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Fear is Always a Choice - What Will You Choose?

Author: Nan Carle

We live in times of harsh uncertainty. National Budgets are out of control, cuts in public spending are growing unabated, services have been terminated, jobs are being lost and new political landscapes are emerging. It is difficult to know what to think and how to act. 

Managing our emotional wellbeing is a discipline that requires immediate focus and attention like never before. Growing this discipline is particularly important if we wish to create strong and healthy communities where we each have a sense of belonging and the opportunity to use our skills and talents.

Of all of our emotions, fear is by far the most challenging one that faces us moment by moment. Fear is that invisible force that influences our actions, and can destroy our relationships and choke our hopes and dreams – our belief that we can make a difference. Politicians, educators, religious leaders and business leaders regularly use fear to make their case for their points of view. These invasive winds require a real sense of personal discipline to stay present in the moment and out of the fear zone that competes for our attention.

And yet, living in fear is always a choice. We can choose to live in that invisible force of fear or we can choose a different story line, one of hope, possibility and connection. Whichever choice we make will shape our responses to events and our relationships to each other. The consequences of our choices will either choose to promote inclusive communities – or contribute to divisive fragmented communities. Managing our emotional wellbeing is one of the most important choices we make each moment of each day.

As part of my coaching practice, I have developed a set of five conversations that promote inclusive leadership. Managing Emotional Wellbeing is one of the five key conversations intended to support leadership practice that unleashes the talents and gifts of all of us – people with disabilities and those not yet in that experience of the world. (See Eliatamby, Anna. Principled Leadership for Sustainability. Spire Publishers 2009. The Five Conversations include: Managing Meaning, Managing Attitudes, Managing Dissent, Managing Emotional Well Being, and Managing Intellectual Stimulation.) Three recent conversations offer examples of what managers are experiencing in today’s economic reality of public sector cuts in services, delayed responses to people’s needs, along with concerns about jobs and personal future economic security.

Recently a seasoned manager said that that hardest time of his career was making 30 people redundant, one third of their employees. These were staff that excelled at their jobs and were dedicated to serving people using the services. Unfortunately, large contracts had not been renewed and the reduction of income meant that significant changes were unavoidable. It was uncertain if the organization would survive. For him, it felt like he had destroyed the family he had spent years building. He chocked as he told his story, knowing that he was OK - for now - but many other’s lives had been tumbled upside down. This was new territory for him as he was used to being considered the innovative champion of people with long-term psychiatric needs. Although he would have preferred to be busy in his office, he made sure to thank each person for their dedication to the people and hoped that each of them would stay with the work – to find new ways of contributing their talents in service to others. Some appreciated his personal gesture others did not. I considered it a positive sign that he had not become numb to the impact on others regarding the decisions he made on a daily basis.

Another very accomplished manager said she hated answering the phone these days as she never knew what anger would travel into her ears and through her body. She was accustomed to hearing ‘good news’ stories. Now, she was routinely hearing from angry people who had lost their jobs, had had their services reduced or who had a family member in crisis for which she had no good solutions. She dreaded these calls but knew that her staff had to deal with many more calls with concerns of cut backs and unmet needs. She had not come into this work to take things away or contribute to an increasingly unfair world. She was freighted that her life’s work did not count. Depression was nigh. She learned a breathing practice called Tonglen and taught it to her staff (see Pema Chodron: www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/tonglen1.php).This practice reinforced compassion towards all people whilst letting go of negative emotions. She felt strengthened to address the emotions and to innovate and try new ways of creating residential opportunities for people with long term needs.

A third manager said she felt guilty when she laughed or expressed joy when there was so much pain around her. She hated conflict. Her voice grew silent. In order to push back the pain, she developed a practice of Acknowledging Friday Accomplishments. Every Friday they acknowledged the problems facing the group but also focused on the progress each of them had made and the possibilities that laid before them. She instituted the “Three P’s”: Problems, Progress and Possibilities. This meant that she could push back against the fear of failure and develop new ideas and positive action in the face of hostility and despair. (Notice she did not talk about celebrations or festivities that could be considered disrespectful at that time and place.)

Each of these managers experienced the trauma of unsettling situations but found ways of managing their fears. They choose to stay connected to the work in positive ways - no matter what - and continued to share respectful appreciation and compassion to all people – all citizens of our communities with gifts to share and solutions to explore.

Fear is part of being human, as is love, compassion, hope and desire. The real problems of our times arise when we live inside the story of fear with subplots of dread, depression, overwhelm or sacrifice. Fear always signals limitations in our thinking and shapes our actions accordingly. Our leadership solutions demonstrate these limiting beliefs. 

The grid below offer examples of five types of fear that if unmanaged would diminish our progress in community living. With each fear is an alternative focus for managing our emotional wellbeing. 

FearChallengeFocus
InsecurityAvoid an attitude of continuous worry that eats away at self-confidence and innovation.Be in action - physical and relational. Document what is working and build on the positive - no matter how small.
FailureDesire for security - becomes risk averse and over protective. Avoid focusing on tasks and losing the bigger picture.Grow your talents. Learn something new every day. Create a learning environment to grow new opportunities.
ConflictLosing your voice, turning a 'blind' eye or not stating problems; blame others so you can be right. Avoid living in the fear of conflict and reinforcing polarisation.Speak out - discover the power of diversity. Bring opposing opinions to the table to find common ground after rigorous discourse.
Being Irrelevant"I can't do it" - leads to accommodation to the interests of others whether they are right or wrong. Avoid losing sight of your own needs.Speak your own voice about your own needs - stay in the exploration of what matters to you. Guard against "group think".
Being UnsafePhysical and emotional overprotection. Not encouraging curiosity and growth. Avoid reverting to treating adults as children and diminishing their potential.Courage - reaching out to others, developing support systems and positive reputations for all people.

The key message is to acknowledge our fears – “I am not good enough”, “I can’t do it”, “I am no longer important” - and move beyond these limiting emotions. On the other side of fear is hope. And yet, we must make sure not to live in hope for what we once knew. Living in hope can be equally self-limiting.

So what is beyond hope? Good question. Let’s try connection. Let’s really understand our interconnectedness and that we can learn to live together in new ways. Choosing connection allows us to explore creative compassion, discover new potential within each of us and manifest new relationships where we learn to live and support each other when we have disabilities and when we do not. Choosing connection enables us to recognize the fears of our times but to live with the vitality of change and grow a new sense of relationship. Whether one chooses to stay in the work – no matter what – or move on - there should be no judgment. Everyone has to do what is right for his or herself. Successfully managing our emotional wellbeing lives in the question: Who do you choose to be at this time? Choose connection – no matter what. Enjoy life.


This article was first published in Community Living.

Fear is Always a Choice - What Will You Choose? © Nan Carle 2011.

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