Read an Excerpt
Be Fearless Change Your Life in 28 Days
By Alpert, Jonathan
Center Street Copyright © 2012 Alpert, Jonathan
All right reserved.
Prepare to BE FEARLESS
How I Became Fearless—and How You Will Too!
You’ve probably tried to overcome your fear and do something about your problems. Maybe you’ve spent months sitting on a therapist’s couch. Or perhaps you are no stranger to the self-help section of the bookstore. Yet nothing seems to work.
Why am I so confident that I have the winning formula that will help you change your life when other experts, books, and programs have already failed you? I’m confident because the BE FEARLESS five-step plan grew out of my personal experience. You see, I might seem fearless now, but I haven’t always been this way.
Like you I was once held back by my fear, and I missed out on life because I was too scared to take a chance. By overcoming my own fears, I was able to become a highly competent therapist and better understand my fearful clients. I know, for instance, exactly why my clients struggle with change and uncertainty because I’ve struggled with change and uncertainty too. I am able to draw from what I’ve learned in overcoming my own fear so I can lead my clients to the same fearless place I’ve already found for myself.
Some of my clients spent years mired in therapy before coming to see me. They tried to change their lives so many times. Many told me, during the first appointment, that they had little hope. They doubted I could help them. You can probably imagine how gratifying it was for me to watch them conquer their fears and change their lives so quickly. Usually by the end of that very first appointment, they were already feeling more positive. For most, it took only a few appointments—less than a month—before they found the courage to make the first of several changes in their lives. Nearly all of them—no matter how lofty their dreams or seemingly impossible their goals—graduated from therapy in just a few months.
Their goals and fears differed, but the process for changing their lives did not. I soon realized that my clients were able to face their fears and change their lives by progressing through the same five steps. Those steps have become the BE FEARLESS program.
I’d like to tell you the story of how I used my fear to help others. It’s my hope that by sharing this story, you will be able to see that a similar transformation is just as possible for you.
The Girl I Never Kissed
My fearful-to-fearless story starts in early childhood. As a toddler I wore Forrest Gump leg braces. In elementary school I spoke funny, couldn’t pronounce certain words, and had to attend speech class. Until seventh grade I was at least several inches taller than my classmates.
Through my high school years I was terribly shy and so fearful of attention that I avoided parties, dances, football games, and social gatherings. While my classmates were at the prom, I was by myself, aimlessly driving my parents’ Oldsmobile station wagon—yes, the kind with the fake wood siding.
I was especially fearful of girls. In my mind, they were big, bad monsters. They would never go for a tall, skinny, awkward boy like me. They would laugh at me. I was sure of it. Still, there was this one girl I really liked. Her name was Katie. She was popular, had lots of friends, and sat next to me in class, but only because our last names both started with the letter A.
I’m embarrassed to admit that to get Katie’s attention, I tried all sorts of dysfunctional and ineffective tactics. Yes, I was one of those suckers who, out of desperation, fell for an advertisement in the back of a magazine for a pheromone spray called “Attractant 10.” The spray was supposed to render me “irresistible to women.” Interestingly, the product is still around today.
I ordered and began using the product right away. I put it on just before class. Yet Katie seemed unaffected. One day I managed to time things so that we walked out of school at the same moment. Here she was, right next to me! We were walking in the same direction. No one else was around. It was just us.
I managed to mutter an awkward hello and chat a little bit. Then she turned to go in another direction. It was now or never. If I was going to ask her out, this was my only chance.
“See you tomorrow,” she said.
“Yeah, see you,” I said.
She walked away. I’d blown it.
I was eighteen years old before I was brave enough to even kiss someone and well into my twenties before I dated regularly. I eventually overcame my fear, however, and developed the courage to ask women out with confidence. I went on to face and overcome many other fears, ranging from fear of failure to fear of criticism. Each time I faced my fear, I realized I emerged stronger and more confident. Over time, I began to see that fear was not something to hide from. It wasn’t a reason to abandon my goals or dreams either. It was merely a temporary stressor. If I pushed through the short-term stress, I was able to move past the fear and get to any long-term goal I set for myself. This realization helped me to get through graduate school, develop my own practice, and deliver a style of therapy that is highly effective, innovative, and even gutsy at times.
BE FEARLESS: Change is scary and often causes temporary stress. That’s why our natural reaction is to withdraw and hide. Yet this short-term stress is worth the long-term gain of greater happiness and peace of mind.
Daring to Be Me
I became a psychotherapist because I’ve always been fascinated with human behavior and psychology. Even as a shy kid, I gravitated toward people who had been ostracized because of their psychological challenges. Later, as a teen, I had a date with the famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer every Sunday night, when I listened to her radio show on my Sony Walkman when I probably should have been sleeping. I not only learned from her, I aspired to eventually grow up and become the male version of her. I wanted to be in a career that allowed me to help people and make a difference, and I wanted to reach the masses. Like Dr. Ruth, I wanted to use the media as a tool to help hundreds and even thousands of other people. I wanted to help people overcome their psychological challenges and go on to achieve greatness, and I wanted to do this in a big way.
Soon after I became a psychotherapist, however, I realized that I could not be the type of psychotherapist my schooling had trained me to become. In graduate school, I had been taught to help clients come to realizations by simply asking insightful questions. My schooling had warned against injecting my opinion into a therapy session. Rather than telling clients what to do, I was supposed to sit, listen, and ask what has now become a clichéd and frustrating question: “How does that make you feel?”
I just couldn’t do it.
Rather than simply listening as clients vented, I found myself continually injecting my opinion, offering advice, and creating structured action plans for them.
For instance, one of my early clients came to me because he was living a lie and as a result was depressed. I’ll call him Rick. Rick was married, and he was going to porn shops and having indiscriminate sex with other men.
As I listened to him tell me about his escapades, I kept thinking about his poor wife back at home. Not only was he exposing himself and her to sexually transmitted diseases, he was also forcing her to live a lie. He was a closeted homosexual who was masquerading as a happily married man. I imagined that she probably felt inadequate in the bedroom, wondering why she could not please her husband and why he didn’t seem attracted to her.
How could I not say something to Rick? How could I just nod my head and listen as he told me about his infidelity? How could I just sit back and ask, “How does that make you feel?”
I flat out told him, “This is wrong. It’s disgusting.” He was shocked. He said, “I’ve been to eight other therapists and not one of them has ever told me that it was wrong.” Rick initially was annoyed with my honesty, but he ended up coming back to see me. He attempted to curb his porn shop visits and sex with strangers while he worked on finding the courage to come out of the closet and develop a healthy sexual relationship.
But his revelation about his previous therapists angered and frustrated me. Eight different therapists had all sat, listened, and said nothing as Rick had told them about what he was doing?
And he wasn’t the only one.
I counseled additional clients who told me about past therapists who had dozed off during sessions or called them by the wrong name. They complained, at times, that they felt as if they had been helping their therapists more than their therapists had been helping them. How does that make you feel? was a phrase they made fun of. It was generic and it was useless. They admitted to spinning their wheels for years and not getting anywhere.
One of them had been in therapy for a decade! She had gone week after week and paid bill after bill even though she wasn’t getting better. I asked her, “What were you gaining from these therapy sessions?” She looked at me and answered, “Good question.”
I was disgusted with my profession, and I could see that the listening-only approach just wasn’t helping people to get better. It only frustrated people. They would come to me and complain, “I’ve been to a dozen therapists. They just sat there and listened and didn’t tell me what to do. I hope you’ll be different.” I soon found myself constantly explaining that I was not “one of those therapists.”
BE FEARLESS: You overcome fear not by avoiding it, but by facing it. The more you face your fear, the more fearless you will become.
I thought back to the lessons I’d learned from my parents. My parents had taught me to give it my best and always do a good job. They were hardworking and often held second jobs. They encouraged me to work and, from a young age, I did. I delivered newspapers, tended to the locker room at a health club, and even worked as a cleaning person at a motel. They’d said over and over again, “If people are paying you, you give them what they came for. Give them what they need.” With that in mind, I knew I wanted to deliver the best service possible, and I would.
Nodding my head and listening was not delivering that service. People were coming to me because they wanted to get better and they wanted to be told how to do that. I eventually decided to abandon the established norms of my field and I set out to help people get better the way I knew how: giving advice.
Therapy in the Real World
Not only did I decide to give advice and tell people what to do, I also decided to counsel them in the real world—in the very places where they felt fearful. Rather than keep them on a couch indoors where they felt safe and did not have to test their limits, I began taking socially anxious people to the park and asking them to walk up and introduce themselves to strangers. I accompanied clients with a fear of heights to rooftops and those who were afraid of elevators to elevators. I met them at their fear.
I told clients that we’d spend a session or two in the office, but most of our therapy would take place in parks, shopping centers, cafés, rooftops, and other locations. “This will allow you to practice important skills,” I said. “Therapy in an office is safe. There’s the comfortable couch, the quiet room. But will that allow you to face what causes you so much anxiety? You can work on your problems in the real world where they actually occur.”
To my delight, nearly all of my potential clients were willing to try this new approach. David was one of them.
Think About It
Facing your fear might feel nearly impossible to you right now. You might think that it’s daunting. I understand that. I know that impossible feeling because I’ve felt it too. So have many of my clients. That’s why I’m going to ask you to think about a question:
If I gave you a million dollars, could you find a way to overcome your fear?
I think you could. BE FEARLESS will get you there.
Fear of Approaching the Opposite Sex
David told me that he wanted to overcome shyness and anxiety, so I suggested that we meet at Central Park.
We sat together on a bench. I learned that David was a successful lawyer, but he was terrible with the ladies. If a woman looked at him, he would withdraw and look the other way. He was in his thirties, and he had convinced himself that he’d be living in his Manhattan apartment alone forever.
I couldn’t help but notice that David suffered from a similar fear that I’d once had so many years before.
BE FEARLESS: Being fearless isn’t something that some people are born with, and it’s not found in a magical pill either. What separates the fearless from the fearful isn’t the absence or the presence of fear. Rather, it’s what they do with it.
I asked David to tell me more about his anxiety: when it occurred, what triggered it, how long he’d had it, what he’d already tried to deal with it, and what thoughts led to it. Much like me, David had suffered from anxiety and shyness since his teenage years. Social situations triggered a panic response. Simply going into a bar led to heavy breathing, heart palpitations, and rigidity. Some of this fear had been brought on by social failures. For instance, he’d read some books on how to score with the ladies. Then he’d embarrassed himself by using some really cheesy lines from these books on women he’d met at bars. They’d laughed in his face.
This handsome, educated, and successful guy thought of himself as an unattractive failure. He focused on any minor perceived flaw and magnified it to the point where he had nothing positive to think or say about himself.
I gave him some homework. It was simple. I asked him to come back to the park, get comfortable, and hang out. I suggested that he might read a book, observe people, or listen to music. I taught him a few relaxation exercises, and I asked him to do them before and during his time at the park.
During our next session we walked around the park. I asked him to smile at people and make eye contact. Once he got used to that, we progressed. I asked him to approach strangers and ask them for the time.
“Just watch me,” I said. I approached someone, said hello, and asked directions.
“Now you try it,” I suggested.
I wanted David to experience something that would provide reassurance. A smile or a look from someone would tell him that he was okay. This would help to replace the negative memory he had of being laughed at when he’d used those pickup lines.
He tried it first with men and then with women, but purposely no one he was attracted to.
Once he was comfortable asking anyone for the time or for directions, I knew he was ready for a bigger challenge: a café.
I took him to a small coffee shop where tables were close together and we could easily hear what our neighbors were talking about and see what they were reading. Again, I asked him to watch and observe as I engaged the stranger next to me in small talk. Then I encouraged him to chime in. He did.
After a while I excused myself to use the bathroom. I didn’t really need to use it. I just wanted to give him an opportunity to be alone. On my way back to the table, I saw him chatting with the cute waitress. When I sat down, he told me that she was pursuing a career in acting. In fewer than four minutes he had been able to learn about her career pursuits and hobbies. He had a twinkle of confidence in his eyes and an eagerness to get out there and put his newfound confidence to good use. At that point I knew my man was well on his way to success.
David eventually met someone and developed a relationship. I got a call from him a few weeks later. He explained that he was throwing out his How to Score with the Ladies self-help books for two reasons. One, he no longer needed them. Two, his new girlfriend was planning on coming over for a romantic dinner and he didn’t want to run the risk of her seeing such books.
I knew he no longer needed my services. David had graduated from therapy, and I was happy for him.
Fear Is Necessary
It’s now been several years since I counseled David. I’ve seen countless numbers of fearful clients. They feared heights, subways, elevators, commitment, love, success, rejection, public speaking, and more. What makes their stories amazing isn’t that they were born with a natural confidence. No, what makes them amazing is that they all were quite the opposite. As I once was, as David once was, and as you may be right now, these clients were once almost completely incapacitated by their fear.
I’ve taught all of them that fear is a tool to be used to their advantage. It’s not a sign to run and hide. Rather it’s a sign to move forward. Irrational fears—fears of things that can’t physically harm us—must be faced.
It’s rewarding to see how much progress my clients make from one appointment to the next. I get great satisfaction from knowing that someone is moving toward his or her goals. When clients are no longer held hostage by fear, I ask, “How does it feel to be fearless?”
They always answer that question with a glimmer in their eyes. There’s nothing more satisfying for me than to be there with them as they celebrate reaching their goals.
I look forward to the day that you get to the same place. In less than one week, you will be well on your way to conquering the fear that until now has held you back and kept you stuck. In as few as 28 days, you will have completed the BE FEARLESS five-step program, and you will have proven to yourself that fear is a necessary part of success and happiness.
I am thrilled that you’ve found the courage to take this journey. My only regret is that I will not be able to see the glimmer in your eyes when you realize that you are well on your way to becoming fearless. I know that massive change is possible for you because I’ve seen it in myself and I’ve seen it in countless clients.
I can’t wait until you can see it in yourself. I’m optimistic about your chances. You can overcome your fear. Yes, you can! It really is possible. Keep reading to find out how.
Change Your Life Now!
Fearlessness is a skill, one that you can acquire and strengthen with a smart, thoughtful strategy, devotion, and motivation. The BE FEARLESS program teaches you the same skills that I’ve used to overcome my own fear and have used to help countless clients do the same. It’s natural to want to avoid fear, but avoidance will only keep you stuck. With the help of the advice in this book, you are going to face your fear. Rather than hide from it, you will move past it. You will face it, overcome it, and, as a result, feel a great sense of triumph. To weaken the hold fear has on you, do the following.
Think of what you are missing because of your fear. What would you love to do if only you weren’t so scared? What have you missed out on in life because you’ve allowed fear to stand in your way? What have you passed up because of fear?
Make a Regret List. On it list all of the things you would have already done with your life if fear were not an obstacle. Carry this list with you and read it over when you have a spare moment. Use it to motivate yourself toward change.
Why Everyone Fears Change
You are not alone in your fear. I have acquaintances who are afraid of not being able to pay the rent. I know someone who worries she’ll never meet the right guy or be able to have a family. Someone else I know fears his earnings will go down for the year. I even know one guy who, at first, seems like a true thrill seeker. He finds things like skydiving and off-road motorcycle riding fun. Do you want to know what brings him to his knees? Snakes!
Fear is ubiquitous. Everyone feels it.
Not only does everyone experience fear, they also feel it for the same reason. All fear shares the same origin: the unknown. Every fear you can think of or name—ranging from fear of success to fear of public speaking—is really about uncertainty. It’s about not knowing what will happen next. Will the audience listen with rapt attention or will they fall asleep? Will the snake stay where it is or will it try to bite you? Will your boss give you the promotion you seek or will he demote you instead?
The more uncertain your future, the more you will have to fear. The more predictable your future, the less you will fear. Until now, this uncertainty has stood between you and the change you seek. It’s worked to unravel your motivation and keep you stuck.
The BE FEARLESS program helps you overcome this roadblock to your success by creating certainty in the midst of uncertainty. It starts with visualizing the future you want and ends with creating the future that you imagined. All along the way, you’ll work to overcome the genetic wiring that, until now, has worked against you—causing you to expect the worst and doubt the possibility of the best. By overcoming your negativity and creating a realistic action plan, you’ll be able to face your fear of the unknown and finally get on with your life.
To help you better understand how it all works, I’d like to tell you a personal story about the fear of the unknown.
The Fear of an Uncertain Future
Several years ago I was driving from New York City to my hometown in Connecticut to visit Mom and Dad for a relaxing weekend. As I always do when I drive, I was listening to music and enjoying the open road. I was just exiting the highway not far from my destination when my phone rang. I pushed the hands-free speaker button and heard that it was Mom calling. Her voice didn’t sound right. It was strained.
“Jonathan, it’s not good. The report says there are lesions on Dad’s brain.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, hoping that I’d heard her wrong.
I knew that Dad had been suffering strange symptoms for a few days. It had started after he’d had some dental work. He had tingling sensations and numbness on the left side of his face. He’d thought that the dental work had inflicted some nerve damage, but the dentist had explained that the dental work couldn’t have caused such a sensation.
That Friday, as I’d been driving the first of two hours from New York City to Connecticut, my dad had been at the doctor’s office learning the results of a recent MRI.
“The doctor told him that he has lesions consistent with metastatic disease,” Mom said. “When Dad asked the doctor what that meant, the doctor told us, ‘It’s not good.’ They want to run some more tests. We have to wait and see the results, but it doesn’t look good, Jonathan, it doesn’t look good.”
I could tell that she was trying to be strong and hold it together for my benefit. I was shocked, deeply saddened, and had a million questions running through my mind: What does this mean? What are the treatment options? How can this be?
I told Mom that I was just a few miles from home. “I’ll be there soon,” I said. I nervously drove as quickly as I could, my mind already at my destination.
I walked through the door and hugged my mother. My dad, always so dedicated and hardworking, had already gone back to work. Later, when he arrived home, Dad made spaghetti for all of us. At some point that evening, Mom and I went on the Internet to find out more about what this report meant. The Internet only fueled our fear and anxiety. Could he really have such an advanced stage of cancer that it had metastasized to his brain? The more we searched the Internet, the more devastated we felt and the graver the prognosis seemed.
The weekend proved to be the longest weekend of my life, my parents’ lives, and the lives of my siblings. The image of my parents embracing and crying is so strong. They’d been married for thirty-eight years and had been together for more than forty. They were inseparable. They truly were the rock of our family.
There is no way this can be happening, I thought.
One town over, my sister, Susan, was feeling a similar disbelief and numbness. “How could it be cancer if he has no symptoms?” she questioned. To soothe herself, she began cleaning. She scrubbed the inside of the fridge and the toaster, and she got the cobwebs out of the corners.
In Washington, D.C., my brother, Matthew, was also in disbelief.
Two agonizingly long days later, it was time for me to head back to New York City. I’ll never forget hugging my parents as I left them. The hug lasted a lot longer than it usually does and was much closer. There were tears and with that, I departed, frightened of what might lie ahead.
Dad went back to his doctor the following week. He underwent a PET scan, which provides a much more detailed picture of the inside of the body than an MRI does. Whereas an MRI shows a three-dimensional picture of the inside of the body, a PET scan also reveals the molecular and metabolic function of cells—allowing physicians to determine whether those cells are normal or abnormal (cancerous).
On the day that Dad was meeting with the doctor to review the results, I was back in New York seeing a client. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t concentrate on what the client was telling me, and I was going through the motions. Thankfully the client never seemed to notice.
After that appointment, I went to Central Park and just kept walking and walking. So many questions were running through my mind. What if Dad dies? How will Mom cope? How will I cope? Is this really happening? Is it really terminal cancer? What will we all do?
Finally, the test was done and Dad got the results. Amazingly, the PET scan revealed no cancer. The lesions were definitely there, but they did not look like cancer. They looked like something else. Dad’s doctor said more tests were needed. He wasn’t sure if Dad’s lesions were caused by a stroke, high blood pressure, or a neurological disorder like multiple sclerosis (MS).
Dad then was sent to a neurologist who looked at the scans and other test results.
Although some tests were inconclusive, the doctors eventually settled on multiple sclerosis as a diagnosis. In a weird way, the diagnosis came with such relief. I remember thinking, Thankfully it’s not advanced cancer! The lesions are only due to the MS!
It’s been several years and my dad is healthy and remains active.
I told you the story of my dad’s misdiagnosis to illustrate a point: we fear what we don’t know. That long weekend, we were, of course, afraid of cancer, but behind that was a fear of the unknown. We didn’t know if Dad was going to be okay or if he wasn’t going to be okay. If Dad wasn’t going to be okay, we didn’t know how we would all hold up. Would I, for instance, be able to be there for him and still be able to manage my therapy practice two hours away in New York? Was I strong enough emotionally to watch my father get sick and possibly die? Was my mother? How would my mom do things that she relied so heavily on Dad to do? Would she be okay without him?
And even the so-called cancer was unpredictable because we didn’t have enough information. Mom and I had attempted to find information on the Internet that would provide us with some predictability and control. We’d craved certainty. We wanted to know what kind of cancer it was, how it would likely progress, and what would eventually happen. We wanted to know what to expect—good or bad.
Once Dad got a definitive diagnosis, the fear subsided. That was because the future was now predictable again. Sure, Dad had MS, but he now knew what to expect and what to do about it. He had a sense of how it would progress, what treatments were available, and where he was going to go from here. The unknowns were replaced with knowns.
It’s the same with any fear.
BE FEARLESS: Focus on what you have control over, not on what’s beyond it.
You Fear What You Don’t Know
You might think that the fear you are struggling with right now—the very fear that led to you buying and reading this book—is different from the fear I felt that weekend as I waited for Dad’s diagnosis, but it’s not different at all.
All fear—ranging from the fear of being bad in bed to the fear of speaking in front of a crowd—is about uncertainty. It comes from an inability to predict the future. I’m guessing that you might be thinking something along the lines of, How could a fear of snakes possibly be about uncertainty? I fear a snake because it might bite me and kill me. There’s nothing uncertain about that.
Not so fast. Fear of snakes is as much about the unknown as fear of an impending health problem. Here’s why. If you are near a snake, you have many unanswered questions. Is it poisonous? Will I die if I get bitten? If I get bitten and it’s poisonous, will I be able to get help? Will anyone even know what to do?
Now if you were the person in charge of reptiles and amphibians at the local zoo, you might not have a fear of snakes because you would be able to answer such questions. You would know which snakes are poisonous and which ones are not. You would know how to handle a snake so it couldn’t bite you. And you would know what to do on the off chance you did get bitten. You would also know that everyone around you was trained in how to deal with snakebites. You wouldn’t be fearful because you would have very little if any uncertainty.
It’s for this reason that most people are not fearful of mosquitoes and bees. Sure they are nuisances and we avoid them, but they don’t generate a panic response. You’ve probably been bitten by either or both numerous times. You know exactly what will happen if you are bitten, and you know what to do about it too. You put ice or baking soda or an ointment on it and you’re done with it. There’s no uncertainty, so you are not fearful.
To further convince you, I created the chart that follows. In it, I tried to anticipate a number of fears that you may think have nothing to do with uncertainty.
How It Relates to Uncertainty
Fear of ending a dead-end relationship
You’re uncertain about whether being alone is really better (or possibly worse) than being in a dead-end relationship. You are uncertain about whether you have what it takes to be alone. You are uncertain that you will ever meet anyone else. What if this dead-end relationship is as good as it gets?
Fear of saying yes to a marriage proposal
You’re uncertain whether you can really live the rest of your life with this person. You don’t know if you have what it takes to be monogamous for life. You are uncertain about whether you will miss your freedom. You feel uncertain about what the future together holds and whether that future is really better than a future alone.
Fear of excelling at work and climbing the corporate ladder
You’re uncertain whether you have what it takes to climb to the next level and continue to excel. You are uncertain whether more responsibility would really make you happier. What if you end up hating it? You are uncertain whether it’s better to stay in a boring but easy position than it is to pursue a higher-paying, more interesting position that is also more challenging.
Fear of public speaking
You are uncertain about how the crowd will react to what you have to say. Will they heckle you? Will they walk out? Will they fall asleep? You are uncertain about how others will view you and think of you.
Fear of heights
You are uncertain of your footing and don’t know if you can remain steady enough to prevent yourself from falling over an edge.
Fear of flying
You are uncertain about whether the plane will really stay in the sky. You are uncertain about what will transpire between point A and point B. Will there be delays? Will there be lots of turbulence? What will happen if it’s really bumpy? Will you get sick? And if you get sick, how will other passengers react?
Fear of not pleasing your partner in bed
You are uncertain about your relationship and whether it is strong enough to withstand your partner not having an orgasm. Will your partner leave you if you are not a rock star in the bedroom?
Fear of investing in a business venture
You don’t know if it will work out. Will you go broke? Will you make money? Will you be able to pay the mortgage? Or will you lose your house?
Even serious mental health disorders are about uncertainty. Panic disorder, for instance, is characterized by sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly and without warning. It relates to uncertainty because of all the unknowns: When will it strike? Will I be at work when I have a panic attack? If so, what will my coworkers think of me? Will I be driving when I have one? If so, will I be able to control the car? Will I be alone when one hits? If so, what if no one is around to help me?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder involves repeated, intrusive, and unwanted thoughts or rituals that seem impossible to control. How does it relate to uncertainty? These are the kinds of thoughts someone with OCD has: Is the door locked? Will there be intruders? Is the door locked? Or the thoughts might go like this: Did I touch something that’s contaminated? I have to wash my hands. Did I touch something toxic? Then I have to wash my hands. Those thoughts are all based on uncertainty.
Similarly, in posttraumatic stress disorder—which involves persistent symptoms that occur after experiencing a traumatic event, such as war, rape, child abuse, a natural disaster, or being taken hostage—the fearful thoughts are also based on uncertainty. Someone with PTSD might think any of the following: Will the stressful event happen again? Will I get raped again? Will I end up in war again? Will the flashback occur again? Will I have to relive this again?
And finally even when you wake in the middle of the night with free-floating anxiety, it’s still about uncertainty. You might be unable to sleep because you are uncertain about work, with thoughts like, How will I do what I need to do? Am I going to get fired? Will I get done what I need to get done? You might even be uncertain about getting back to sleep, thinking thoughts like, What will happen if I toss and turn all night long? Will I be wiped out at work tomorrow? If I’m wiped out at work tomorrow, then what?
The BE FEARLESS program helps you to overcome this uncertainty by helping you to map out your future. The five exercises in Step 1 will take you less than three hours to complete, but their effects will be long-lasting. By visualizing a dream and testing it out, you will be able to eliminate much of the uncertainty that surrounds change.
The BE FEARLESS program will give you the certainty that you seek, and that certainty will take you anywhere you want to go. But the program goes even further than that. It also helps you to rewrite the negative narrative that plays in your mind, the one that until now has worked to talk you out of attempting to change your life.
Let’s take a closer look at why this is so important.
Think About It
Take a moment and think about your own fears. Think about how they might relate to uncertainty. What don’t you know about the future? What can’t you predict? What are the unknowns, and how do these unknowns add to your anxiety?
Negativity Creates Fear
Your brain prefers predictability, certainty, and control. When things are uncertain and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, your brain attempts to make up an ending. It writes its own narrative. There are two problems with this narrative. One, it’s often not accurate. Two, the narrative is usually negative, and it’s these negative thoughts that lead to catastrophic, worst-case-scenario, devastating thinking.
This thinking sounds like this:
“She’ll never like a guy like me.”
“People will think I’m stupid and boring.”
“The bridge is going to collapse.”
“I’ll never be a success.”
“I’ll never find someone.”
“I’ll be alone forever.”
“The jet will crash.”
Do you see the common theme in all of those statements? They are all negative predictions. This is known as “the negativity bias.” We tend to notice and remember negative events and information over those that are positive. For instance, for most people unhappy memories from their childhoods are often stronger than happy ones. This phenomenon, in part, keeps people like me in business! In marriages, many people will also remember bad times—horrendous fights they’ve gotten into, for instance—over good times. And most people can rattle off dozens of negative stories about work, but only a few positive stories.
The negativity bias doesn’t affect only what we remember from the past. It also affects how we see the future. Because of the negativity bias, we tend to predict doom, gloom, mayhem, and failure. And this leads to fear, making us feel stuck.
Test It Out
Imagine a crosswalk on a busy city street. At one end of the crosswalk, you see a nice young man offering to help a fragile old lady. Across the street, you see a not-so-nice young man arguing with his mother. Which man catches your attention? Which man do you remember? Which man do you go home and tell your family about? Which man stays with you and haunts you? It’s the thankless, argumentative son right? That’s because of the negativity bias.
This negativity bias has been programmed into our wiring. We can’t even blame it on our mothers. We have to go back thousands of years. Back then outcomes generally were negative. Many babies died of illness. Most humans met untimely deaths. Wild animals were lurking around most corners.
It made sense to predict negative outcomes because they happened to be the most likely outcomes way back then. Thousands of years ago, early humans who panicked over a loud sound were the early humans who lived to see another day. The negativity bias led to survival.
In modern times, however, the negativity bias is a hindrance, one that reinforces our fear to the point where it becomes debilitating. Until now, you’ve been a victim of your negativity bias. It has ruled your thoughts and your actions. The BE FEARLESS program will help you to override this bias. The program teaches you to examine and replace habitual negative thinking. You’ll test out your negative predictions, come up with more likely scenarios, and write a new, happier, and more realistic ending. In doing so, you’ll be better able to make the positive ending come true.
How You’ll Overcome Past Failures
Sometimes the negativity bias develops from a real-life negative event, called a negative reference experience. For instance, a close friend named Alison has taken hundreds of flights that were all completely uneventful. Then not long ago she was on a plane that experienced a fuel leak and had to make an emergency landing. It was a scary experience. Now whenever she flies, she thinks of that emergency landing! It was just one flight out of hundreds, but that’s the flight that comes to mind.
I had a similar experience many years ago, only instead of an airplane it involved a poodle. Yes, a poodle. When I was six years old I was walking with my dad. It was a casual stroll on the weekend, and as we got close to home I did what most rambunctious six-year-olds do: I ran ahead of my dad and around the corner. I was at that age where I was exercising my autonomy. That was all normal and great, but then a minute or two later my dad remembers seeing me running furiously back toward him as a little poodle chased me. It’s a funny story that my dad gets a kick out of, especially today. He of course likes to tell the story a little differently, fibbing and saying that I was really sixteen when it took place. It all makes for a good laugh. Yet that one negative experience impacted me for many of my formative years, causing me to feel uncomfortable around dogs.
Negative reference experiences can also be handed down to us from our parents. Many parents teach their children to be fearful of strangers and busy streets, which is a good thing, but many other fears are also learned from watching our parents. My friend Heather, for instance, has a fear of heights. So does her mother. For many years Heather wasn’t sure if she’d learned this fear from her mother or if the two simply shared a genetically induced fear of heights. She got her answer when she had a daughter of her own, a child who initially seemed to be quite fearless.
Eventually her daughter became fearful of heights too, and Heather realized that her daughter was picking up on her own anxiety. Whenever her daughter would attempt to climb up a ladder, Heather would tell her, “No, please don’t do that right now.” Sometimes if her daughter was doing something perfectly reasonable, such as walking up and down steep steps, Heather would get tense and loudly gasp, and her daughter picked up on it. This now serves as a cue that makes her daughter fearful.
You may or may not be able to remember your negative reference experience. Perhaps the reference experience took place when you were too young to remember it. Or maybe the conditioning that made you fearful was so subtle that you didn’t notice it or remember it. That’s okay. It’s not as important for you to know why you are fearful as it is for you to know what to do about it. Knowing where you want to go is much more important than knowing where you’ve been. Many people find themselves stuck in therapy for years and years talking about where they were thirty years ago, and they never get out of that stage. I don’t believe in keeping you stuck in the past. I want you to learn how to live in the now.
In this book, you’ll find out how to move forward. The BE FEARLESS program shows you how to overcome negative reference experiences by testing out the negative predictions they lead to and proving those negative predictions wrong. In this way, you will collect evidence to the contrary and eventually overwrite the negative narrative and replace it with a positive one.
Think About It
Are you getting a sense of why you are fearful? Can you now put two and two together? Can you trace your fear back to a specific reference experience? Can you see how that experience shaped and strengthened your fear?
Why We Feel Nerves
In addition to helping you to overcome the negativity bias, the BE FEARLESS program helps you to deal with sensations of fear. Not only does the program help you to calm your nerves, it even will show you how to use such symptoms as a racing heartbeat to your advantage.
Despite popular belief, nervous sensations are actually quite useful. They date back thousands of years to a time when most of what humans didn’t know, didn’t understand, or couldn’t predict could literally get them killed. If early humans were fearless enough to walk onto an unfamiliar grassy prairie, for instance, they ended up becoming dinner for a wild animal lurking in that grass. So humans and other animals developed a built-in fear of the unknown. In a dangerous, uncertain world, it was quite helpful for early humans to be able to react to danger quickly and effectively. Thus the “fight or flight” response was wired into the nervous system. For the purposes of this book I will, from here on out, refer to this response as your fear response.
This fear response is designed to give you a great deal of strength, smarts, and speed when you are under attack. When early humans were confronted by dangerous wild animals, their fear response helped them to run and hide. It also helped them to find the strength needed to club an animal over the head. It even helped them to play dead, if needed.
We rarely confront wild animals in modern times, but the fear response remains. When you are startled, nervous, or stressed, your brain turns on your sympathetic nervous system. This triggers the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and norepinephrine. From here a cascade of reactions result. These include:
Increased energy and strength. Your heart rate and breathing rate speed up in an effort to provide more oxygenated blood to your muscles. It pumps sugar into your bloodstream so your brain and muscles can burn it easily and quickly, allowing you to run away from or fend off an attacker. This surge of energy and strength has, for instance, allowed mothers to lift cars off their trapped children.
Sharper vision and hearing. This allows you to see and hear better so you can more easily spot dangerous predators.
More endurance. During the fear response, the body sweats. This serves as a precooling mechanism so you are better able to run without getting overheated.
Less pain. During the fear response, the body turns down your perception of pain. It’s for this reason that a gunshot victim might not realize he or she has been shot. The pain eventually does kick in—and in a big way—but not until the injured person has gotten to safety and the fear response has subsided.
When your fear response is flipped on, your entire body is mobilized to do one thing and one thing only: survive.
BE FEARLESS: In the face of fear, the fearless thrive while the fearful retreat.
Many people think of the fear response as a negative response, and they want to eliminate it. The BE FEARLESS program will show you how to rethink that negativity. Your fear response can actually become a strength, one that you can harness and use to your advantage. Isn’t it great, for instance, to know that you are capable of much more physical strength than you realize? If you were stuck under a heavy object, that extra strength generated by your fear response would surely come in handy. And if a tidal wave were coming your way, isn’t it good to know that you would be able to run faster than you have ever run in your entire life? It’s the same if someone were chasing you. You’d have speed that you didn’t even know you had. I’m not a runner, but if I were being chased by a guy with a chain saw, you can bet that I’d be flying faster than I ever could imagine I’d be able to.
The fear response can also come in handy during non-life-threatening situations. You can turn fear into a strength when delivering a speech or keeping the conversation going during a first date. The BE FEARLESS program will show you how.
How the Contagion Effect Creates Fear
It’s also our primitive, instinctual nature to spread fear. In the days of early humans, if danger lurked, one person would tell the next and the next and then the whole clan was notified. This still happens in the animal world. When one deer, for instance, senses danger, it lifts and waves its tail. Other deer do the same, alerting the entire group that danger lurks.
It’s this instinctual response coupled with modern technology that can cause fear to go viral. With the push of a button, in a split second, the entire world is informed of information. Think of what happened with the swine flu epidemic or as the Y2K paranoia unfolded. Think of how you learned about terrorism attacks and more. Have you ever forwarded a scary e-mail to scores of friends? Have you ever passed along a scary rumor? Then you helped to spread the fear.
Not all of this viral fear is even based on reality. We get e-mails, texts, and other messages forwarded to us that warn us about hypodermic needles found on movie theater seats, that the growth hormones injected into chicken wings causes ovarian cancer in women, and that thieves are robbing women in shopping mall bathrooms and leaving them naked.
Are you feeling a little fearful just reading this litany of doom and gloom? I’m feeling fearful just typing it! The BE FEARLESS program helps you to overcome the Contagion Effect in several ways. It shows you how to inoculate yourself from the worst sources of fear. Perhaps most powerfully, the program teaches you how to deal with Fearmongers, those people in your life who spread fear, reinforce your negativity, and attempt to keep you stuck. You’ll learn how to protect yourself from such people so you can reduce your fear and change your life for the better.
Excerpted from Be Fearless by Alpert, Jonathan Copyright © 2012 by Alpert, Jonathan. Excerpted by permission.
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