing on the simple moments that make you smile, and you’ll start to see the beauty all around you.
  • Express appreciation of others – express your appreciation to your friends and loved ones (and even strangers) whenever you can. You’ll feel good because they feel good.
  • Remember everyone is carrying a burden that no-one else knows about. Be kind.

The truth is, when you are happy to wake up and are grateful for the day, your life does change. I am grateful each day just to see the sun rise once again and have a new day ahead of me. I am thankful for the time I have been given, and for the experiences I have had, both good and bad, because those experiences have shaped me. I know that I will face difficulties and obstacles, but I will also feel moments of joy and love and peace. And for this, I am grateful.


Officially kicking off the Pure Symmetry blog.  Filled with musings and observations about life, health and wellbeing, I hope you will find it inspirational, heartwarming, and occasionally thought provoking!

Happy reading!