Live
Oprah's Lifeclass is streaming live now!
Watch
Live
Today at
Oprah Live Stream
Remind Me
Loading...
Martha Beck's 6-Step Guide to Taming Your Fears
Nothing gets our hearts racing like a little harmless terror—so why not harness what frightens you to make your life richer?
Paper doll dancing
Illustration: Holly Lindem
Fear 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.

Hmm.

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.
PAGE 1 of 4

Comment

    0 Comments

    Advertisement

    Martha Beck's 6-Step Guide to Taming Your Fears
    Nothing gets our hearts racing like a little harmless terror—so why not harness what frightens you to make your life richer?
    Paper doll dancing
    Illustration: Holly Lindem
    Fear 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.

    Hmm.

    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.

    Martha Beck is the author of six books, including Steering by Starlight (Rodale).

    More Advice From Martha Beck

    Comment

      0 Comments

      Advertisement

      Fear Of Free Time
      When life hands us a few empty hours, we squirm, wriggle, dodge, and feel unaccountably lazy. Martha Beck shows us how to find something in nothing and love it.
      Country House
      Photo: Thinkstock
      "So," I said t Michelle during our first session together, "if you were living your ideal life, what would you do today?" It's a standard opening I use with almost every client, and Michelle gave me the standard response.

      "Nothing."

      "Really?" I asked. "Nothing at all?"

      "That's right," Michelle said, nodding wearily but emphatically.

      "Fantastic!" I said. "Let's get started!" Then I shut my mouth, settled back into my chair, and surreptitiously looked at my watch. Michelle lasted longer than most. We enjoyed nearly 15 whole seconds of stillness before she became unbearably nervous.

      "What is this?" she asked. "What do you want me to do?"

      "Nothing," I said. "We're here to get you what you really want, and you want to do nothing. So..." I shrugged and fell silent again.

      Five seconds. Then Michelle protested in a voice halfway between exasperation and fear, "Well, I didn't mean right now."

      This, too, was typical. My observation of people in general, not just my clients, is that we desperately want to take a break from our hectic, overscheduled lives—but not right now. Try it: Put down this magazine and do nothing at all for ten minutes. No planning, no worrying, no activity of any kind. Just ten minutes of empty time.

      Did you do it?

      I thought not.

      If I'm wrong, if you seized those few minutes and thoroughly enjoyed them, congratulations. If you'd rather undergo oral surgery, welcome to the vast majority of the human race. Empty time is a powerful medicine that can make us more joyful and resilient, but it's strangely hard to swallow. In our culture, the very word empty has negative connotations: loss, need, desolation, hopelessness. Our ambivalence toward doing nothing creates what psychologists call an approach-avoidance response: We yearn for a powerful source of liberation that is right under our noses, and we'll do almost anything to avoid it.

      Doing Everything, Accomplishing Nothing


      The result of this unconscious psychological arm wrestling is that we fritter away our lives. We don't do the things that would bring our dreams to fruition, but we don't embrace emptiness, either. Instead, we play a hundred games of computer solitaire or stay on the phone with anyone—friends, family, wrong-number dialers—just to fill the time.

      Twenty-seven centuries ago, the philosopher Lao-tzu pointed out that while we join beams to make houses and mold clay into pots, the spaces inside are where we live and store our treasures. "We work with being," Lao-tzu said, "but nonbeing is what we use." The same is true of our daily schedules: They are most useful when they hold open stretches of time in which the joy of being can occur. When we don't honor that perspective by spending time with emptiness, we tend to forget it altogether. Our lives become an exhausting sprint with no finish line, no real purpose, and no way to win.
      PAGE 1 of 3

      Comment

        0 Comments

        Advertisement

        20 Questions That Could Change Your Life
        Finding the answers starts with posing the right questions—and Martha Beck has 20 to get you started.
        Questions
        Illustration: Kelly Blair
        If you're like most people, you became obsessed with questions around the age of 2 or 3, and scientists now know that continuing to ask them can help keep your mind nimble however old you eventually become. So when someone suggested I put together a list of the 20 most important questions we should all be asking ourselves, I was thrilled. Initially. Then I became confused about which questions to ask, because of course, as I soon realized, context is everything. In terms of saving your life, the key question is, "Did I remember to fasten my seat belt?" In terms of saving money, "How much do I need to retire before I'm 90?" is a strong contender. If daily usefulness is the point, "What'll I wear?" and "What should I eat first?" might lead the list. And for the philosophically minded, "To be or not to be?" really is the question.

        Because I'm far too psychologically fragile to make sense of this subjective morass, I made the bold decision to pass the buck. The 20 questions that follow are based on "crowdsourcing," meaning I asked a whole mess of actual, free-range women what they thought every woman should ask herself. Thanks to all of you who sent in entries via social media. The questions included here are composites of those that were suggested most often, though I've mushed them together and rephrased some for brevity. Asking them today could redirect your life. Answering them every day will transform it.

        Next: What questions should you be asking yourself?
        PAGE 1 of 3

        Comment

          0 Comments

          Advertisement

          Life Coach Martha Beck
          Gayle King
          Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images
          Life coach and therapist Martha Beck's career has focused on helping people get the lives they want and deserve. Gayle talks with Martha at O, The Oprah Magazine's O You! conference in San Francisco about how she is able to help people meet their lifelong goals. Plus, Martha talks about the topic of her seminar at O You! called "Rules to Live By."

          See pictures from the O You! Conference.

          More from the O You! Conference
          The opinions expressed by the hosts, guests and callers to Oprah Radio are strictly their own.

          Comment

            0 Comments

            Advertisement

            Overcoming Decorating Paralysis
            Your dream home will never materialize if your design schemes remain imaginary. Get going with this four-point, stop-putting-it-off plan.
            Overcoming decorating paralysis
            Illustration: Digital Vision/Thinkstock
            Here's how you know you've got a problem: Months, maybe even years, after moving into your home, you still have to talk people through it. Sure, in your mind things may be nicely arranged, but that ideal bears little resemblance to three-dimensional reality. So you say things like this:

            • To the pizza delivery guy: "Sorry you have to step over the bicycles; they're only there until I get this stuff organized..."

            • To your in-laws: "This'll look a lot better with hardwood floors, of course. And we want to knock out a wall."

            • To a friend: "I wish that chair were more comfortable. It's just a placeholder until I get some pieces I really like."

            Such comments are fine if you've recently sent out change-of-address cards, but some people spend their whole lives substituting apologies and descriptions for window treatments and furniture placement. It's not that they don't have great ideas; it's that acting on them is another story. If any of this sounds familiar—if you're still narrating the home of your dreams, instead of living in it—you might need a little push to get started.

            First, let's figure out why taking your living room from the theoretical to the actual seems so daunting. The cause of almost all decorating paralysis can be summed up in one little word: fear. Of course, that breaks down into a host of different subspecies: the fear of doing something wrong, the fear of displaying poor taste, the fear of spending too much money, the fear that your floor will collapse under the weight of new furniture and swallow you like a bug in a Venus flytrap.

            In the end, though, fear is just one more excuse to not begin. If you get cold feet when you try to start a home-improvement project, you could take the issue to a therapist and "work through it." But that'll take time—a lot of time—which is exactly the problem. I prefer quick-and-dirty approaches that allow me and my clients to overcome fear without having to dissect our various personality complexes and mental disorders. I refer, of course, to horse tranquilizers.

            I wish.

            Seriously, although I don't object to chemical assistance, I myself am a fake doctor (the kind with a PhD instead of an MD), so I can only prescribe behavioral strategies to break through beginners' qualms. A few of my favorites follow.
            PAGE 1 of 3

            Comment

              0 Comments

              Advertisement