Fear can do two things to you.
It can either prevent you from reaching what you want.
Or it can help you pursue what you want.
How fear PREVENTED me from moving forward
It had been almost a year since I left my bank job to find purpose and I was aimless. On the opposite side of the constricting world of corporate is an utter lack of restrictions. If previously I was grounded to earth by the gravity of office hours, stacks of documents and deadlines, leaving my job without a strong direction felt like being in outer space – there was no pressure to keep my body together. I felt like my body would noiselessly disintegrate in every possible direction.
At the time, I was crippled by fear. I just didn’t know it. Fear usually came with cold sweat, trembling hands and an intense fight or flight feeling. I had none of those. Everything felt normal except for my inability to focus on anything.
Around the same time, a job opportunity in a different financial institution opened up but I only had one week to think about it. I was wrought with indecision. Should I continue forging a path in the unknown or go back to the clear road leading to a place I tried so hard to leave in the first place?
There’s an unspoken rule of not spending more than one year outside the corporate world if you want to go back to it. That window was closing fast and so was the job opportunity. As the deadline loomed over me, I finally figured it out.
I was stuck between two worlds. On one hand, I had one foot in the unknown, a commitment sealed by the very action of quitting my job. On the other hand, I still had one foot in the corporate world. The door was still open for as long as I went back before the year was up.
This realisation hit me like a tonne of bricks. I finally knew why I was so hesitant about moving forward, be it spending money on upgrading myself or spending time doing anything. It’s because I constantly had one eye watching that shrinking window leading back to the corporate world. I had quitted my job but mentally, I hadn’t really caught up. I was rooted to the spot, terrified of letting that part of my life go.
The moment I named this fear, I understood it so thoroughly I laughed out loud. What a silly child I was being! A great relief washed over me as I confidently decided to forgo the opportunity in the financial institution. Did I know what to do next? Not really. But I felt like I had a fresh new start. I had completely let go and like it or not, there was no other way to go but forward.
How fear HELPED me come to the conclusion that I needed to risk leaving instead of staying
The mutinous questions came in many small moments.
It came as I went through a PowerPoint slide for the nth time on a Friday evening while eating takeout food and wondered if I were to consistently put this much effort into something that actually mattered to me, where would that take me?
It came on a particularly gray Monday morning when my dad dropped me off to work. He commented, “Wow, look at all these people going into all these tall buildings. They look like ants in anthills.” I was an ant. If I died, another ant would quickly replace me, and would probably churn more PowerPoint slides faster than I could. Some people feel happy knowing they are a part of something big and significant. I felt like I did not matter at all. I was practically a factory worker, working on very specific parts of the final product.
It came to me on a Tuesday morning when I caught myself moaning to my colleague yet again that the weekend wasn’t long enough. Right after complaining, I had a déjà vu – how many times had I said the same thing? It terrified me that every week, I would look forward to the weekend. And in one year, there are only 52 weekends. That meant in one year, I was happy precisely only 52 times. What kind of life was I setting myself up for? This one scared me immensely.
It came to me one evening as I walked through the door and I looked at my mom. I barely saw her during weekdays because I would usually be home by 8pm or 9pm. On weekends, I had to make a choice between spending time with family, friends, my hobbies or just sleep. We live in the same house but I felt like I was neglecting her. And she never complained.
And it came to me during lunchtime as I looked at my nice office environment and felt this surge of fear. What if I close my eyes now, and when I open them, I would be 10 years older and I still had not published my book? I would have the same old excuses. Reporting season is busy. There are some ad hoc tasks. A huge shareholder wants something done now. CEO wants a report now. Now, now, now.
My life, passions, interests, relationships could all wait and fit into 52 weekends and 20 days of annual leave, minus all the sleep debt I had to repay. It felt wrong.
I didn’t choose to leave my job because I thought I was special.
I left because it felt wrong to trade my precious time for a bit of money, a lot of very specific work and a little free time to spend on my personal life. This couldn’t be it. I wanted to find a better way for myself.
Before I knew it, I had accumulated a long list of fears associated with staying in my old job. Leaving felt like the next logical step to take.
Whatever fears I had about leaving, they were less scary than staying.
How to use fear to find your purpose
The reason why I related my two personal experiences above is to show you that your fears can either scare you so much that you stay frozen on the spot for a long, long time. Or it can empower you to make better decisions for yourself.
Fear is a complex human emotion and as such is subject to a lot of misunderstanding.
People often wish to be fearless because they imagine on the other side of fear is the life they’ve always wanted. They perceive fear to be a thing of absolute evil that needs to be vanquished.
But from what I’ve learned, anything human has its pros and cons. While fear is often seen as a debilitating force that stands between you and your ideal life, the aim of this article is to make you see that fear is just another useful tool in your arsenal to help you find your purpose.
Below are the five steps I used to really get to know my fears intimately.
1. You need to view fear from a more friendly perspective
If you think of all the moments when you’ve ever been afraid, you will notice that fear disappears exactly the moment you feel safe. It’s almost like a guardian who appears when you are troubled. Its job is to escort you to a mentally safe place upon which it will retreat until the next time it is again needed.
When you stop looking at fear as something undesirable that you need to get rid of, you will see that it is almost a childlike thing, overly concerned with every little perceived threat it sees. Until you acknowledge its presence, it will poke you and prod you ceaselessly. All it wants is for you to look at it and say, “Yes, I see this threat. Thank you for telling me. Now go sit over there and let me deal with it.”
When utilised correctly, fear can be your rational friend who grounds you to reality and a friend who constantly reminds you to keep pushing forward, even when you’re exhausted. For instance, if I am sick of not earning a stable monthly income and consider going back to the corporate world, my fears will remind me why I left in the first place.
Fear is not a bad presence or a phantom whose sole existence is to torment you.
Fear simply put is survival instinct, and that makes it your ally.
2. You need to pin down your fears and name them
It’s not enough to know that certain situations make your feel anxious. You need to know exactly what you’re feeling and why you feel that way.
Let me give you an example to show why this is important.
Sarah scrolls through her Instagram feed and her gaze falls on a picture of her friend Sophie’s manicured feet facing the sparkling, turquoise waters of Maldives, a coconut tree framing the top right corner of the perfect picture. Right below it, an infuriating ‘What Monday blues?’
Sarah sighs and thinks to herself, “I wish I could leave my job and be a travel writer like Sophie and jet set around the world all year long.”
Then her thoughts shift to how scary it would be to have no income and no plan. Just thinking about it is enough to make her feel anxious. “But I’m not brave like Sophie. It’s never going to happen.”
‘Not being brave’ is Sarah’s explanation for why she cannot do certain things. If you ask me, I would say it’s a lazy kind of explanation. And to be frank, dangerous. These kinds of self-deprecating thoughts are insidious. Over time, this innocent self-remark can grow into a small belief which seeps into other aspects of Sarah’s life. If one day she gets offered a promotion that comes with new challenges, a small part of her might say, “But I don’t feel brave enough. Maybe I shouldn’t do it.”
‘Not brave enough’ is a manifestation of multiple fears. If Sarah were to dig deep enough, she might realise several things about her own fears:
- Sarah needs her current job to pay for her education loan
- Sarah is not exactly a good writer, so being a travel writer actually sounds intimidating
- Sarah prefers travelling for leisure and not for work
If you look at it carefully, it’s not that Sarah isn’t brave enough to be a travel writer. It simply isn’t practical to leave a job that she needs, to do something she’s not good at, while travelling for work, which can be stressful and can take the joy out of travelling in the first place. In a sense, Sarah is being practical.
She would know this if only she would take the time to dissect her own fears, instead of belittling herself by saying she’s not being brave enough.
Naming your fears effectively pins them down for close inspection, making it much easier to work with. Remember, your fears are your allies. You name them in order to acknowledge their presence, so they would stop pestering you and causing you to go on panic mode every time an anxiety-inducing situation comes up.
When you know exactly why you’re anxious and what are the things causing it, the situation stops being a scary unknown. It is now a factual situation which you need to get out of.
When you name your fears, you implement order to your previously chaotic thoughts.
3. Identify your fears within your current context
It is important to consider your fears within context. Sticking to the theme of this month, the context here will be of staying with your job versus leaving. If you go outside this framework, the things that we are afraid of can be endless. You might be deathly afraid of spiders, but unless your current job includes breeding spiders, this would hardly be a relevant thing to consider.
An easy way to compare your fears is to do a simple table as shown below.
Forgive my rather crude points, I just whipped them up quickly for demonstration purposes.
As you can see, I have more fears associated with leaving than I do with staying. But the ones highlighted in red are fears that I perceive to be more intense on my fear gauge.
Some notes about listing down your fears:
i. List as many as you can think of. Last week we did something similar on your values and desires. It’s equally important to know what’s holding you back on top of what drives you.
ii. Be as specific as you can. Instead of writing ‘I’m terrified of having no monthly income’, write this instead:
– Without monthly income, I will have trouble servicing my car loan
– If I lose my car, I will feel miserable because I attach a lot of my self-worth to my car
iii. A good way to clearly see the intensity of your fears is by assigning a score to each fear, with 1 being ‘meh this sucks’ to 10 being ‘ah hell no‘. This will allow you to total up the score to see which scenario freaks you out more.
4. Which of your fears are within your control? Can you do anything about them?
Out of all the fears I’ve listed, being ‘subject to ridicule’ is something I decided to remove from my list. This is because I cannot control what people say or think of me, so there is no sense in spending time thinking about it.
When you create your list of fears, it is a list that you eventually have to tackle one by one. If something is not within your control, why worry? Save your energy on problems that are actually within your power to solve.
Another reason I removed ‘subject to ridicule’ is I’ve realised that most people are too busy worrying about their own problems to ridicule me. The only person obsessed enough with myself to ridicule my every mistake is me. It’s all in my head.
For all the remaining fears, I wrote a comment (in blue) of things I need to do in order to allay my fears.
This step is very important because above all, what we want to avoid is a feeling of helplessness. Writing down what can be done about your fears will give you a sense of control over your life. Removing things out of your control from your list will ensure that you don’t waste brain power on unnecessary things.
5. Which of your fears can you live with?
Once you’re done with your table of fears, there are a number of things you can do with it.
First, you can look for patterns. For instance, in the left column, my comments in blue show that most of the things plaguing me is lack of time. This helped me to decide that the only way for me to take back control of time in my life is to stop giving all of them to my 9-5 job. It doesn’t mean that working for myself is any less busier, but it does mean that I have more flexibility in how my time is spent. Right now, it is 2am and I am finishing up this article so that tomorrow morning I can attend to other business instead of parking my butt in an office for appearance’s sake.
Second, you should highlight which of your fears that score highly in your fear gauge. This is a very personal thing. Don’t let anyone influence you on this one. For instance, I am more concerned with lack of time than lack of money. My dad once commented it’s because I’ve never tasted poverty, so I don’t fully understand the terrors of starvation and complete lack of security to fear not having any money. He said I’ve led such a privileged life that I am able to pursue such lofty things like work-life balance.
I am here to remind you to not feel bad for experiencing fear and desire differently from other people. Sometimes I think the older generation, just for kicks, likes tease the younger ones for not understanding hardship. But weren’t they the ones who gave birth to us and vowed to give us a better life?
True as my father’s statements may be, I will not apologise for being raised the way I was raised. Yes, I am privileged. No, I don’t understand poverty. But I am also fairly confident that if I ever run out of money, I have the education and skills to get a job that can sustain me. I am also confident that my financial literacy will carry me out of the rat race sooner than later.
Third, your highlighted fears will be your catalysts for change. Mine is pretty clear. If I stay in my old job, I cede control of the entirety of my youth, my energy, my optimism, idealism, creativity, my life to a corporation in exchange for money. Contrast this against my biggest fear in leaving and finding purpose on the outside – having my creations deemed worthless – it’s a pretty clear choice for me.
If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate you. This wasn’t the easiest article to write and I’m sure not the easiest to read (perhaps I should come up with a better version in the future).
As a summary, fear can either prevent you from reaching your ideal life or it can help push you towards it. Used correctly, fear can be your friend and a useful tool in determining what your purpose in life should be.
Steps to utilise fear
1. View fear as your ally, not enemy
2. Name your fears and ask them who’s daddy
3. List down ALL of your fears in relation to your current situation versus going for the ideal situation
4. Strike out your fears which are not part of your control and write down what can be done for the remaining ones
5. Decide which of your fears you can and cannot live with
Hopefully at the end of this imperfect exercised, I’ve helped you get more acquainted with your fears.
Please do not expect yourself to be able to do everything at one go. If the tasks seem too insurmountable, just take one thing away from this whole thing: Your fears are your allies. Befriend them and get to know them for they are a part of you.
The more you understand yourself, the better chance you have at finding your purpose.