How to Tame Your Fears

854678_30532713Fear is a terrible sensation, one we never, ever want to feel. How lucky we are to live in a time and place where it’s so often possible to avoid the things that scare us most: violence, disease, natural disasters, dangerous animals, and, at least until the very end, death. Instead, we get to sit around on our widening behinds watching television shows…about violence, disease, natural disasters, dangerous animals, and death.


I noticed a long time ago that fear often comes packaged with enthrallment. We don’t look away from accidents or guns; we give them our rapt attention. This tendency has obvious evolutionary advantages—it’s safer to keep deadly objects front-of-mind than to ignore them—and as a result, our brains seem to be hardwired so that scary experiences contain hidden fascination, and fascinating experiences are often scary.

In fact, I’d argue that there’s a direct correlation between the intensity of our fear and the degree of our fascination: Murder yanks our attention harder than heart disease; an earthquake is more interesting than a bad sunburn. This applies even at the much lower fear levels that characterize most of our lives. Think TV dramas: Arguments are more attention grabbing than agreement; the path of true love more interesting when it’s forbidden and dangerous than when it runs smoothly.

One way to put more zest into your life, then, is to seek activities or situations where fear and fascination overlap. The problem is, when facing such situations, we often dither, advancing toward and then retreating from whatever has captured our attention. But with a little clarity and a few instructions, you can break through this kind of ambivalence, embracing experiences that alarm you even as they deeply appeal. Like salting bland food, this can turn your life from dull to delicious.

A Fascinating Fright

Go ahead and think of something that both intrigues and scares you. It might be profound, like falling in love, or relatively trivial, like Roller Derby. (No offense, ladies. I’m fascinated by the idea of women who could stomp me to paste.) If you’re having trouble coming up with something, look for the word but in your statements of desire: “I’d love to make more friends, but I have social anxiety.” “I’d give anything to travel, but I’m afraid to fly.” “I’m dying to express my real feelings—but then I’d actually have to speak to my sister-in-law.”

Now plop your but down in the space below. Write the scary thing you want to do, and the fear that’s keeping you from doing it:

I want _____________________________, but I’m afraid_________________________.

Identifying this fascinating fear is a first step to a more fulfilling life. Next, you need to get familiar with a couple of crucial rules.

Rule One: Don’t Play with Poison

One fine day a woman known to science as “S.M.” suffered a stroke that left her unable to experience fear. She became irresistibly curious about things she’d once hated; for example, in pet stores she’d beeline past the puppies and go right for the snakes. She liked to play with their tongues. If you share this passion, okeydoke. Just make sure the snakes you play with are nonvenomous.

I mean this both literally and metaphorically. Because fear and fascination are so intermingled, many people who follow their thrill-seeking instincts end up unconsciously flirting with disaster. They snort drugs made of toilet cleanser, they break laws, they date people who have that “dangerous vibe.” But toxicity isn’t the way to feel more alive; it’s a gamble that you’ll become more dead.

Considering the fascinating fear you wrote down above, ask yourself: Is this desire destructive? Will it ruin life, health, or property? If so, scribble it out. And after reading the next rule, come up with something else.

Rule Two: Be Useful

A good way to find a fear that’s both fascinating and nontoxic is to choose something that will make a positive impact on the world. Constructive and creative activities—whether taking medicine to war zones or fostering a child—can be downright terrifying.

So, would your fascinating fear have any positive effect? Would it enlighten you, or improve your life, or someone else’s? Whether the answer is yes or no, see if you can amend your goal to make it a bit more heroic. Don’t just bungee jump; bungee jump to raise money for AIDS research. Don’t just do stand-up comedy; do stand-up comedy that teaches people something deep and true. Don’t just invite that hottie to go out with you; invite that hottie to go out with you and help campaign for your favorite cause. Write your new-and-improved statement here:

I want _____________________________, but I’m afraid_________________________.

When people frame a scary fascination this way, their motivation usually increases and their fear feels comparatively smaller. Increase the positive effect of your scary action until you’re aiming to do something really wonderful, and you’ll feel your inclinations tip from avoidance to attraction. You’re still scared to take the action, but you know it isn’t toxic, and your moral compass says “Go!”

It’s time to act.

Steering Through the Fear

Maybe your scary/interesting goal involves something you have to do. Maybe it involves a cause, or maybe it’s pure thrill. The best activities answer to all three masters—for example, a career can pay the bills, serve the world, and frighten you just enough to keep life interesting. But even in such ideal cases, scary is still scary. Fear often stops us from acting even when fascination won’t let us walk away.

Being prone to anxiety myself, I fall into the approach-avoidance trap approximately three times a week (a huge improvement from my youthful average of always). I was 14 when I realized that since everything scared me, I could either do scary things or kill myself; fortunately, I was too scared to kill myself. Every day since then, I’ve done at least one thing I was afraid to do. So I can promise you, the process below has been battle-tested up the wazoo. Holding your fascinating, frightening, heroic goal in mind, simply follow these steps:

1. Curl up.

You may not actually need this step, but I certainly do. After writing down a fascinating, frightening goal, I like to find a comfortable spot and scrunch up like a troubled armadillo for five minutes (or days). Depending on my fear level, I can change this up by rocking, pressing my palms against my eyelids, and/or keening. Experiment to see what works best for you!

2. Plan your progress.

After your armadillo time has marginally calmed you, take a deep breath and begin outlining a step-by-step plan to achieve your scary objective. Your fear will want to drag you into obsessing about possible problems in the future. But be here now: Your job at this moment isn’t facing what you fear, but planning to face it. While you’re planning, don’t execute or fret. Just plan.

3. Take one step toward your goal.

A good planner breaks down every challenge into manageable chunks. Once you’ve done that, forget about the long term and take the step that’s directly in front of you. Don’t even think about the next one. You only have to take that one step. Ever.

4. Keep taking one more step.

Heroes aren’t free from fear; they’re just so focused on a worthy goal that they feel they can’t turn back. Most of humankind’s great achievements—the sorts of things that make us say, “Oh, wow!”—were accomplished by people who were muttering or shouting, “Oh, shit!” Heroes don’t feel special, just dogged. They walk their scary paths with shaky knees and trembling hands. One shaky, trembling step at a time.

5. Watch the path, not the obstacles.

“When you shoot,” my friend Jim, a hockey player, once told me, “you never want to look at the goalie. Look at the space around him. Where your eyes go, the puck goes.” A white-water kayaker warned me, “Look at the water, not at the rocks. Where your eyes go, the boat goes.” My riding instructor shouted, “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t. Where your eyes go, the horse goes.”

Got it? Where our attention goes, our lives go. As you take each step, be peripherally aware of dangers, but glue your attention to the path between them.

6. Celebrate each step.

Many of my clients think they don’t deserve to celebrate until they’ve conquered huge fears to reach epic milestones. Not me. To stay motivated, I celebrate after I make one bed, write one e-mail, fill out one page of a tax form. Even if you’re much more courageous than I am, I suggest you do the same. Celebrating makes fascination all the more joyful—and it builds confidence, which is much more useful than avoiding fear.

If you live this way—seeking out what captivates and cows you, pushing beyond your comfort zone, making sure you’re serving a noble purpose—you’ll live a life full of absorbing adventures. You may even save the world. In which case, the rest of us just might end up watching you on TV, in between doctors diagnosing horrible illnesses and detectives solving grisly murders. And just think how thrilling that would be.

Freedom From Fear

Polar Bear (Sow), Near Kaktovik, Barter Island, AlaskaLately I’ve become thoroughly exasperated with the part of my tiny brain that insists on continuously creating fear. Fear of dying soon. Fear of living too long. Fear of being alone. Fear of being spread out too thin between loved ones. Fear of drought. Fear of flooding. Fear of change. Fear of things staying the same.


I’ve tried suppressing my fear. It gets stronger. I’ve tried looking for the bright side, which simply focuses my mind on the inevitable dark side. I’ve tried medication, meditation, mediation, and a host of other ations. None of them worked. But recently, I’ve discovered something that does.

Here’s the thing: we can’t save ourselves from fear by seeking safety, because safety always means there’s something to be safe from—in other words, something to fear. The way out of fear isn’t safety. It’s freedom.

For a few weeks, I’ve been replacing every fearful thought in my head with a loving-kindness wish to be free from that specific fear.

  • When I’m scared that all the polar bears will die, I don’t say “Keep the polar bears alive!” until I’ve said, “May I be free from my fear for the polar bears.”
  • When I’m sure I have some dire illness, I don’t think “I must be healthy forever!”  I think, “May I be free from my fear of illness.”
  • When I miss someone, I don’t pester the person with needy phone calls.  I think, “May I be free from my fear of separation.”
  • Etcetera.

This request for freedom has been granted with subtle but remarkable power. I’ve had one of the calmest months on record. Freedom is landing me in peace, a state from which I function far more effectively—and safely—than anxiety. So feel free to try it. Really. Feel free.

Get Out of Jail

iStock_000001616955SmallRecently, I had the chance to watch the movie Instinct in which Anthony Hopkins plays a primatologist who “goes native” with a group of mountain gorillas. When humans kill his gorilla family, he goes berserk, kills some of the attackers, ends up in an African prison, and refuses to speak for years. Finally, a psychiatrist played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. breaks through and hears the story of Hopkins’ adventures.

This movie is based on the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, which I think all humans should read. The film has powerful implications about the 20th century, especially the great machine of industry that is our economy. If someone you love (possibly you!) is caught in a stifling system, being torn from their true nature and being forced to act as a cog in the machine, buy this movie and watch it together. The filmmakers’ symbol for society is a prison for the insane known as “Harmony Bay.” In it, you will see every horrible boss, every stupid meeting, every injustice and every suffocating separation from nature that corporate life inflicts on so many people.
Sorry to spoil the surprise, but Anthony Hopkins eventually frees not only himself but Cuba Gooding, Jr. and a lot of the other prisoners. Freedom looks different for each of these people. For some, it is simply the power the say no to a bully. For others, it’s the creation of loving relationships. But for still others, it is almost complete separation from all human structures. Every character is liberated from some sort of cage, and the key to the cage is always the courage to use all one’s available power and freedom to choose what most nourishes the heart.
Today, you can use the same key to unlock any prisons in which you feel confined. Freedom can start as simply as wearing the clothes you really like instead of what your friends will really admire. It can be standing up for a stranger who’s unfairly bumped out of line at the post office. It can be structuring your schedule to suit the wildest part of yourself, instead of the most docile and broken. We all have freedoms we have not yet explored.
Today, break a few bars and venture into territory that initially makes you say, “Oh no, I could never.” That phrase is a sign that you have bumped up against the bars of your cage. Notice if it comes with a nervous laugh instead of genuine revulsion (because of course if you are cruel or unkind, those bars are there for good reason.) Do something today that you think is too delicious, too selfish, too wacky to fit within the rules of your life.  
After my family watched Instinct, I told my partner Karen I wished every man in America would watch it. Men in particular are trapped these days in the image of themselves as cogs in the great economic machine. So, Karen began telling people “Have you seen Basic Instinct? It’s amazing! Every man in America should watch it.” People began giving Karen strange looks. Eventually, someone told her why. But Karen did not suffer because she’d been recommending soft core porn rather than a fabulous drama. She did not disintegrate because of the head scratching and raised eyebrows of the people who now think she’s an obsessive Sharon Stone fan. A 55-year-old woman earnestly recommending smut to all her dearest friends is not a problem for her.
When you break your rules, when you act “crazy,” you won’t disintegrate, either. You will just join those of us who like to play outside our cages and respectfully do not care what anybody thinks.
Good luck and bon voyage!

photo (1)P.S. For extra credit take a picture of yourself breaking one of your rules and post it on our Facebook page. (Just remember that “Martha told me to” does not a plea bargain make.)

Set it Free

birds in the shape of a heartSonya was stuck. Every time she came in for a session, she seemed more inextricably wedged into a life she hated. It wasn’t that she lacked means: Born to wealth and privilege, Sonya had beauty, education, and the talent to become what she’d longed to be—a songwriter. But she couldn’t take the steps that would make her dreams a reality.”It’s just too hard,” Sonya sighed during one session. “I’m stuck in the life my parents want for me. I’ll marry a rich man, have 1.7 kids, do what I’m told. I’m trapped. Completely trapped.”

I couldn’t help comparing Sonya’s comments with another conversation I’d had when I was in Cambodia, doing interviews for a World Bank project. A vibrant man I’ll call Khet told me about his experiences during the war-torn 1970s, when he’d been imprisoned, starved and sentenced to death.

“One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise,” Khet said. “So, you see, I was completely free.” I stopped him. How did he figure that one? Khet smiled. “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.”

And an opportunity did come. As he and some other prisoners were being led to the execution ground, Khet bolted, running for a weak spot in the wire fences. He fully expected to be shot, but the other prisoners distracted the guards enough to spoil their aim. Khet escaped into the jungle.

“You see? My fellow prisoners were free, too,” he said. “No matter what happens to your body, madame, if your heart is free, you are free.”

Most people think more like Sonya than like Khet. My clients routinely tell me they’re deadlocked, hemmed in, blocked, controlled by circumstance. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you don’t have the option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Trust me, the options are there. You’re at an impasse because you’ve been trained not to seize—or even recognize—the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of your dreams. Your body is free but your heart is in prison.

Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.

As a result, few of us speak the truth out loud. All our lives we’ve been hearing things like: What you are thinking/feeling/saying/becoming, etc., is stupid/rude/scandalous/sinful/depressing/ridiculous/unoriginal, etc. All the infinite variations on this theme convey just one message: Silence your heart or you will be rejected. Rejection hurts our little social-mammal hearts so much that just the threat of it convinces most of us to cooperate with our enemies. This is a two-step process: First we go dumb, learning never to speak our deepest truths. Then we go deaf, refusing to hear our own souls.

Sonya was a fully heart-bound when she came to see me. For thirty-some years, her life’s journey had been steered by social expectation, slowed by fear, stymied by conflicting demands. Bad news: If you’re a normal human, you probably act like Sonya at least some of the time. Good news: As your own jailer, you—and only you—can free your heart whenever you want.

To release your heart, you simply reverse the two-step process by which you locked it up. First you begin to listen for messages from your heart—messages you may have been ignoring since childhood. Next you must take the daring, risky step of expressing your heart in the outside world. It’s lucky this process is so simple, because it’s also terrifying.

Step 1: Tune In

People with captive hearts often spend years thinking very hard about things like reawakening their passion or discovering their destiny. This never works, because such information is stored in the heart, not the brain, and is expressed by feelings, not thoughts.Sonya was so numb to her emotions that she couldn’t tell a surge of love or pathos from, say, gas. Not to worry. Paying attention to any feeling unlocks your heart, and if subtle emotional nuance eludes you, physical sensations will do nicely. Try the exercise I assigned Sonya: Write a detailed description of everything you’re feeling in your body. If you do this for more than ten minutes, you’ll find that you’ve also started describing your emotions.

As Sonya began to write about her chronic exhaustion and headaches, a torrent of truth burst from her heart into her conscious mind. “I hate the socialite scene,” she found herself writing. “I want solitude. I need music.” For years her heart had been trying to send these messages through physical symptoms. As she began to listen, those symptoms faded. Sonya’s prison walls were coming down.

Step 2: Think of This As “Shock” Therapy

Once you begin listening to your heart, I guarantee it’s going to say some things that shock you—otherwise, you wouldn’t have locked it away in the first place. You may discover that your heart wants to spend your paycheck on flowers or wear purple spandex to a board meeting. You don’t have to act on these impulses, but you must not judge or repress them.

Treat your heart like a tired, hurt child: Accept its tantrums, revenge fantasies, and pity parties, but don’t get stuck in them. Say kind things to yourself: “It’s okay that you love your goldfish more than your in-laws” or “Of course you want to stab Billy’s third-grade teacher with a meat fork—all the moms do.” When you acknowledge your forbidden feelings calmly, you’ll find that you actually have more control over your actions. It’s when feelings are repressed that they burst out in dangerous, unhealthy ways.

The more you tune in, the deeper the truths your heart will tell and the more intense your emotions will become. You may feel great pain about times others have hurt you—and, worse, times you have hurt others. But as this pain flows through you and begins to dissipate, you’ll find something beneath it, something astonishingly powerful, something one philosopher called the “all-pervading radiant beauty” of your heart of hearts.

Step 3: Defy your inner jailer

At this point you’ll begin to realize that your heart is telling you where to steer your life. You’ll know the next step because you will begin to long for anything that connects you to it.

When desire really comes from your heart, deciding to act on it will bring another strong sensation. You’ll feel an extraordinary clarity, the sense that something inside you has clicked into place. Of course, your Inner Jailer might not agree. You may be flooded with reminders that your heart’s instructions are stupid or boring or rude. Don’t listen. Run.

Step 4: Run for the jungle

I’ll never forget the moment Sonya stopped daydreaming about sending her songs to a music producer and decided to Just Do It. It doesn’t sound like much—until you try it yourself. Acting on your heart’s instructions means abandoning all those careful strategies for avoiding rejection and bolting toward the fertile, gorgeous jungle of human imagination and possibility.

I’ve watched in awe and admiration as many clients took the enormous risk of freeing and following their hearts. I’ve seen high-income executives joyfully switch to low-paying careers as artists or forest rangers, and people who grew up in poverty dare to believe they deserve decent money. I’ve seen folks adopt children with AIDS or lose 50 pounds. As a 13th-century Zen master said, “The place is here: The way leads everywhere.” Once you are present in your own heart, you’ll find your life going places your mind has never even dreamed of.

Step 5: Spread the word

Toni Morrison said that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal.

When Sonya started sending out her demo tapes, she became what she called an overnight failure. For months no one so much as acknowledged her creations. Sonya’s heart broke, but she refused to send it back to prison. Instead she began to think like Khet facing execution: Since things could not be worse, she decided to drop her inhibitions. Her music became less derivative. She began writing raw, gut-deep songs that horrified her family—and impressed some producers. Sonya began to find her “tribe,” the people who understood her true self. She’s still far from famous, but her heart is free, “and that,” she told me, “is what it’s really about.”

As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, calling your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes all-too-human people and societies capable of true humanity. It will chart you a life’s journey as unique and authentic as your fingerprint; send you out, full of hope and breathtaking exhilaration, onto paths you never thought you could travel. It is the way you were meant to exist. If you stop to listen, you’ll realize that your heart has been telling you so all along.