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Battling the beast: Facing fear with purpose and passion

As a part-time adjunct faculty member at a dental hygiene school, I recently had the privilege of meeting a new class of students. I looked out at a lot of new faces that were filled with fear, or at least discomfort.

The reality is that over the course of our hygiene programs, fear occasionally (probably more than occasionally) showed up to join us on our journey. I’m sure that anyone reading this who has been in a similar program knows what I’m talking about. Although it’s been many years since I was a student in dental hygiene, I can vividly remember my fear.

Last month, I wrote an article about things I learned when I transitioned from traditional clinical practice. I talked about how fear is a real passenger on that journey. This got me thinking about how occasional periods of fear have accompanied me throughout my career. Facing challenges that were uncomfortable for me was important. Pushing past fear is a necessary part of growth and development.

It doesn’t always have to be pushing past big stuff either. I think about the times I was afraid to ask for a raise or I avoided difficult conversations. There were countless times when I didn’t speak up for myself for fear of rocking the boat or causing someone to be angry with me. I think about the times I overthought career decisions and ended up feeling stuck in environments that no longer suited me because of my fear of the unknown.

Fear is a funny thing. It can protect us from danger, but it can also prevent us from living up to our full potential. It can stop us from taking the shots we should take, saying the things we should say, doing the things we should do, living the life we were meant to live, and most importantly, being who we are meant to be. Fear can also cause us to be less than truthful with ourselves. Sometimes we tell ourselves stories about why something is not possible simply because it’s easier than having to face the discomfort.

I've learned over the past few years to face fear with a more open mind and I've reaped greater rewards. The best way for me to explain this is through a story with the lessons I learned woven throughout. This was one of my pivotal life moments. For me, these  events shape and change how I perceive the world or myself. It’s these moments that stay with us and carry messages that universally apply to so much in our lives.

About five years ago, I spent more of my time on personal development work. I felt ready to approach life differently. One of the areas I really wanted to focus on was fear. I tended to overthink too many things in my life, and my first instinct was to look at what could go wrong. I would then feel so overwhelmed with the prospect of moving forward that procrastination was my greatest defense. This pattern was feeling more and more career- and life-limiting.

Lesson #1: Do your pre-work. Have a better understanding of what limits you. Decide what is important to you, what you want, and how you can get there.

As part of my path toward self-discovery and growth, one day I decided that I was going to take my non-daredevil self, hop on a tiny plane, and literally take a leap. Sure, lots of people have gone tandem skydiving. Most of those people, however, “aren’t like me”. At least that’s what I told myself for years. I was the person who was certain that even as much as I always wanted to do it, that type of adventure was not for me. What would people think? What if I got all the way there and couldn’t go through with it? What if something bad happened? What if . . . Those words can stop you dead in your tracks when you're faced with opportunities. I realized that this same type of thinking affected so many of the things I did, and more importantly, did not do over the course of my life. 

Lesson #2: Set goals that mean something to you and that challenge you.

Lesson #3: Talk to yourself using the same kindness, compassion, and encouragement that you would use if you were talking to someone else that you care about.

I committed to do this adventure with two coworker friends, so no matter what I was feeling, my sense of responsibility and accountability to them was a stronger force. The only other people who knew I was planning to skydive were my husband and son. I had a feeling that if I told too many people (particularly certain people), their fears and concerns would potentially affect my ability to push through. I call it “static.” This might come from a place of caring, but it can drown out what is right for you. It can be very easy to be talked out of doing things we're afraid of, even things that can be good for us.

Lesson #4: Find others who can support you and help to keep you accountable.

Lesson #5: Rise above the static and noise that plays into your fears. Trust yourself.

On what I can only describe as a perfect day with a bright blue sky, I had a stranger strapped to my back like a backpack, and I tumbled 14,500 feet to earth. In that moment, I was no longer willing to be the story I told about myself. I decided that although fear is always going to be around, it doesn’t have to be in the driver’s seat on the journey of my life. Now don’t get me wrong, you won’t see me driving 100 miles per hour down the highway, avoiding paying my taxes, or jumping in a white van that says “free candy and Wi-Fi.”

Lesson #6: It’s more about pursuing what you want and taking calculated risks, even when they feel scary, even when you think you could fail, and even when you have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. Instead of asking yourself, "What if I fail?" ask yourself, "What if I don’t?"

You probably have the visual of me heroically leaping out of that plane without a shadow of fear. Let me set the record straight in that nothing could be farther from the truth. I was shaking during the whole ascent, and my mouth was dry as I was numbly listening to my tandem diver shouting instructions in my ear as he tightened the harnesses that were my lifeline. In the “souvenir video” (I like to call it the hard proof), there is absolute horror on my face as we hovered in the open doorway of that plane. Everything below looked so small, so non-discernible, so uncertain. Strangely, I could relate that exact same visual to many other moments in my life when I was paralyzed with fear. This time, I pushed through.

Once I crossed that threshold, everything changed in an instant. Horror was immediately replaced with joy. For someone who only seconds before had thought she was going to die, I felt completely alive and at peace. I've never seen the world like that before and the image is locked into my mind’s eye. It’s a beautiful reminder of all that is possible with a little courage.

Lesson #7: There is a whole lot of wonderful on the other side of fear, you just have to pass through the door to get to it.

I replay that diving scene anytime I'm faced with a challenge or obstacle that stops me in fear. I remember that the threshold was a crazy scary place, but once I passed it, all of that fear was gone. It was replaced with confidence. I was fulfilling a dream and conquering what I thought was impossible.

Lesson #8: We are the stories we tell about ourselves, so make them good ones.

Since then, I've taken far more chances in my life to pursue what I want—from little things to big things. I have taken strides in my career that at one time would have stopped me dead in my tracks. I’m more direct in conversation. I’m more apt to ask for what I want or need. I’m no longer paralyzed with the fear of not being perfect. I’m more at ease to go after what I want. I’m less afraid to admit when something or someone touches my heart. I’m less worried about what people are thinking. What I learned is that although not all the outcomes go my way, there is always something gained, something learned. Most importantly, there is the feeling of knowing that I tried, instead of the regret of wondering what could have been.

My best advice is to step out of your comfort zone more often. Nothing good grows there. Do something that you want to do or need to do that makes you a little uncomfortable. The courage it takes is like a muscle; the more you use it the stronger it gets. I was recently listening to a recording of a speech by Ronald Reagan. He said, “Give me a challenge and I will meet it with joy. The future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted. It belongs to the brave.” These are words to live by.

Julie Whiteley, BS, RDH, is certified in human resources. She holds degrees in business administration and dental hygiene and has worked extensively in both fields. She is on the faculty of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University in Boston. Julie bridges her knowledge and experience from business, clinical hygiene, and teaching to deliver information and programs that enhance dental practices. Contact her at [email protected].