When I was in high school, I wrote a story about monsters that shared the simple secret to dealing with fear. It’s called Little Mae Clark Is Afraid of the Dark.
In the story, Little Mae Clark is watching the shadows, waiting for them to turn into monsters. Monsters, you see, hide in the shadows during the day and wait until nightfall to assume their true forms, sneaking up on their unsuspecting victims. Little Mae Clark is far too knowledgeable to be caught unaware, so she examines shadows scrupulously while imagining in gory detail exactly how the monsters will rip her apart.
How many of us, when faced with the dark shadows of the unknown, also look for monsters by predicting exactly what might go wrong? Like Little Mae Clark, we prefer to be suspecting victims, so we anticipate scary outcomes and envision them in gory detail.
Many of my clients come to me with well-developed scenarios in their heads about what might happen if they try to answer their calling: They might never find it. They might not be good at it. They might be laughed at and ridiculed. They might make no money at it. They might make the wrong decision and find yet another career they hate. They might waste time or money. They might fail. They might disappoint their loved ones. They might find out they have nothing worthwhile to contribute to this world.
And many of them have already imagined in vivid detail just how devastated, desperate, unworthy, disappointed, or regretful they’re going to feel.
No wonder they’re terrified to take the next step.
The thing is, these clients, like Little Mae Clark, are fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of monsters.
Here’s what you really need to know about those terrible creatures lurking in the dark:
1. Human beings are terrible at accurately identifying monsters.
We think we know what threats await us, but we’re very often quite wrong–probably because the dark, by nature, is unknowable.
No matter how real a monster feels, and no matter how vividly we can envision it attacking us, we are still unable to actually predict the future.
When I started business school, I had no background in business and was sure that I would be confused, overwhelmed, and possibly humiliated by my inability to keep up with everyone else. When I actually got to classes, however, I soon realized that business is basically common sense and I have plenty of that; I was quite able to keep up with my classes and graduated among the top of my class.
We also tend to forget that the unknown can bring good things as well as bad. We forget that there are literally an infinite number of ways something could work out well, and we convince ourselves that the few scenarios we’ve imagined in our heads are the only ones that could come to pass.
The thing is, I’ve had clients find happiness is places they never even thought to look before they started coaching. And I’ve seen over and over again how often things turn out far better than what we initially imagine.
We’re terrible predictors of which shadows will turn into monsters. We can’t really know what’s possible or what will happen unless we get out in the world and try it—actually reaching out to that person, going out and sharing our work with the world, or taking action to ask for what we want.
Every terror we predict before we try is just an imaginary monster. And imaginary monsters, though frightening, have no ability to harm us.
2. Real monsters are far rarer than we think.
I would almost call real monsters an endangered species. Yes, bad things happen. All the time. And no, nothing ever goes exactly as we’d like. That’s been true our whole lives. And yet, we’re all still here. We’ve survived. Somehow we’ve made it through.
I was recently working with a client who enjoys photography and had taken pictures of a friend of a friend’s wedding. She wanted to share the photos with her network on Facebook but was nervous to do so. She could imagine people ignoring or—worse—criticizing her work. In her head, Facebook was crawling with monsters. So she kept putting it off even though she knew it was something she wanted to do.
We talked about what was actually likely to happen if she put herself and her work out in the world: a lot of people would likely enjoy and appreciate her photos, and a small number probably would not. Realizing those few detractors would not define her or her talents, she found the courage to share her work.
Lo and behold, it was very well received. Lots of people liked and commented on her page and her photographs. Most everyone she invited to like her page did. Many people she didn’t know had good things to say. And the family of the bride and groom were very excited to see additional photos and interacted with them quite a bit. My client got valuable feedback that her photographs were not only good and well-liked, but also much appreciated.
Monsters are like sharks—they certainly exist, but you’re more likely to be killed by a vending machine than by a real-life monster.
3. Monsters are vegetarian.
Little Mae Clark knows a lot about monsters, but she forgets the most important fact of all about them: they’re all unquestionably vegetarian.
That’s not to say that there aren’t things out there that can hurt us; there most certainly are. But the truth of the matter is, they’re hardly ever as painful as we think they’re going to be. Normally our anticipation is far worse than our actual experience. And even when the experience is bad, we will always have the choice of how we respond to it.
When I decided to move back to Atlanta after living in San Francisco for 15 years, I had a lot of concerns: What if it was too hot, there were too many mosquitos, or there was too much traffic? What if I didn’t make any new friends? What if my family was more annoying than I remembered?
Fortunately I knew enough to not let my fear of monsters stop me from moving in the direction of my calling.
After settling into my new city, here’s what I learned about the monsters I imagined:
- Atlanta is too hot, there are too many mosquitos, and there is too much traffic. Atlanta also has warm nights, beautiful sunsets, lots of trees and birds and squirrels, bike paths, front porches, and many other things I love. In the face of all that, the heat, mosquitos, and traffic are annoying, but not disastrous.
- It is hard to start over in a new city without friends. There are times when I feel lonely. Yet I have made friends, I found lots of sources of support, and I make it through the lonely times just fine.
- My family can and does annoy me at times. And I annoy them. Sometimes we even fight. But we work through it, and we still manage to love, support, and show up for each other over and over again.
- There are ways to approach and deal with the negative elements that make them manageable.
Like a storm cloud that looks terribly dark on the horizon but inevitably lightens as it comes closer, most of the monsters we imagine are not so bad once we actually meet them.
Many of them even have a thing or two to teach us to help us take the next step on our path. Some of my best teachers, the ones who did the most to help me get to where I wanted to go, have been the monsters that appeared in front of me.
Perhaps instead of fearing monsters, we can be curious about them. We can acknowledge that we don’t know what will come, and we can investigate rather than anticipate. We can recognize that whatever comes will be neither all good or all bad, but rather a mixture of both. And we can trust our ability to handle whatever arises, good or bad, and look for ways to learn from it.
Like Little Mae Clark, we may find that when we recognize their true nature, monsters can actually become good friends.
And what about you? When have you worried about something that turned out to be less scary than you imagined? What helps you feel the fear and move forward anyway?
Please leave a comment and let me know.
***Photo credit: Frank Zander