Fear is a terrible thing. It keeps us from trying and doing things that we are really quite capable of doing. It can damage our relationships (fear of intimacy), limit our career success (fear of failure) and keep us awake at night (fear of almost everything). As the author of six books, who has spoken to more than a million people around the world, I want to confess that I had a crippling fear of flying, which was not a good thing. As a speaker and consultant, I had to fly almost every week. It wasn’t easy.
My fear of flying — particularly at night — was not the kind of anxiety many people feel when hurtling through the air at 500 miles an hour in a piece of metal heavier than a fleet of cars. I would think about my flights constantly — days, often weeks in advance. I struggled when giving talks at conferences because all I could think about was the dreaded flight home.
I lost income when I turned down business opportunities that could work only if I took a night flight. I drove long distances to avoid flying after dark and put myself in danger. For example, while I was driving one snowy night because I was afraid of flying, I almost got hit head on by a large truck.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that flying is the safest form of transportation, I would look around at other people on my flights and wonder how they could be so deluded as to relax at 35,000 feet!
Steps to Conquering Fear
Conquering a fear always requires a few important steps: The first for me was to confront what my fear was costing me. Often, when we are afraid of something, we think our fear is protecting us — but it’s also costing us. Yes, my fear of flying protected me from plane crashes — but it also kept me from doing interesting work, I lost out on learning opportunities, and turned down great opportunities to meet new people all because of my fears about flying.
To help me move forward, I made a list of all the benefits of flying, like what it could do for my career and income, the miles I’d accumulate for later use, etc. I weighed the potential benefits against the "protection" I was receiving by giving into my fear.
The second thing I had to do was face reality. A friend suggested I do the research. I discovered that flights were no more likely to crash at night. I soon discovered that the more I learned about flying, the safer it seemed. For example, I was more afraid of flying at night because I had convinced myself these flights were more dangerous. Every time I refused to take a night flight my fear grew, feeding the belief that the fear was keeping me safe. The thing about fear is that every time we give into it, the fear grows.
That led to the third step: Doing the thing you fear. I finally took one of those night flights. Fears tend to melt when we do the thing we fear. It’s not easy, but I forced myself to fly and, at the same time, learned techniques to relax my body. It took some time but after taking scores of flights, flying became as normal for me as riding a bus.
I think most fears can be overcome this way — if you are afraid of intimacy, open your heart a little more; if you are afraid of public speaking, gather your courage and give a few talks. Trust me, every time I refused to take a flight, the fear grew but every time I took a flight my confidence grew.
What Do We Really Fear?
The final step is asking what we are really afraid of. I’ve come to believe that our fears are often not about the thing we think we fear. I was not afraid of flying so much as I was afraid of an untimely death. I had unfinished business in my life; I associated flying with the risk that I would die before I had lived my life the way I wanted to live it. For example, I was too focused on work and during turbulent flights would think, "I don’t want to die without having made relationships a priority."
When I started living as I wanted to, the fear subsided. This is often the case. I have a friend who has a full-time job and is running a large nonprofit organization in his spare time. He says he is afraid to leave the "secure job" — but once he thought about it honestly, he realized what he really fears is that if he quits his job, he can no longer use it as an excuse for why the nonprofit isn’t growing. He is afraid of looking bad, not of losing the paycheck.
And what about this author and motivational speaker who missed flights and drove all those dangerous miles in cars to avoid "death"? It has been more than 10 years since I got the fear in check and yes, there are still occasional white-knuckle moments. But I am now a million-mile flier in three different airline programs and I fly day or night all around the world. My career and my life are better because I did not let the fear rule me.