Do One Thing Every Day that Scares You

Do One Thing Every Day that Scares You

By now you’ve seem some of the many tributes honoring the life and work of civil rights activist John Lewis, or perhaps seen the excellent documentary Good Trouble.  Calling us all to the intelligence, integrity, and inclusivity that can change – and even save – our world.

Perseverance was the word used again and again to honor the courage, determination, and tenacity John Lewis exemplified, moment by moment by moment, year after year after year, for more than 60 years of fighting for what was “true, fair, and just.” And teaching us all how to hang in here, keep going, persevering over the long haul. [See his farewell letter to the nation published in the New York Times on the day of his funeral.]

I’ve updated my Resilience for Right Now…and for the Long Haul resources on my website to provide up-to-date tools and strategies to help us do both: pivot swiftly when the flak hits the fan, and hang in there when long-term oppressions and adversities take a long time to resolve.

Another modest offering that can nonetheless be truly helpful: my 8-week online Resilience 2.0 course, Learning to Cope with Anything, Anything at All, is now completed and archived in the course library; practical tools to helpy ou bounce back from any disappointment, difficulty and even disaster… and to learn that you can.

One practice that can be very helpful right now, and build a more resilient mindset for the long haul as well, is Do One Scary Thing a Day (with some of the science that explains why this is such a good practice for resilience):

Whenever we’re about to venture into something new — moving across country, getting married again, taking on a new job, finally fixing the leaky shower head — we often feel a hesitancy, a pull-back within. An unconscious somatic marker of “Uh oh! Strange territory! Don’t know if I should be doing this!” even though, consciously, we might very well want to. Our resilience goes on hold.

We can so easily interpret that unease as anxiety which can automatically lead to “no” or “later.” It feels like a risk to try something new. Sometimes we can talk ourselves out of trying a new entrée at a new restaurant in a new city, or visiting a foreign country, or venturing into the “foreign-ness” of a new career or the intimacy of a new relationship.

Bill Bowen, developer of psycho-physical psychotherapy, has studied resilience and the creative process for 30 years. He suggests that our body-brains move on a continuum in the face of anything new, from the survival responses of fight-flight-freeze that would de-rail any positive activation completely, all the way to adaptive activation and the free-flowing expression of creativity.

Somewhere on that continuum there is a somatic threshold that we feel viscerally in our body, where the body-brain stops us from going forward even though consciously — mentally, emotionally, spiritually — we are ready to dive in: writer’s block; cold feet the morning of the wedding; the last-minute justification “I don’t know anybody at the party and I’m too tired anyway.” This somatic marker is the disruption of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is letting us know, “ Uh oh, this is not what was expected.”

It’s not. It’s new.

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” was Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice. Sage advice from a stellar role model of resilience, coping with the hardships of the Great Depression, the fearful tragedies of World War II, and the infidelity of a husband who happened to be president of the United States.

When we deliberately face our fear of doing something new, something that could possibly go wrong or evoke deep doubts about ourselves as human beings, we come to the brink of that somatic threshold that would block us from moving forward or that would steer us back into the certain, the familiar, the comfortable. As meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says, that signal of anxiety really means “About to grow!”

By choosing to face the fear and intentionally cross the threshold into action, we are deliberately choosing to evoke new experiences that would re-condition the signal anxiety in our nervous system. By pairing an old pattern of fear or block with a new more positive pattern of courage and action, we contradict the old — re-conditioning at its finest — and we re-wire it.

Exercise: Do One Scary Thing a Day

1. Identify of one scary thing to do today to practice crossing that somatic threshold of anxiety into something new:

– apologize to your teenager for not keeping a promise;

– create an honest budget of income and expenses and then talk with your spouse about it.

– go up into the attic with a flashlight to see what’s scurrying around up there at night.

– drag that persistent cough into the doctor’s office to find out what’s really going on

– ask your boss to make good on a promise of extra time off for the extra time you put in last month.

2. Practice facing the fear today, and then practice doing one new different scary thing a day every day for the next 30 days. Crossing the threshold into action at least once a day builds the perseverance/repetition day after day that re-wires into the brain a new default of “Sure I can” or “Wow! I did it!”

3. As you repeat this practice of doing one scary thing a day for several weeks, notice any shifts in the messages your body is sending you as you prepare for the scary thing and after you’ve done it. Notice any emergence of the sensations “Sure I can!” Facing fear is ultimately easier than constantly navigating around situations that provoke it. We re-set the default to honesty, courage and resilience.

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