How I Learned Our “Greatest Fears” Are Nothing But Illusions

Facing the Audience and the Irony of My Own Ignorance

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Terrified, I walked to the podium to deliver my first speech.

It was my junior year in college, and I had no choice. I’d delayed taking Public Speaking as long as I could. The irony was apparent to me. I was a Communications major afraid of public speaking.

Professional surveys and experts alike list “public speaking” as one of humanity’s greatest fears, often listed above spiders, snakes, heights, and even death. None of those other things scared me much but giving a formal speech terrified me.

Public speaking is supposed to be a terrifying experience.

I spread my notecards in front of me. I could do this. I looked out at the audience and an unexpected realization hit me square in the face.

At that moment, looking at my classmates, at nineteen years old, I discovered that I was already an accomplished, experienced “public speaker.” I just didn’t know it.

As far as I knew, I’d never been in a situation where I had to give a speech. Or at least, no one ever told me that I was giving a speechAfter all, “public speaking” is giving these formal speeches in formal situations, right?

By fifteen, I was a leader in my church’s youth group. By seventeen, I was on the paid staff of the largest youth group in the city. Once or twice a week, I stood in front of the group leading activities and talking. At eighteen, I gave a presentation to a state convention of pastors and community leaders about Creative Game Making for Youth.

In high school, I was an Air Force Junior ROTC cadet that had quickly risen to Flight Commander. I stood in front of the classroom almost everyday teaching. The drill team was also under my command, which required directing, motivating, and leading my fellow cadets in parades and at other events.

After my awkward moment of realization, I went on to ace that Public Speaking class and eventually taught Public Speaking at another university.

The Origin of Fear

The fear that I was experiencing while I stood at that podium stemmed from what I was “supposed to feel.” You are supposed to be afraid of public speaking. The teacher had talked about it. Practically everyone in that classroom had experienced the external symptoms of that fear when they stood at the podium — shaking hands, dry mouth, and a crackling voice.

But that fear, like all fears, was ONLY in our minds.

In situations like public speaking, it is easier to understand how all of it stems from our thoughts. Our mind draws on previous speaking experiences, the stories shared by others, the societal narrative of how we should feel, and whatever illusions we allow our brains to create.

Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we create our fears.

Often, we don’t believe that we have any control over our fears. And in the moment of facing those fears, with all the thoughts racing through your mind and physical symptoms appearing, the idea that you are doing this to yourselves seems ludicrous.

I have never been afraid of heights. However, the first time I solo summited a significant mountain, which was the first time that I ever climbed a high peak, I trekked along a very narrow path with drops of a thousand feet on each side of me. A fall would be fatal.

On that summit accent, I was physically unable to walk. I was dizzy, nauseous, and unsteady on my feet. So, I began crawling like a toddler. As the mountain grew narrower near the peak, I dropped further down shuffling on my belly in a military crawl.

My experience of fear was absolutely real to me with absolutely real consequences. If I fell, I would die.

Then something happened as I left the summit. I remained upright and carefully walked back down the same course that I had crawled up only a few hours before. Nothing had changed about the mountain. It was completely the same as it had been before. The only thing that changed was me.

My experience of fear, of falling to my death, was dramatically different after I stood on the summit of a 13,579 ft mountain.

The same had happened in that public speaking class. I understood that my mind generated my reality. It created the fear that I was experiencing.

At nineteen, I could have perceived that audience as a judgmental, scary group, but I saw my fellow students. I felt the value of my years of speaking experience and put them to use in a new situation.

I don’t want to minimize the experience of phobias, trauma, and the terrible things that happen to us. In our minds, the experience of fear stemming from those things feels very real.

However, I want to point to something universal about fear. It is in your mind.

Our thoughts, both conscious and unconscious, create the experience that we call fear. More important than any other point, is that we can overcome our fears, and it may be less complicated than you may think.

Three Steps to Conquer Your Fear Mountain

We’ve created a society that believes we need to spend much of our lives “working on ourselves.” There is no end to the self-improvement and self-help methodologies that can mystically, with enough hard work, fix those broken things inside of us.

But you are not broken. You are working just like you were designed to function. You need to learn how to leverage the fantastic system that is already in place inside of you, and three steps are already in there for you to accomplish that.

  1. Understand that the experience of fear is in your MIND. 
    Your mind is creating the fear that you are experiencing. It creates the mental images, pulls up the memories, generates visions of the future, and is even capable of producing physiological responses in your body. That electro-chemical, neuron-packed mass in your skull is your conduit through which you experience the world.
  2. Realize that your THINKING is driving your experience of fear.
    Fear is not an external event or thing; it is an internal response and process. Our fears are nothing more than our thoughts kicking into overdrive, often producing more fearful thoughts and physiological responses. We may falsely assume that the external event or perceived future event is creating, propelling, and responsible for our fear. However, once you grasp that you, via the process of thought, are the creator of your own fear, you become empowered to deal with it.
  3. Face your fear by changing your THOUGHTS.
    When the experience of fear begins, in a specific situation or just pondering a scenario, you are thinking. Your mind runs 24×7. Occasionally, you are thinking faster than you realize, other times slowly and deliberately. If you believe that something is broken or wrong inside of you, or that you have no control over your own thinking, or that the fear is created outside of you, you’ll spiral further deeper into fear. A simple change in your thinking can radically change your experience of fear.

I’m not suggesting that overcoming deep-rooted or instinctual fears is as easy as flipping a switch. Nor am I recommending that eliminating fear from your life is the goal. Fear exists for good reasons, often has a rational purpose, and serves a purpose. I became fearful of falling after severely injuring my ankle. I was unsteady on my feet. To say that I should erase that fear would be foolish.

Trust your own rational judgment as to what fears you want to conquer and set your own timing.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

One of the biggest challenges for most people is that they want to know how to “face their fears.” We’ve been conditioned to look for mantras, diversions, techniques, therapies, and host of other methods to distract our minds from what’s happening in our own minds.

The answer to the question is to begin again. Go back to step one and start over.

Until you have a conscious awareness and intellectual confidence that your experience of fear is being generated and exists only in your mind and that your thinking is driving your fear experience, you’re trapped distracting yourself and your mind from what’s really happening.

You may be tempted to rely on the methods, sayings, and actions used by others to alleviate their fear. Indeed, those items may temporarily provide symptom relief in specific situations.

However, the more powerful practice is understanding how you experience fear and enabling the producer of our fears, that is your mind, the freedom to create solutions.

Understandably, we may want to experiment with techniques and methods suggested by others. If they contribute to the process of comprehending the total fear experience and assist in changing your thoughts and experience, then those things can be useful, as long as they don’t limit your mind’s capability to creatively solve its own problems.

In particular cases, we may never fully set aside our fear experience, but we will understand it and how it works. That confidence and knowledge enable us to press forward through the fear experience. And then each time we engage with another fear experience, the greater the likelihood that we can press forward.

Whenever fear impeds our ability to live an enjoyable life and to grow as a human, we need to change. Undoubtedly, there may be times when we need professional help to encourage us on our journey, and that’s okay.

Once you learn that you are the creator of your own fear, that it is inside of you, not generated and created by external things or events, you become frighteningly empowered.

Those things you believed that you couldn’t do become the things that you can do, and might even enjoy doing. Whether you’re standing in front of an audience or standing on top of a mountain, the view is even better than you dreamed.