How to take action when you are afraid

cut through fear-based inaction

Let’s talk about how to take action when you are afraid. By that, I mean stalling on something you know you need to do but you are afraid to do it.

Have you ever neglected to take action or make a decision based on your fear about what would happen if you did? It seems like a natural part of the human experience.

I have. I do it too often. But over time, and with experience, I’ve learned how to take action when I am afraid.

  • We don’t speak up in a meeting because we think what we have to say isn’t insightful enough.
  • We don’t stand up to someone who takes advantage of us because we fear how they will react.
  • We skip going for a run because we are afraid it won’t be perfect. (As an aside, have we defined what “perfect” means? Elusive fears based on elusive definitions are illegitimate. But I am getting ahead of myself.)

The scenarios are endless. The problem is often the same: choosing, either actively or passively, to not take action because the unknown consequence is too scary.

Fortunately, I’ve had moments of clarity that allow me to punch holes in that counterproductive mindset. I want to share a story with you about an important turning point that began to teach me what I’ve learned about cutting through fear-based inaction.

Some scenarios on taking action when you are afraid

I’m sure we could all fill in numerous examples of times we’ve let fear keep us from taking the action we wanted to take.

… Agreeing to work a weekend because you’re afraid you’ll get fired if you say no (a story on that below)

… Failing to speak up when you see a friend making poor choices that may harm them down the road

… Getting into a relationship with someone that doesn’t meet your standards, for fear that you won’t find anyone else

… Having an unshakeable feeling that you’ll fail at a goal you have in mind, so you don’t even try

What is yours?

A question to ask

I’ve come to realize that it is often the fear of the unknown that keeps us cowering in inaction. Our current circumstance, as undesirable as it might be, is still a known commodity. There is comfort in knowing what happens next. We talk ourselves into believing that knowing is better than having something unknown blow up in our faces.

An exercise that is helpful is to ask the question, “What if?” – then answer it.

What if I have that difficult conversation? What will happen?

Then you can outline the possible outcomes — starting with the most feared (which is often blown out of proportion), and listing the potential varieties.

If I tell my friend that I don’t appreciate _______ behavior, maybe she will:

1) Scream at me, stomp away, and never talk to me again. (How likely is that?)

2) Get defensive, maybe hurl an insult back at me in retaliation for her hurt pride.

3) Remain silent. Awkward silence for a long time.

4) Get upset initially, then come back around and realize that it’s not a big deal. Maybe, she’ll realize that you provided some helpful information. Who knows? Perhaps she’ll eventually thank you for it!

If you take the time to outline the potential reactions, the next step is to think about how you’d react to each, and what the ultimate outcome might be. That way, you are prepared for each.

You might find, upon taking the time to do that exercise, that #1 is highly unlikely (if it’s likely, congratulations — you’ve saved yourself the trouble of a toxic, unstable friend), and #2-4 are only mildly uncomfortable for a short amount of time.

Then, the awkwardness is passed, and you’ve scored two victories:

  • You’ve let your friend know how you feel — which could improve your relationship
  • You’ve triumphed over the fear monster

Progress, not perfection: take action when you are afraid – a little bit at a time

If you’re not in the habit of showing your fear that YOU are in charge, not it, then taking action against it is going to be intimidating at first. That is OK. We all have to start somewhere.

I can recall a time when I had, in my fear and timidity, agreed to work on a weekend as a result of the manipulative bullying tactic of my supervisor at the time. Later that afternoon, I was having a lunch break with a friend and recounting the situation and my bitterness about it. This was hardly the first time I’d been strong-armed into a working weekend.

I remembered that I had other plans and commitments for the weekend, and that I didn’t actually have the time to do the work project also. So I had to choose which one to back out on. I knew I needed to choose my first commitment, and stand up to my boss.

My friend helped talk me through what to say, and we practiced role playing. I still remember almost hyperventilating as I imagined how the conversation would go with my boss. I’ll never forget her saying to me, “You can do it. It’ll be OK.” I clung to those words with all my might.

So what happened next??

As I returned to the office, with shaky hands, I approached my boss.

“Hey, I know I said I could work this weekend, but I remembered I have some other things I have committed to already ….. (looking down, shaky voice) so …. I’m sorry, but I can’t after all.”

Resume eye contact. Disapproving glare from the boss. Awkward silence. Then he made some kind of remark about how I was putting the company’s revenue in jeopardy, and walked off.

That’s it. No instant firing, no yelling tirade. Just one last attempt at manipulation. He knew he couldn’t make me work the weekend, so there was nothing he could do if he decided not to fire me.

It took a few minutes for my shakiness to settle down.

But what replaced it was a sense of satisfaction and glee that I could not have imagined if I’d neglected to stand up for myself.

That was progress. Which lead to improvement.

Taking that first step was the most difficult. Once I saw that the outcome for being assertive was far more desirable than cowering in the status quo out of fear, guess what?

I became assertive more often. I pushed back when unrealistic demands were made of me. Not in defiance, but specific counters with more realistic standards communicated and requested. Here is an example.

“OK, boss – you want this project done by the end of the day? It’s going to take me at least three hours to get it done. It’s 3 p.m. right now, and you also wanted ___ to get done. I have to leave by 6 p.m., so which should I finish today?” (In the absence of that type of conversation, it was assumed by default that everything would be done that day.)

That is my story. It began a journey of discovery in facing my fears. I don’t say that I’ve got it all figured out now, but I’ve come a long way from the terrified, overworked salaried employee from the past.

I would love to hear your story of what you’ve accomplished, or what you hope to accomplish on that front.

Summary & Conclusion

If you take just one thing away from this article, I hope it is that taking action when you are afraid begins with acknowledging the fear of the unknown. Sometimes when we are frozen and unable to move forward, we neglect to analyze the fear and say it out loud. Or write it down, or whatever your process is.

Acknowledging it is the first step to stripping it of its power over you.

In the case I mentioned above, my unknown fear was how my boss would react when I told him no. I was letting my fear of the inevitable conflict and unpleasantness force me into a situation that was even less pleasant.

But that was a nugget of wisdom that I only gained in hindsight. After I took the action I dreaded.

Maybe you’ve been putting off starting a weight loss program, or giving up alcohol or breaking up with someone. Identify that fear, and call it out. Are you afraid it will be difficult? The bad news is, it probably will be. The good news is, the victory you have yet to witness on the other side of taking action will be worth it. All things worth doing or having take effort.

The steps, as I see them, are:

  1. Acknowledging your fear
  2. Defining it (what specifically am I afraid of?)
  3. Thinking through the possibilities that may happen
  4. Deciding how you will handle each of the potential outcomes
  5. Taking action

As a good friend of mine often says, “There ain’t nothing to it, but to do it.”

Thank you for reading this post! As always, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Have a fantastic day!

2 responses to “How to take action when you are afraid”

  1. Excellent advice, Summer! Based on inspiration I received after reading this wonderful blog post, I’m going to personally face a specific fear…and act on it! (I’ll let you know what happens.)

    1. Sounds great, Vive! I can’t wait to hear more!

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