This is the second post in a three-part series on Fear and Courage. While this post is designed to stand alone, you can get caught-up by reading Fear: The Invisible Prison of the Mind.
If you could be dipped into a vat of radioactive liquid and granted any comic book superpower, what would you choose? The ability to fly? Invulnerability to everything but Kryptonite? Laser vision? Personally, I’d love to be able to learn how to do anything perfectly after watching just once. Since, unfortunately, I’ve never met a vat of radioactive liquid that wouldn’t also kill you 10 times out of 10, however, I want to talk about a superpower that all humans are born with, but don’t always fully utilize: self-awareness.
Self-awareness is our ability to examine our own character, emotions, motives, and desires. It’s an important part of any good definition of what separates humans from machines and artificial intelligences (at least for now). In a lot of senses, self-awareness is also what differentiates humans from animals: rather than continuously react to our environment, we seem to have the ability to step out of situations, self-examine, and proactively choose a response. We literally have the ability to think about our thoughts–otherwise known as metacognition in psychology–which, when you think about it, is pretty damn mind-blowing. (No pun intended.)
Our self-awareness plays an important role in our lives on multiple levels: it’s what allows us to identify our emotions, it’s what gives us the choice in how we respond to events in our daily lives, and it’s what allows us to ask deeper questions about our lives and our motivations. Developing a sense of self-awareness can be helpful for understanding and promoting virtually any quality of mind: among other things, it allows us to understand when and why we feel lazy so that we can foster discipline; it allows us to understand when and why we despair so that we can learn to persevere; and it allows us to understand when and why we feel afraid so that we can cultivate courage.
Developing self-awareness requires that we question ourselves and our motives. We must first acknowledge that virtually every action we take represents a choice, conscious or subconscious. Then we must ask ourselves why we choose what we choose, and ask why again and again until we understand the deeper motivations behind our choices. This process can, however, be difficult, and, for some, it can be downright terrifying to question deeply. Sometimes in the short-term this process leads to more questions than answers, and the ensuing uncertainty can be overwhelming. Ironically, it takes a certain amount of courage to even ask ourselves questions like “what does it mean to live a good life?” because occasionally we’ll find that the answers aren’t congruent with the how we’ve chosen to live our lives. Sometimes it’s easier to banish the questions and change nothing than to acknowledge that we are not living way we hope to. In the long-term, however, giving ourselves license to ask these questions even when we don’t have the answers or don’t like the ones we find builds self-awareness and helps us to lead more authentic, and therefore happier lives.
Self-awareness of Fear
While self-awareness can help us understand and identify complex emotions, most of our emotions can be generalized as extensions of two primary emotions: hope and fear. Ultimately, therefore, our choices are made from either a place of hope or a place of fear. For example, someone who has had a bad romantic experience, and lets that experience color all of their future romantic entanglements may make choices out of the fear of being hurt again rather than the hope that they will find a love that is fulfilling and true. Similarly, someone who has tried and failed to accomplish something may choose to give up out of the fear that they will continue to fail rather than the hope that they will eventually succeed.
The essential question we seek to answer when confronting fear is: what would I do if I weren’t afraid? If self-questioning and self-awareness come easy to you, answers to this question may come naturally. If not, don’t fret–I have another trick up my sleeve for you to try.
Sometimes fear is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we struggle to connect with our hopes, and so can’t imagine an alternative to fear. When this happens, we can either wait it out–all emotions are transient, including fear, and so will pass if we don’t give them time and don’t actively hold on to them–or we can use a mental exercise called visualization. Both options are often paired with a meditation practice, but a full overview of the power of meditation and how to start your own practice is out of the scope of this post. (Check back in the future for a separate post on that topic.) For now, this simple exercise should suffice for the purposes of combating our fears and reconnecting with our hopes:
- Find a comfortable place to sit down where you won’t be bothered or interrupted, and where you won’t feel subconscious about what you’re doing.
- Sit comfortably, but erect. Leave your hands comfortably on your legs or in your lap. Keep your eyes open for now.
- I’m going to ask you to close your eyes so you can visualize without sensory distractions, but if you’re too comfortable you might fall asleep (been there, done that), and if you’re not comfortable enough you’ll be distracted by your posture.
- Take 10 slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, paying attention to the physical sensations of the air filling your chest and lungs.
- The purpose of the breathing is to relax and calm you. Paying attention to the physical sensations grounds you in the present, and helps you to focus your mind and your senses on what you’re doing rather than on random thoughts or on the world around you.
- Return to breathing normally in and out through your nose and close your eyes. Maintain your focus on the breathing by thinking “in” as you breath in and “out” as you breath out. Do this 10 times before you move on.
- We’re now lowering the focus on the breathing, but still trying to maintain it as a loose touch point to keep you present and grounded in the exercise. Closing your eyes helps to block out additional visual distractions as we ease into it.
- Recall a time when something really good happened that made you feel powerful or unstoppable (e.g. I often think back to hearing the news that I landed my first job out of college).
- We’re going to take this feeling, and use the human brain’s awesome power to replay and reexperience memories of emotions as if you were experiencing the same thing now. Essentially, if you’ve ever been in a state of mind where you felt less afraid because you felt powerful, you can always get back there by visualizing and replaying those emotions.
- Imagine that feeling embodied as liquid sunlight. Everything it touches, it soothes, cools, and infuses with that feeling of power. Visualize that liquid sunlight entering and then sort of filling the body from above your head, starting with each of your toes, then up your legs, then your stomach, torso, arms, and finally filling your head until it overflows out of you.
- As you visualize the feeling filling your body and overflowing, what it’s actually doing is permeating through your mind, amplifying that replayed emotion and fixing it squarely in your mind.
- Now, with your eyes still closed, stop focusing on the visualization, and just let your mind do whatever it wants for the next 20-30 seconds.
- This time is so that your mind can just get used to resting and being in that emotional space we’ve just created.
- Open your eyes to conclude the visualization. Now that you hopefully feel less afraid, ask yourself whatever question you were struggling with again and see what answers you come up with.
Even just having the self-awareness to recognize that we are influenced by fear loosens its hold on us. However, once we know that fear manipulates our actions, we have two choices: we can accept the fear and the boundaries it creates in our lives–sometimes in the face of unacceptable real risk or danger, this is preferable and rational–or we can decide that something we value is more important than avoiding fear.
In accepting fear, it’s worth pointing out that as we build more courage our perspective of what is too terrifying, too risky, or too dangerous can change. What’s impossibly scary today could be very manageable in the future, and the only way to really know is to cultivate courage so you have as much perspective as you can when faced with something that scares you. However, there is a difference between courage and recklessness: courage is facing fear and taking a potential risk when fear is irrational or when something we value or hope for is truly more important than the danger we expose ourselves to; recklessness is putting ourselves and others in real danger just for the sake of it and without principle or reason to guide us. Courage is a virtue; recklessness is a vice.
Cultivating courage, however, will be the topic of next week’s final post in this series. Stay tuned for that, and in the meantime in the comments below tell me: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?
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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of my favorite books, and contains much of what powers my personal philosophy today. The first time I read it, it blew my mind, change my perspective, and ultimately altered the course of my life. The first habit, Be Proactive, has a lot of echoes to the concepts of self-awareness. Stephen Covey claims that the space between stimulus and response is what makes us human and gives us choice. I’ve expanded on this concept to place self-awareness in this space.
Headspace is a mindfulness and meditation app that’s gained a lot of popularity recently. Despite my parents insisting that I try various forms of meditation for years before I found it, Headspace is what really got me into meditation. Rather than frame meditation as a spiritual practice (which it does not have to be), Headspace frames it as a set of mental exercises that help us to learn and maintain different states of mind.