Do One Scary Thing a Day
“Do one thing every day that scares you” was the sage advice of Eleanor Roosevelt, a stellar role model of courage and resilience.
Modern neuroscience is validating the very practical wisdom of Eleanor Roosevelt. When we succeed at doing one scary thing a day, we actually build out the circuitry in our brains that supports our capacities of resilience and trust in our competence to cope.
The September e-newsletter, Crossing the Threshold, explored the sense of “uh oh!” that arises so easily in our nervous systems anytime we’re about to venture into something potentially risky. It also offered suggestions of how to work directly with our brain’s dopamine system to get us past that somatic threshold of anxiety and actually step into something new.
As we move further into a new year that has almost as many pitfalls as promises on the horizon, it behooves us to learn how a new year’s resolution to do one scary thing a day can strengthen our courage and resilience, neurologically as well as psychologically. The Reflections below explore the positive changes we can create in our brain, and in our lives, through this one specific practice.
REFLECTIONS on Doing One Scary Thing a Day
The scary things we could choose to do each day could vary quite a bit from person to person or even for ourselves from one day to the next. Choosing to go through our records to prepare for an IRS audit would feel pretty scary on any day, but some days just checking our bank account to see if we have enough money to go to the grocery store is plenty scary for that day. Some days we’re scared but determined to ask the boss anyway for extra time off around a holiday; other days just checking voice mail to see who called (or if no one called!) is the scary thing.
Why would deliberately choosing to do one scary thing a day be good for you? What would be the benefit of making this a practice for a month, or a year?
1. There’s an immediate benefit when you do one scary thing a day. You get to check one more thing a day off the To Do list, scary or not. For those of us who relax a bit when we see ourselves getting through a list, that relaxation can be very real. We return to a state of calm equilibrium in the body-brain, which in turn makes it possible to reduce our fears further about anything else scary.
Even more precious than feeling good about ourselves for getting through the list is feeling wholesomely proud of ourselves when we’ve faced a fear and walked right through it. We get a hit of self-approval that can be very useful as we continue to face the rest of our day.
2. In the short term, by chunking down a big task that really scares you into smaller, more manageable chunks that scare you a little bit, and doing those little scary things every day, you might actually get the bigger, scarier task done. A client of mine wanted to go to law school – a big decision to commit to three years of hard work, only to graduate $100,000 in debt and then search for a job to commit to working even harder. By chunking the task down – talking to a brother-in-law who had made a similar move three years ago, looking at one potential law school brochure a day for 15 days/schools worth, researching dates to take the LSAT, choosing a date to take the LSAT, etc – over two months time he managed to apply; continuing the practice for the next six months, he began his law school classes with far more confidence and trust in himself than when he had started.
3. In the intermediate term, we can begin to make headway against old automatic habits of procrastination, avoidance, distraction, denial, which carry their own cascading costs down the line. We begin to re-wire the habits of our brains so that it become more natural (this can truly happen!) to show up, give it a try even if we don’t exactly know what we’re doing or what might happen if we make a mistake. Creating a new habit of “learning to find ease in risk,” as the poet John O’Donohue would say, can become the new “unconscious competence.”
4. Over the longer term, every time we succeed at doing one scary thing today, we are creating a bank of “memories for the future” in our brain’s explicit memory system. “I’ve done scary things before; I can do them again now.” We can then intentionally draw on those memories to help us get through the next scary thing today. That is building out the brain’s capacity for resilience.
5. Over the long haul, doing one scary thing a day is a path to cultivate feeling better about ourselves for the rest of our lives. The nag at our sense of self when we know we’re blocked by fear really does erode our sense of self-esteem over time, and not so subtly either. Our sense of competence begins to shrink; a healthy sense of pride begins to disappear.
When we choose to do one scary thing a day, every day, no matter what, our sense of pride and self-esteem begins to recover and fill out. It’s not the size of the thing we choose to do that matters so much, or whether it’s scary to anybody else. It’s that we choose to face a fear and do what needs to be done anyway. Deeply in our brains, we’re re-wiring a sense of ourselves as competent, as courageous, as resilient. The practice creates the experiences which, over time, gel into a conviction that we are a noble, worthy, valuable human being.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience by which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.” You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
– Eleanor Roosevelt
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He has not learned the true lessons of life who does not everyday surmount a fear.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
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I have accepted fear as a part of life – specifically the fear of change….I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.
– Erica Jong
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Panic at the thought of doing a thing is the very challenge we need to do it.
– Henry Haskins
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To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.
– Katherine Paterson
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Obstacles are like wild animals. They are cowards, but they will bluff you if they can. If they see you are afraid of them…they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight.
– Orison Swett Marden
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Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.
– German proverb
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There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.
– Andre Gide
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Many of our fears are tissue-paper-thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them.
– Brendan Francis
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Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will.
– W. Clement Stone
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Courage can’t see around corners, but goes around them anyway.
– Mignon McLaughlin
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Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
– Ambrose Redmoon
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Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.
– Pema Chodron
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Anxiety really means…about to grow!
– Jack Kornfield
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
The scary thing for Daniel was facing massive credit card debt. Last fall his 10-year old daughter Stephanie had been hit by a car while riding her bike home from school. Insurance covered most of the costs of her rehabilitation, but Daniel and his wife Lisa agreed that spending for whatever was need outside the system to help Stephanie recover fully – acupuncture, body work – was a priority. The charges on the credit card mounted slowly, inexorably.
Once Stephanie was recovered enough to return to school and a normal life, everyone in the family wanted to celebrate coming out the other side together with a glorious vacation in Hawaii. The splurge over the winter holidays did put the family back on a good track as a family, but the charges on the credit card mounted even more.
After the holidays, Daniel returned to his job as a floor manager for a large retail store to learn that the national chain he worked for was about to downsize again. At 43, with fifteen years with the company, Daniel survived this round of lay-offs, too. But with larger scary things in the background – waking up to the limitations of even good health insurance and the looming uncertainty about continued employment, Daniel knew it was time to get serious about facing the music of paying off his debt. He had heard about the practice of doing one scary thing a day in a workshop of mine and decided to try it.
Daniel did the chunking down suggested in Reflections #2. The first scary thing to do was to acknowledge that the debt needed to be faced today. The second thing was to ask for his wife’s help in managing their expenses for the next six months so he could channel his earnings toward paying off the debt. Scary, but do-able. (Lisa’s response was great – the scary thing for her to do had been to ask Daniel to do his scary thing.) Each day Daniel did at least one scary thing on the list of re-organizing their lives so the debt could, in fact, be paid off in six months.
Daniel quickly learned it was more important to do one scary thing every day than to do several things at once and skip a day. His brain was learning the habit of facing his fears at a pace that was do-able, one a day no matter how small. Daniel’s brain began to expect the daily “Uh oh!” followed by “OK, here we go” and then most days, “Whew! That wasn’t so bad!” More importantly, Daniel began to trust himself that, yup, he could rely on himself to do his one scary thing a day. Daniel recovered a sense of competence and then confidence in himself about two months into the “program.” Paying off the debt became routine. So did continuing to do any other one scary thing a day.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE Doing One Scary Thing a Day
1. You might identify a project you know needs to get done and then make a list of steps to take to get that project done, as my client did to get himself to law school. As long as at least one of the daily tasks actually evokes that sense of “Uh oh!” where you actually feel the hesitancy or pulling back in your body, then doing the tasks each day will do the re-wiring of the brain we’re after. It’s the experience of “I faced…I felt the fear…I acted…I succeeded (or I learned what to do different next time)” that gets encoded as a new strategy, eventually becoming a new automatic habit.
2. You can also simply notice something every day that evokes that hesitancy in your body, or a procrastination in your behavior, then choose to do that task as your practice of doing one scary thing a day. The scary things don’t have to add up to a project. The doing one scary thing a day is the project of your experiencing yourself as an increasingly resilient person.
3. Pay attention to what changes in your inner experience as you do your one external scary thing a day. If choosing to pay attention to your own inner experiences is the scary thing, then, great; do that once a day. Notice what shifts in the “before” and “after”, especially any tightening or contracting in our body before, and any relaxation and ease in your body afterwards. Notice any changes in your thoughts about yourself: harsh or critical or devaluing before, congratulatory or proud or relieved after. Noticing these state shifts helps build the “memories for the future” that, indeed, this practice is a beneficial practice to do.
4. Conscientiously cultivate the practice of remembering your successes in doing one scary thing a day. Especially notice what it feels like in your body now to remember the experience and feeling of getting through fear to action back then. This rolodex of positive memories in the explicit memory system of the brain becomes a stable and reliable platform for doing tomorrow’s next scary thing.
Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Ballantine Books, 2006.
A classic in the field of self-empowerment; many techniques to push through fear and move from feeling like a victim to owning your own leadership and creativity.
Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fear by Pema Chodron, Shambala, 2010.
Practices of showing up and leaning into fear from a Buddhist perspective. The chapter on Getting Unstuck is especially helpful.
How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, Mariner Books, 2009
This is the book that sparked the September e-newsletter on Crossing the Threshold. The neuroscience of decision making – all of which involves moving past the threshold of fear, either from our intuitive brain (bottom up) or the rational brain (top down.) Fascinating examples of people acting quickly in spite of fears; the science is very accessible.