This post was inspired by Seth Godin’s book Linchpin. This is a book for anyone interested in leading a fucking awesome life. If you haven’t read it, add it to your bucket list. In fact, move it to the top.
In the book Godin differentiates between fear and anxiety. Fear is something that presents a clear and present danger to our life. Anxiety is something we often call “fear”, when it’s really just exaggerated worry about a worst-case outcome of some future event. In almost every case, that worry is irrational.
Falling off a 300′ sheer cliff = fear
Cancelling your hiking trip because you may encounter a 300′ sheer cliff = fear
Accidentally stepping on a cobra = fear
Avoiding hiking through… well, wherever cobras live because you may step on a cobra = anxiety
Not accepting a job offer because it may involve public speaking = anxiety
Fear is good. It’s evolutionary. It activates our sympathetic nervous system. It keeps us alive.
Anxiety is bad. It keeps us from doing interesting and/or fun stuff. It keeps us paralyzed. It forces us to always take the safe route. It forces us to sacrifice that which makes us unique individuals in the name of security. It kills our ability to create. It destroys our ability to make our own dent in the universe.
This mistaking fear for anxiety occurs quite often in the running world. There are an awful lot of very talented and/or hard-working runners out there. While I don’t think I’m especially talented, I fall into this trap, too. We have some significant accomplishments. We have even loftier goals. The problem- we are held back by anxiety. We seemingly cannot muster the will to sign up for that REALLY difficult race.
We worry about some worst-case scenario. We worry about not finishing. We worry about not being fast enough. We worry about not being able to finish. We worry about what others will think if we don’t meet some imaginary expectations.
This worry keeps us from doing cool shit. It keeps us is a safe, comfortable cocoon. It keeps us from experiencing life.
Shelly has been writing about fear lately. Specifically, she has written about confronting the fear of our RV trip. Quitting our jobs and traveling in a confined place with three small children for over six months offers plenty of opportunity to develop anxiety.
Unknowingly, she is dealing with this anxiety in the exact same way Godin recommends- embrace it. Don’t bother rationalizing, that just fuels the fire. It eliminates the anxiety, but does so by rewarding it. As Eddie Thorndike said, “Responses followed by a satisfying state of affairs are more likely to be repeated.” [note- I am clearly suffering from "teaching psychology" withdrawals] This gives us a free pass to develop anxiety more often. We don’t want that.
By embracing it, we acknowledge its existence. We accept it. We shake its hand. We give it a hug. We coexist.
When we do this, something magical happens. The anxiety, while still there, no longer affects our behaviors. In almost every case, it quickly fades to the background and we can focus on the task at hand.
I’m sitting in a hotel room in Lewiston, Maine right now getting ready to run a barefoot 5k then do a clinic on good form at the Pineland Farms Trail Running Festival. On the trip here, I experienced what I used to think of as fear several times.
- When driving to the airport, I got stuck in road construction. I thought I was going to miss my plane. Fear or anxiety?
- When I had to go through airport security, my heart began racing. Fear or anxiety?
- The flight was delayed and there was a chance I would miss my connecting flight. Fear or anxiety?
- When taking off and landing, I had thoughts of “What if the plane crashes?” Fear or anxiety?
All were examples of anxiety. I was not in any sort of imminent danger in any of those scenarios. My anxiety probably prevented me from experiencing more enjoyment in every one of those situations. If only I had followed Shelly’s lead…
Mid-flight, I read the section of Linchpin that talks about fear and anxiety. At that point, I recognized the fear I had perceived. I made a conscious decision. For the rest of the trip, I will purposely seek out situations that produce anxiety to practice this idea embracing it.
I have a few hours before the race and clinic. Task one- go check out the Atlantic Ocean. I have never been to a beach on the Atlantic. I am worried I will be late for the race, but that’s irrational. If I let that anxiety rule, I’d spend the next three hours holed up in my hotel room. Better yet, I’m not using GPS. I’m going old-school and buying one of those paper Google Maps at the gas station.
What about you? Do you often confuse fear and anxiety? We often regret the things we chose not to do, and anxiety over a possible negative outcome is almost always the reason. What is one thing you DID NOT do because of anxiety? How about overcoming that anxiety? What is a one thing you DID do despite your anxiety? Tell us your story in the comments.