So here I am. Afraid of heights and 1,353 feet above the ground, towering over the Chicago skyline. My knees are weak, my palms are sweaty, and the knot in my stomach is climbing into my throat. I take a baby step closer to the edge, making sure to keep my weight back as I peer slightly down. My wife asks if I’m ready, but I can hardly find the breath to mutter out ‘one sec…’. I inch closer. Just then, another body quickly shoves past me, shifting my balance and filling my body with pure terror.
The 10 year old girl that ran past me is quickly followed by four of her friends who immediately start jumping and doing handstands on the glass floor of the Willis Tower observation deck.
This hilarious and somewhat embarrassing experience prompted a thought process in me that has completely transformed the way that I handle fear. The following four questions are now what I ask myself any time I find myself in a situation where I am feeling afraid. Whether we are afraid of making a phone call to a new business prospect, have a fear of rejection when asking for a raise, afraid of public speaking, etc. everyone experiences some form of fear on a daily basis.
Some fear of course is justified and can help to keep us safe from true danger. More often than not however, fear is the barrier that keeps us from reaching our true potential. The following four questions will help you determine the validity of your fear, and what action to take next.
1. What am I afraid of?
2. What is the worst that can happen?
3. What do I (or those I care about) stand to gain?
4. How will I feel when this is over?
What am I afraid of?
This question helps you get to the heart of the issue. When I saw those girls push past me and start dancing around on the glass floor this is the first question that popped into my head. I realized there are so many other people stepping out on to this glass floor without thinking twice, what is it in my mind that is preventing me from being quite as at ease? When it came down to it I found out I was actually afraid of falling. Can you believe that? We’re talking about an enclosed deck that is heavily reinforced and specifically built for people to walk on.
This is why defining exactly what you are afraid of is so important – it really puts everything into perspective. It can help you see that what is holding you back may be so completely ridiculous that you are embarrassed to admit what it truly is.
What is the worst that can happen?
Once you’ve defined the true identity of the fear that you’re experiencing, simply move on to considering outcomes.
When it finally became clear to me that falling through the glass floor of Willis Tower was not really in the cards, I started thinking about worst case scenarios. Quite honestly all I could come up with was the embarrassment of my reaction if I were to venture to the edge and cower back. Perhaps it would cause a few snickers and judgmental looks from strangers to see a grown man afraid of something so safe. So the absolute worst that could happen if I were to step out on to the glass floor would be a bruised ego. I can deal with that.
What do I (or those I care about) stand to gain?
When we take risks, we grow. This is true no matter the outcome. When we take risks for new experiences we gain new information about the world and about ourselves, so with every experience good and bad we gain something positive. Facing down a fear will always produce an outcome, so now it’s time to define what that outcome could be.
As a photographer, I knew that stepping out on to that ledge would provide an incredible perspective of the Chicago skyline and the streets below. This was the most obvious potential gain I had going for me – a really unique set of photos. The other driving benefit was that I could share this beautiful view with my wife, who is much more fearless in these situations. It was a great opportunity to add a wonderful experience to our relationship, which places very high on my personal list of values.
How will I feel when this is over?
This question can be the most powerful – and more often than not help lead you to the right decision if you haven’t figured out what to do yet.
In my mind I placed myself back in our hotel room later in the day. When comparing walking away to just going for it and stepping out I was overwhelmed with the obvious answer. I would feel so defeated if I chose not to do it. I actually started feeling miserable just thinking about missing out on this opportunity to grow. I realized how happy and proud of myself I would feel if I went through with it. At that point it wasn’t even a question anymore, I had to step out onto that glass.
It is important to note that the physical sensations of fear didn’t just go away when I realized how incredibly silly my fear was – but most significantly they became irrelevant in my mind. So with weak knees and sweaty palms, I clutched my camera in one hand and my wife’s hand in the other and stepped out. Looking out, up, and even down, I took it all in – and to this day I am forever grateful for that experience to grow and face my fears.
So, the next time you are in a situation where your fear has you paralyzed, do yourself a favor and ask these four questions. The experience that you’re afraid of may be just the thing you need.