I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year. Mainly because I kinda just forgot. I’ve sort of decided to start going for a ten minute walk every lunch time, after reading and writing so many articles on the impact of exercise on your mental state. Life changing stuff, I know. Anyway, a couple of years ago I made what I thought was a pretty cool New Year’s resolution which I’ve tried to stick to ever since. My promise to myself was simply that I would not make any decisions in my life based on fear.
Let me explain that a little. I’m sure at some point you’ve found yourself making a major life decision where in your head you’ve known what the right thing to do was but you went with the other option because it was safer and had less potential for causing you pain or distress. Or maybe you can remember a time when you were faced with two choices and tried to weight up the pros and cons in a logical way but ended up making the decision based on a gut feeling of apprehension about the option you saw to be “riskier”.
Well a few years back I found myself doing that sort of thing a lot. For all kinds of big and small life decisions, from applying for jobs to calling people on the phone, I would know in my head that stepping out and being bold was the right thing to do but… I just wouldn’t want to (I used to be quite afraid of calling people on the phone. Not so much anymore. Two years working in a call centre will do that for you). And it was amazing what kinds of mental summersaults of logic my fear would do to convince me that I was acting rationally, when in reality I was basically just wussing out a lot of the time.
So I decided to do something about it. I resolved that as of that year (2014 I think) I would not make any decision based on fear. As in, I wouldn’t listen to that voice in my head telling me to go for the safer choice by default. Or that irrational sense of unease that was pulling me back from doing things I knew to be right. The idea was that I could learn to use my emotional response to a situation as part of my decision making process, but not as the whole thing. My natural fear of risks would just be one more factor for me to consider when weighing things up.
That was the plan. Have I always succeeded? Good grief no! It’s blummin’ hard! Fear is hard-wired to override logical thinking and conscious reasoning. That’s literally what it’s for- the fight or flight response evolved to make you run from sabre toothed tigers and giant scorpions and velociraptors and other such situations where you didn’t have time to stop and consider the logical possibility that maybe this particular prehistoric fiend just wanted to chat. So putting that innate, base-level fear to one side is tricky. Especially in real-time scenarios where you don’t have time to deliberate and get existential enough to separate yourself from your emotional responses.
So it’s still definitely a work in progress. But I can definitely see the good that’s come from this way of thinking. Here’s a cool example that happened yesterday. I decided that I was being underpaid for a particular project I was working on so began considering asking my client for a raise. I drafted an email explaining that I was working well below the average rate and politely suggesting a modest increase. I showed that draft to a couple of people who agreed it was well written and convincing. I knew that this particular client thought I was great and was very happy with my work, so I was confident that the very worst thing that would happen would be that he’d just say “no” and we’d get straight back to work. I finished the message and was about to hit “send” when I paused, feeling somewhat uneasy and decided that such a potentially big decision shouldn’t be made on the hoof and that I should sit on it for 24 hours before doing anything.
24 hours later I still felt uneasy about it. I knew that I was making a perfectly reasonable request of a perfectly reasonable person and making it in a perfectly reasonable way. But that stupid voice in my head was all like “what if he flips out and fires you right there?” and “you’re lucky to even have this job, why are you jeopardising it just to get a bit more money?”
It felt like that fear was holding me back, telling me that it was safer to carry on working for less than I was worth just to avoid rocking the boat. But I remembered my resolution: no decision based on fear! So instead of telling myself “you can’t think that way. Man up!” I said “I fell anxious about this but I’m gonna do it anyway.” I put that fear on the “cons” side of my mental pros and cons list, and then before I could stop myself I sent the damn email.
A slightly sleepless night later I checked my emails and the employer had agreed to my raise, while reaffirming that he was very happy with my work and wanted to keep me working for him for the foreseeable future. It felt great that I had secured the extra money, and great that I had done the smart thing and not let stupid fear impact my decision.
I could name other situations like that. From big life decisions like… moving to a new city so Liz can start a new job three weeks before getting married to leaving a permanent contract with a good employer to go freelance (and we all know how that one turned out) right the way down to little everyday choices, I think I’ve been pretty successful in putting the annoying voice of worry back in its place. At the very least my mantra of “no decision based on fear” has given me the mental strength to take a second look at terrifying-sounding opportunities to see if they might be worth all the potential upset, as well as giving my conscience a way of saying “oh no you don’t, bro” whenever I try to weasel out of stuff.
I didn’t realise it at the time but there’s actually some great psychology behind my little resolution. The idea of objectively observing your anxiety without acting on it or beating yourself up about it is now something I write about on a daily basis as I put together self-help guides for curing phobias. I’m so damn good that I basically write entire psychological theories and condense them into five-word sayings without even knowing. So yeah, it’s a useful way of looking at things. Maybe it will be for you too. But it isn’t always easy- spotting your own thoughts is hard in itself, let alone acting independently of them.
How do you do it then? You’ll have to wait until next time to find out. This post is already balls long and I want to do the topic justice and research it a bit before I write anything. So hold tight, and be sure to share any thoughts and powerful resolutions of your own in the comments!