The premise behind this popular saying and famous book is simple. If we understand that fear is all around us and it's more prevalent on unfamiliar ground, then we could decide to jump in the deep end, so to speak - to feel the fear and do it anyway. While following this approach, we hope that through exposure we can experience less fear the next time, on what now feels like more familiar ground.
If you are able to embrace the things that scare you, challenge your beliefs and feel the fear and do it anyway at all times, well bravo! But sometimes this approach can actually work to compound fears and hold you back.
Take public speaking, which is the most commonly shared fear on the planet. Over the last century or so, many people have attempted to tackle performance anxiety, or a fear of pubic speaking, by applying different approaches and philosophies or setting up organisations. A commonly known one is called Toastmasters, a group anyone can attend. At toastmasters you can be expected to jump in with both feet, without a life preserver, straight into the deep end. "Feel the Fear and do it anyway" they proclaim loudly.
This approach can work wonders for some people, maybe for those who are trying to finesse their communication and presentation skills, people who otherwise might not have an opportunity to stand in front of a large group. However, let's compare this approach to public speaking with a fear of swimming to get to grips with how it works. We love a good, simple metaphor.
We're all born with an innate desire and ability to swim, it's part of our evolutionary genetic blueprint. If you take a newborn and playfully place them into a swimming pool they will float, swim and enjoy the experience. We're born understanding that we can swim, that we'll cope just fine and importantly, we inherently trust the water. If over time we are expected to perfect our swimming technique or we have a traumatic experience in a swimming pool or we have a parent who has a fear of swimming, well we can easily learn to fear the water instead. We forget we are natural born swimmers, that we can float, and we start to believe that we cannot float and we won't cope in the swimming pool.
So we probably avoid swimming and we avoid the water because we believe we can't do it. If a friend who had been avoiding the swimming pool for a long period of time asked you to teach them to swim, where would you start with them? Would you order them to jump straight into the deep end or would you start them off splashing around in the shallow end?
Like water in a swimming pool, general fear is omnipresent - it is all around us. We don't want to jump into the swimming pool because we don't think we can float in the water in the same way we don't think we can cope with our feelings - we will sink.
Toastmasters is fine for someone who already understands they can float, someone who understands that not only will they cope, but they can use their feelings to actually improve their performance. This approach focuses on the content and performance in the same way a swimming instructor drills swimming technique into someone who already feels great about the pool and can handle the deep end. In this way, it can certainly assist progress with people who can already swim.
However, if you don't know believe you will cope, if you fear that you might sink, if you have been avoiding the water, then jumping in the deep end means that you are setting yourself up to fail. No wonder people sink to the bottom, only left with more evidence to support the fact that their fear is real and that they're not good enough to face this challenge.
This reminds me of a story a client once told me about his experience at Toastmasters. He went to a session feeling ready to tackle his fear of public speaking and realised that over time some of the class members that were already confident and self-assured did improve. But what worried him was he found that even after a year of sessions many of the attendees who were nervous were still nervous, including himself. They showed no improvement and sank to the bottom of the deep end week in and week out. Just like taking someone who is scared of water and trying to teach them the butterfly stroke!
Just like swimming ability and floating in water, we are all born with an innate capability to communicate and connect with others.
The water in the swimming pool is like the feelings in our body when speaking to a group, we have lost our understanding of them because we have been avoiding them for so long, we now think these feelings are dangerous.
However, like learning to trust water again in the shallow end, we must learn to trust our feelings again. So we get in, we take all the pressure off ourselves to be good swimmers, let alone be perfect swimmers. We understand that this is not about swimming anyway, that it's about changing our relationship with the water.
When people attend our public speaking evening course at The Performance Lounge this is the approach to practice and exposure that we take:
- How do we change someone's relationship with the unwanted feelings and the swimming pool that they perceive to be dangerous?
- How do we show someone that the water is safe, that they can float and swim and even enjoy doing so?
Once we learn that we can be in it, feeling the water all around and understanding that we can float well that is when we can start having fun. Maybe even start learning different swimming styles, learning the best breathing techniques, developing good pacing and a flexible approach to development - that's when we can really start to enjoy swimming again and even one day with enough practice finally master the butterfly!
Through the correct approach to exposure, the feelings become extinct, the heightened emotional arousal will change into something that we can harness. Then who knows once we have trust in the water and in ourselves what depths could we reach in the future and what fun we will have just splashing about in the water again!