Just as most people are uncomfortable discussing money and death, so are they reluctant to talk about fear, particularly when they hold leadership positions at work. Recently, in one of our CEO Forums where 7-10 CEOs come together to discuss business and leadership issues and opportunities, a CEO just blurted out, “I get up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep.” “What’s wrong?” asked one of the other participants. The CEO took a deep breath and responded: “I have fear – fear that things won’t work out, fear that my business will not succeed, and fear of what I don’t know.” His admission opened a floodgate. The others chimed in to share their fears and a great dialogue ensued. Leaders feel pressure to make decisions, take calculated risks and do the right thing for those who depend on them.
Fear prompts the often referenced “fight or flight response,” left over from our primitive days when this response served as a central warning system to protect us from saber tooth tigers and other dangerous predators. The problem is that our brains are still hard wired to fight or run when we feel fear. Almost every situation we encounter under the fight or flight response can be perceived as an attack. We can overreact, lose our tempers, stop communicating or get irrational as our bodies prepare for war or fleeing from it. I’m reminded by what Norman Vincent Peale once said about FEAR – it’s: “False; Evidence; Appearing; Real).
What fears are keeping you up at night? More importantly, what can you do about them? Avoidance is typically not the answer. In his book, Letting Go, Dr. David Hawkins stresses the importance of being aware of your feelings like fear, letting the feeling come up without judging it or thinking about the reasons why and letting the feeling run its course without wanting to make it different. In other words, experience the feeling and stop resisting it. Hawkins states that resistance keeps the feeling intact and a feeling that doesn’t meet resistance, dissipates. I have been experimenting with this technique and it works. The hardest part is not to think about why you feel afraid or analyze the reasons. Just stay with the feeling and when it passes, you’ll feel like a burden has been lightened.
Another approach that you might find useful is to ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” as well as “What’s the best thing?” By weighing out the opposing forces, you can achieve a better balance in your thinking. Limit the amount of time you allow yourself to think about the issue and consider scheduling a specific time-frame, for example, “I will think about this for 15 minutes and then my time is up.” Once the time is up, that’s it.
Lastly, research on visualization indicates that if we picture a preferred reality and see it playing out on a movie screen in our mind in full color, we are more likely to realize our picture of success. In turn, if we have invasive thoughts that are fear producing, see them on the screen, put them in black and white and make them small as you move them to the corner of the screen. Then as you picture your preferred reality again, let it take up the screen in color and visualize the fear based picture drop off the screen.
These three tools can assist you with fear producing thoughts and help you get a better night’s sleep. Ultimately, leaders who can talk about their fears with trusted colleagues find comfort in knowing that they are not alone in their struggle and that it’s not quite as lonely at the top.