How To Stop Being So Goddamn Scared All The Time

by Naomi Dunford

So, you're scared. Let's finally talk about that, shall we?

I know you're worried. I know it feels impossible and daunting and terrifying. I know you wish someone would make it all better. We're going to do our best to start getting you there, ok? Promise.

I'm going to talk you through this. I can't make it all better, but I'm pretty sure I can make the fear you're feeling a whole lot more bearable, so you can save that important part of your sanity. (The one that lets you do the things that keep food on the table.)

I'm going to take you through three steps to get the panic to go away, and I won't make it complicated, because your head is likely already swimming.

Before we move on to the three steps, though, I have a question for you.

What is the worst that can happen?

A lot of people ask that question as a trick. What they really mean is, “I, being smarter and calmer and more rational than you, understand that what you're afraid of is stupid. I'm asking you so you can come to that conclusion on your own, without me having to look rude by telling you.”

They may also mean, “The worst that can happen is not so bad, so could you please stop complaining?”

They could possibly mean, “I'm getting pretty bored of talking about this and would rather move on to talking about me. Making you realize how dumb and irrational you are is probably the most expeditious way of ending this line of conversation.”

Or, “Maybe if I make you feel foolish, I'll look really smart.”

Or, “Stop it. You're terrifying me. I don't want to look terrified, so I'll bluster with fake confidence and we can forget this ever happened.”

Because, see, when someone normally asks you, “what's the worst that can happen?”, you are not supposed to answer. You're supposed to dip your head a few degrees and quietly say, “Yeah. I know. You're right. I'm just freaking out, I guess.”

So I want you to answer it. Now. Stop dipping your head, and stop saying, “yeah, I know”. (Primarily because I can neither see nor hear you. I wrote this weeks ago and I live in Canada, anyway.)

I am not asking you this so I can convince you that you're not allowed to be afraid. Hell, yeah, you're allowed to be afraid. If you're not afraid, you're not paying attention.

I'm asking because fear is much easier to deal with when you know exactly what it is you're afraid of. (It's a whole lot easier to kill the monster under the bed if you know what kind of monster it is.)

So first, decide what the worst possible outcome of this situation is.

Go ahead. I'll hang out here.

Make it really bad. Not laughably bad – I'm not trying to force you out of your fear by making you chuckle. That is a delay tactic that doesn't get us to the root of the problem.

I just want you to really, really look at what it is you're afraid of.

The biggest fear like this you see in women is “becoming a bag lady,” so we'll go with that for our example.

You're afraid of becoming a bag lady. An actual, homeless, bag lady. This is not a euphemism, this is real. You've actually defined this as your most feared Worst Case Scenario.

Most of the time, we try to avoid thinking of this scary “end of the world” situation. But let's not avoid it. Let's actually work through what the fear means so we can see if it is, indeed, the fear we make it out to be.

We're going to work through this fear with three lines of questioning. Reflection, logic and empowerment.

Reflection: Why are you afraid? As in, what's the actual real reason?

Why are you afraid of what you're afraid of?

Let's say you're afraid of your ittybiz failing.

(Well, first, that's a pretty vague fear, and you'll probably want to define it a little better. I've helped over 1000 people quit their day jobs and I have yet to hear a consistent definition of business failure, so you'll have to be more specific. Filing for bankruptcy? Needing to take on freelance work? Having to go back to temping for a while? What does “failure” even mean? But that's another issue for another day.)

So what is scary about your ittybiz failing?

You might lose your house?

You might be unqualified for a job after all this time out of the workforce?

Your husband might think you're a loser?

You might be really embarrassed in front of all of your friends?

Your life might lose all meaning?

These are all legitimate fears. There's nothing wrong with them. But you do have to realize that you're not actually afraid of your ittybiz failing in these instances.

You're afraid of homelessness, lack of options, shame, embarrassment, and loss of meaning.

Those are very different animals, and they're a whole lot easier to protect against. Your ittybiz may indeed fail because your ittybiz may be stupid, or badly run, or marketed half-assed. But you can at least do other stuff to keep your house, keep your skills up, keep your husband in love with you, keep your friends thinking you're cool, and keep meaning in your life.

These are all things you can get some control over regardless of how you earn your income, and just coming to terms with that can take a lot of fear's power away. You might feel a real sense of personal power return to you after realizing what you're actually afraid of.

Sometimes this helps. If it does, you win, and the day is saved. But for some fears, the day is not saved, so you're hardly done yet.

Now. On to question two.

Logic: What would have to happen for your worst fear to come to pass? As in, actually, in detail happen?

Let's go back to the bag lady.

What would have to actually take place for you to become a bag lady?

Well, first of all, every single compassionate human you know would have to either lose their compassion, or their home.

Upon hearing about your soon-to-be bag lady status, your sister in Poughkeepsie would have to tell you that she can't put you up.

Your old college roommate would have to be a bag lady herself.

Your mother. Your neighbor. Your best friend. Your daughter's ballet teacher. Everyone would have to play their “no room at the inn” card.

How likely is that?

Right, you say, but it's still scary. “Yeah, but what if this happens …”, right? I know.

But if I called you up tomorrow and said I had lost my home and had absolutely nowhere to go, what would you do?

I don't know what you'd do. But I'm guessing you wouldn't stick your fingers in your ears, scrunch your eyes shut and shout “LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!!”

Look at your own worst case scenario. (“There'll be a massive scandal and I'll lose all my customers!”)

OK. Let's do the same exercise. This time's a little easier.

What would have to happen for you to lose ALL your customers?

How likely is that?

Pretty damned unlikely. You'd probably have some customers who stayed. So you wouldn't be completely screwed. If you lost 75% of your business today, you'd still have 25% of your business left. You can work with that. It will still pay some of your bills.

That doesn't make it all better, but it gives you more control than thinking you'll have nothing.

And that control lets you keep taking action. And sometimes the simple act of realizing how unlikely the total Worst Case Scenario is will bring the fear down to a manageable level.

Now, just like the first question, this does not work without fail every time. Sometimes you still hear the monster under the bed. So now we open door number three for the third question:

Empowerment: How can you get some control back if the worst does happen? Actual, day-to-day control?

What are you likely to do if you become a bag lady?

Are you going to sit there on your bench all day, lamenting your status in life? Are you literally going to sit on a bench, occasionally getting up to shuffle aimlessly through the streets, until your dying day?

Or are you going to take some kind of action to change your status?

“But I don't know what I would do!” you say. “That's why it's so scary!”

Well, you could find out what you would do. Right now. Call your local homeless shelter and say, “I have a friend who just became a bag lady. What should she do?” That'll take care of it pretty quickly.

Alternatively, consider what you do NOW when things don't go your way.

Do you just cry about them? Or do you do something to change them?

Let's make it something small. You are stressed on a Sunday evening because you have not done laundry, you have no laundry soap, and the store is closed.

What is your likely response?

You might do laundry some other way. Bathtub and shampoo, baby.

You might acquire laundry soap some other way. “Knock, knock. Hi. I'm your neighbor. I've run out of laundry soap. Can I please borrow a scoop of yours?”

You might send the children to school in something less clean than would otherwise be considered ideal.

You might send the children to school in something seasonally inappropriate, since the off-season clothes are clean in your storage closet.

I can tell you what you almost definitely will not do.

You will almost definitely not sit, defeated and inert, shocked by how this happened and feeling powerless to alter your fate, perpetually keeping your kids home from school out of shame, and feeling completely ignorant about how you could possibly move forward in light of this drastic change in circumstance.

You will not sit and do nothing. You will – smart and lovely person that you are – decide you need to get off your ass and change something. You will borrow the laundry soap. You will call your sister and take advantage of her couch-y hospitality.

“But I don't want to stay on my sister's couch! I don't want to send my children to school in dirty clothes! That would be terrible!”

Nobody's saying that your “what would I do if worst came to worst?” is going to be FUN. Nobody said it wouldn't have any downsides. This isn't exactly your Plan A, here.

Nobody expects you to respond to this exercise by saying, “Well, hell! I could just move to my sister's right now! AND I could send the kids to school in dirty jeans tomorrow! Now I feel all better!”

But you're all worked up in a panic attack about your worst case scenario, not random unpleasantness.

When asked, “What is the worst that can happen?”, you replied, “Becoming a bag lady.”

You did not reply, “staying on my sister's couch.”

Ergo, staying on your sister's couch is better than being a bag lady.

If you can agree that staying on your sister's couch is better than being a bag lady, congratulations! Crisis averted. You have avoided your worst case scenario.

Your life isn't exactly a bed of roses, no. Her couch smells, kind of. And she's a chain smoker. And she keeps doing her psychic readings in the kitchen while you're trying to make your toast.


And I'll tell you, the day to day fear of staying on your sister's couch is a hell of a lot less damaging than the fear of becoming a bag lady.

Remember when I didn't promise to make you feel better? Here's why.

If you go through all three of these steps, you will still be scared. But you'll be scared about the right things, and they will be much, much smaller and more manageable fears.

“I'm afraid my business will fail and I'll become a bag lady” is a vague, out-of-your-control fear that will keep you not only scared, but terrified. It feels potentially unavoidable.

“I'm afraid I'll have to sleep on my sister's stinky couch” is a very specific, much-more-in-your-control fear that will make you so uncomfortable that you'll actually want to do something to prevent it from happening. It feels potentially avoidable.

Out of your control? Terror. Blind, helpless panic. Sleepless nights worrying nothing will work.

Even slightly in your control? Severe discomfort. Motivation to act. Long nights of hard work.

When you're well and truly scared, it's no fun at all. But at least now you can do something about it.


(Psst! You can find me on my new blog, xxNaomi!)