Fearless Livingby Rhonda Britten
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With her acclaimed Fearless Living program, Rhonda Britten has helped thousands of people let go of indecision, gain clarity of purpose, and take life-changing risks. With inspiring true stories, self-affirmations, and exercises, she exposes the roots of fear and gives the reader tools to move beyond them. The result is a practical step-by-step guide that gives the reader a world of unlimited possibilities.
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2 The Wheel of Fear
When you are trying to control fear, you are keeping it in check, just beneath the surface where it is ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. When you manage fear, it keeps you off track by telling you to focus on the circumstantial issues of life rather than the actual fear itself. Therefore, the fear is making your decisions for you passively, unconsciously, reactively. On the other hand, mastering your fear means facing it down, allowing you to feel it move through without getting stuck in it.
The minute Connie got the e-mail message saying that her in-laws were coming for a two-week visit, her throat closed up. Not that she hadn't invited them to make the trip up from Florida. The baby was their first grandchild and she knew they were eager to see him. Still, the idea of having Bob's parents as houseguests sent Connie into a tizzy. Maybe she should buy new sheets for the guest room. At the very least, she'd have to clean that room top to bottom, including the slats on the Levolors. And she really should plan to have her parents and her brother and his family over for dinner the night her in-laws got there. But what could she serve that would stand up to her mother-in-law's cooking? Anyway, everything was complicated by the fact that Connie, who had been the press secretary for the CEO of a major corporation before her pregnancy, was now running her own thriving public relations business from a home office. Whenever the baby was finally napping, Connie felt she had to be at her desk fielding calls and meeting deadlines.
By the time Connie's in-laws were scheduled to arrive, she was exhausted and looked it. Besides that, she hadn't lost the "baby fat." Connie smudged concealer over the circles under her eyes and picked out a blousy outfit she hoped didn't look too much like her maternity clothes. Then she put the baby in a strap-on carrier to keep him quiet, and rushed around making her from-scratch menu of stuffed Cornish game hens, vegetable soufflé, seven-grain bread, and key lime pie.
Let's cut to the chase. The evening was a disaster. The baby was cranky, wouldn't take his bottle, and subsequently spit up on Grandma's silk blouse. The bread burned. The soufflé fell. The pie was watery. An irate client called while Connie was clearing the dishes and chewed her out for letting a typo slip by in a press release she had prepared for him. And Connie's mother-in-law-never one to be big on tact-said, "My goodness, dear, are you getting enough sleep? You don't want to lose your looks. Right, Bob?"
Connie had failed miserably in her attempt to avoid being judged as-and this is the word she used when we worked together-"incompetent." What happened then? She tried even harder to avoid having anybody think she was incompetent. She got up early to make pancakes for breakfast, forgetting that her father-in-law was on a low-cholesterol diet and couldn't eat them. She laundered the towels every day as though she had to compete with the Hilton hotel chain. She stayed up until all hours to write her press releases so that she'd be free to spend time with her in-laws during the day. She leapt out of bed every time the baby whimpered so he wouldn't be a bother and disturb anybody else. But no matter what she did, she couldn't achieve the standard of perfection she was sure was expected of her.
One evening toward the end of the week, she found herself standing in the kitchen sobbing uncontrollably. She had started to slice a tomato for the salad and suddenly the thought of all the chopping and dicing ahead of her-the peppers, the celery, the mushrooms, the carrots-overwhelmed her. Bob came in just then and she blubbered something about how she just couldn't face cooking one more meal.
"Get a grip!" Bob said. "You used to handle high-pressure situations at the office every day. Now you can't even cut up a tomato without losing it. And you used to leave here every morning looking like a million bucks. These days you never even fix yourself up before dinner. Okay, okay, the baby takes up a lot of time. I help when you let me and I am trying to be understanding, but you're not the first person in the world who ever had a baby. It's been six months already. When are you going to get it together?"
Bob's uncharacteristic outburst hit Connie right in the solar plexus. She gasped for air, the tears still streaming down her face. Later, Connie would tell me that at that agonizing moment, when Bob turned on his heel and left the kitchen, she had gone from thinking she was incompetent to feeling utterly unlovable. It was then that Connie reached for the pack of cigarettes she kept hidden in a top cupboard just for times like this. She had quit smoking when she found out she was pregnant, but she had found nothing to match the power of the first deep drag on a Benson & Hedges when it came to numbing her emotional pain.
When Connie flushed the butt down the toilet, the relief the cigarette had brought her turned to unbearable shame. She had locked herself in the bathroom with a can of air freshener to get rid of the smell of her transgression. She looked in the mirror and saw the puffy, tearstained face of an incompetent, unlovable human being. She called herself some choice, unprintable names and vowed to try even harder to live up to the standards she had set for herself. Resolutely, she marched back into the kitchen, opened her cookbook, and set about making beef Bourguignon instead of simply grilling the steaks she had on hand. That ought to impress everybody. "I'll show them!" she muttered to herself as she pulled the meat out of the refrigerator and got to work.
Connie was on the Wheel of Fear. It is a classic vicious cycle, a looping of events in which the apparent solution to a problem causes a new problem that brings us right back to the original problem. My Wheel of Fear is a perfect example. I'm afraid of being seen or thought of as a loser. To me-and this is my definition-that means I should be able to do everything for everyone, and perfectly. Therefore, before I developed my program, I was in the habit of saying "yes" when I should have said "no." I would give myself unrealistic deadlines. I would take on too many projects. Superwoman was my role model. I was always trying to prove I wasn't a loser, but of course I unconsciously set things up so that I couldn't possibly fulfill all my obligations or get everything done the way it should have been done. I was always trying to beat the clock and I was impatient with myself and everybody else. In the end, I would believe that I was-you guessed it-a loser. The next step? I would indulge in any one of my favorite emotional painkillers-alcohol, wild spending sprees, isolation. Then I would beat myself up. The result was that my excruciatingly painful feeling of worthlessness would kick in. That would send me to the beginning of the cycle, taking on too much in order to avoid what I fear and making my Wheel of Fear go around and around endlessly.
Each of us has an individual Wheel of Fear that has been formed by our family heritage, belief system, and life experience. Each of us keeps the Wheel of Fear in perfect operating order, greasing it with the evidence we continually find to prove that our fears about ourselves are correct. Only when you identify your Wheel of Fear will you be in a position to stop it from spinning. However, even though your Wheel is yours and yours alone, the mechanism that keeps the Wheel of Fear spinning is identical for everyone. Over the years, with client after client, I have seen the same cyclical process at work.
* First, something happens that triggers your fear of being thought of by yourself or anybody else as having what you believe to be a serious character flaw. You urgently want to avoid that outcome, so your body prepares to handle the emergency. To at least some degree, you experience the physical symptoms of fear, including a racing heart and sweaty palms.
* Second, your fear response makes you do something, usually unconsciously, that is meant to ensure that you avoid the dreaded outcome. Just as you would run away from an object you perceive to be a snake, you try to run away in the figurative sense from the thought that terrifies you. Ironically, your response-for example, trying harder to succeed or making promises you can't possibly keep-almost certainly guarantees that the outcome will in fact happen. In a cruel trick of nature, we unerringly choose behavior that only serves to confirm our worst fear about ourselves.
* Third, as you realize you haven't avoided what you fear, the consequence is that you experience the gut-wrenching negative feeling of not being good enough-whatever your particular version of that is. This is what you are truly afraid of. The thought you are trying to avoid is a cover for the feeling that you can't bear to face. That feeling is always underneath your thoughts and responses, both of which keep you distracted, helping you avoid the very thing you must confront: your version of not being good enough. Self-loathing is next. You globalize from this one instance, and you fear that you can't do anything right.
* Fourth, you find some way to numb the emotional pain, almost invariably self-destructive behavior such as drinking, gambling, eating unhealthy food, or shutting yourself off from the very people who could support you. Remember, the degree to which you indulge in this behavior isn't the issue. The motivation is.
If you toast with a glass or two of champagne at someone's wedding and also eat a piece of the wedding cake, you're probably not using the alcohol and the sugar as emotional painkillers but as ways of celebrating. Yet if you go home after a bad day and pour yourself a drink because you "need" it, your behavior is fear driven even if you don't get drunk and even if you don't do this all that often. In other words, don't tell yourself, "I'm not an alcoholic, so this section doesn't apply to me."
Similarly, if you stop off at your neighborhood 7-Eleven to buy a quart of ice cream because you messed up at the office, and then you thaw the ice cream slightly in the microwave so you can eat it right out of the carton, you're almost certainly on your Wheel of Fear. Don't try to let yourself off the hook by pointing out that you're not overweight and that you don't make a habit of overeating. Finally, if you go off to a writer's colony where you can be alone with your thoughts, that's a positive motivation for solitude. But if you stop answering the phone and your e-mails because you're feeling like an idiot and you don't want to relate to anyone, that's unhealthy isolation whether it's for one evening or chronically.
In any case, since self-destructive behavior doesn't give you any lasting relief and usually in fact makes you feel even worse, you end up exactly where you started: trying in vain to keep the fear at bay. The fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the Wheel goes on and on.
Find Out What's Keeping You on the Wheel of Fear
In order to get off the Wheel of Fear, you have to understand what triggers your cycle. To that end, I'm going to use the technique that is effective time and again with clients who are working through my Fearless Living program. I'm going to ask you to complete four statements. Let's begin with the one that starts the Wheel spinning.
First, study the following list:
6) a loser
7) a fake
Next, pick the one word from the list that gives you the most intense reaction when you put it in the following sentence:
If someone I love, respect, or admire thought I were ____________________, I would be devastated.
When I did this exercise with Meredith, the loyal wife whose husband left her after eighteen years of marriage, she said she couldn't pick just one. She said all of them would devastate her. You may feel the same way. However, experience has shown me that if people identify the main trigger that sets the Wheel of Fear in motion, they are in a much better position to defuse all the fears that can accompany it. Awareness is the key. When you know what you are most afraid of, you are better able to realize when your actions are knee-jerk responses to fear instead of proactive, conscious choices.
In order to figure out which word to write, narrow the list down to the top five items that would really bother you if your best friends said them about you. After that, I want your top three, the ones that would horrify you if the person you most respect in your life told you them about yourself. All right, let's get it down to one-the top one that would be by far the worst, the one you would do just about anything to avoid having people think about you. That's the trigger for your Wheel of Fear.
Meredith, a quintessential people pleaser who had spent her entire adult life putting her husband and children first, picked the following for her top five: "selfish," "lazy," "incompetent," "rejected," "a loser." Then she narrowed her list down to the following three: "selfish," "rejected," "a loser." Finally, she found her main trigger: Meredith would do anything to keep people from thinking she was selfish. Yet ironically, her eighteen years of denying her own needs in order to be her idea of a perfect wife and mother had backfired. That's what happens when someone is driven by the Wheel of Fear instead of unfolding naturally through his or her Wheel of Freedom.
Connie, the working mother whose trigger was the fear of being thought of as incompetent, overcompensated and got just what she was trying to avoid. Frank, the real-estate salesman who didn't want to be thought of as lazy, worked relentlessly but never felt sure of himself and he never had time to enjoy his loved ones. I behaved much the same way in my attempt to avoid being thought of as a loser. My workaholism and perfectionism guaranteed that my worst fear would be confirmed.
Core Negative Feelings
The next statement I want you to complete is designed to elicit your core negative feeling-your version of fearing you're not good enough.
Study the following list:
1) a failure
3) a disappointment
9) an outcast
10) damaged goods
Now, fill in the following blanks:
If the people I care about really thought I was (the trigger you identified goes here) ____________________, I would feel as though I were ____________________.
Again, narrow the list down to five, then three, then one.
At the end of a bad day, when nothing has gone right, how do you feel about yourself? The sixteenth-century Spanish poet and mystic St. John of the Cross called it "the Dark Night of the Soul," and later F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "in the real
dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning." Others call it their shadow side. What feeling lurks in your
psyche that you want desperately to override? In our most fear-driven moments, we suspect that our core feelings could very well be the truth about us. And each time we go through the cycle, the Wheel of Fear takes a stronger hold upon our conscious and unconscious decisions. Eventually, we typically believe that the negative feelings we have about ourselves are facts.
I assure you, they are not. As we work through the program, you will learn to take positive actions that will put you on the path to positive feelings. You will own them. Simply put, you will be you-and you are not those negative feelings you fear. You'll love who you really are. You'll greet each new day with enthusiasm and anticipation instead of dread. Naturally, you'll still encounter unpleasant and maybe even cruel people and events along the way that trigger your Wheel of Fear. However, you'll be able to deactivate it because you will be equipped with the emotional stamina to handle even the most upsetting situations. Remember, the past does not equal the future. You can change ingrained patterns and keep history from repeating itself. You're not a laboratory rat. You're a human being. You can master your fears. But first you have to know them.
Reprinted from Fearless Living by Rhonda Britten by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Rhonda Britten. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.