The strangest little things from childhood stick with us, don’t they?

There I sat, staring at the piano in front of me. I was one of probably 7 or 8 boys and girls waiting my turn to perform a piece I’d been practicing for the past few months in front of a room full of bright-eyed parents. My mom gave piano lessons out of our home in Saint Paul during the 1980’s, and our recitals took place right there in our living room.

My turn was coming.

It felt like my heart might actually, not rhetorically, beat right out of my chest

I turned to the boy next to me and desperately whispered, “I really don’t want to do this.”

And then he said it. “Just tell them you hurt your wrist.”

Those seven words were all I needed to torpedo months worth of practice. I had an out, and it was his idea, not mine.

Sure enough, once my name was called I gave my line. I could see the embarrassment wash over my mom’s face. All this work she had done to organize a recital, and her own son tells a boldface lie to take the easy way out.  I remember she didn’t waste much time calling the girl next in line.

I sat there listening to the girl hack out some choppy rendition of a classic from our Suzuki method book, and could only look at my shoes as my relief faded to guilt. At least she faced her fear. Who cares if she played like crap?

To top it off, I even remember eating the bars and cookies after the recital was over. What a schmuck.

We all deal with fear

Many of you probably have similar stories to tell. Things you wish you would have done, but didn’t out of fear of failure, embarrassment, or rejection. The immediate regret that begins burrowing somewhere deep in your chest after that happens becomes all too familiar, because you let fear win time after time after time.

I know, because that’s been a common thread throughout my life. It’s not to say I haven’t done things I’m proud of, and it’s not to say we shouldn’t ever pay attention to what our fear is telling us. There probably isn’t a human alive who hasn’t let fear win at least once, right?

But if you look clearly at yourself and kindly ask, with as little judgement as possible, “Is fear holding me back?” What’s your answer?

When I finally looked at myself in the mirror and asked that question, my answer was a resounding “Yes.” That moment at the piano recital was one of the first times I remember letting fear win, but I could tell a thousand similar stories with the same theme.

I let fear rule my life

My price for taking the easy way out? Chronically low self-esteem and consistently underselling myself and my abilities. I’d turn down the opportunity to play soccer with the older age group, then run slightly slower in the 300m hurdles so I wouldn’t advance to the state meet. I’d go for the easy job. I’d ask out a girl who I knew would say yes, but who wasn’t really right for me.

And I was unhappy for a significant part of my life, always taking the slightly safer route to avoid facing my fear and going for what I really wanted.

I’m not going to tell you the 5 secrets to overcoming fear. I’ve had enough with that corny click-bait nonsense. But I’ll tell you how I’ve begun moving beyond my fear and into some pretty cool territory. Our stories may be different, but I think mine could hold promise for you, too.

Low point

I’ll save all the details for a future post. Let’s just say that I found myself unemployed, sinking in debt, single, without a roommate, a mortgage payment staring me in the face month after month, and an unrelenting disappointment in what I had (or hadn’t) accomplished in life.

I don’t know if everyone needs to hit a low point in order to honestly assess, reevaluate, and take their lives in a new direction. But I did.

Here’s how I started to turn things around.

Money

Oddly enough, for a guy who isn’t driven by money, figuring out exactly where I stood financially and taking concrete steps toward financial security was the first step in conquering my fears. I never lived extravagantly, but I always lived just a little bit beyond my means, and that adds up over time. When I met with a financial counselor and uncovered every unknown, dusty bill lurking inside some stack of papers, I had nothing to be afraid of. All my bills were out in the open, staring me in the face. With a plan to attack them and dig out of debt, I knew I could overcome my financial troubles and achieve the financial security I only once dreamed of. It would take time and hard work, but I had a plan.

The snowball effect

After languishing in debt for years, taking control of my financial life was one of the most empowering feelings I’ve ever experienced. I still had a long way to go until I hit financial freedom, but I was on my way.

I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but once I took control of my finances, I realized I could overcome other fears by doing the same thing; not by shying away from them, but by digging into them. We fear what we don’t know or understand.

I found myself living life with more vigor and less hesitation. With no construction experience at all, I turned my dark, dank cobweb-filled basement into a beautiful studio apartment, then moved down there so I could rent out the upstairs to my house.

Pursuing a dream

Four years later I launched Compassionate Man, a magazine for good men and the women who care about them. I work on it in the evenings and on weekends. I’m tired, but it’s meaningful and fulfilling. I believe in it, and while I deal with fear every day (Will the magazine flop? Will I butcher the interview? Will I look like a fool?), I’m not letting it win. I’m pushing through. It may flop. I may butcher the interview and look like a fool. But I’m creating something, making a difference, and that feels good.

What steps can you take right now?

Often, the best way to decide how to move past the paralysis of fear is to identify what scares you the most. Rather than avoiding whatever it might be, commit to moving directly into that fear. If it’s too big, break it down into smaller pieces. Stop procrastinating. Stop distracting yourself with another episode of House of Cards. Sit down and get to work. It might help you to write one or two sentences about what you fear. Identifying it and putting it in writing could be your first step to tackling it once and for all. Pick one thing you can do right now and do it. If it’s going to take some time, commit to a routine and work consistently on the task at hand.

I’d love to hear about how you’ve dealt with fear. Leave a comment below or send me an email.

Nick Coughlin

Nick Coughlin is the founder and publisher of Compassionate Man. He lives in South Minneapolis with his two dogs, Onyx and Boli. You can reach him by emailing nick@compassionateman.com

6 Comments

  • Good for you Nick for having the courage and drive to start something like this!! I can relate to your post on a number of levels. Starting any new endeavor is always scary. You wonder if you can handle the task. You wonder if you are way out of your league. You wonder what people will think of you if you ‘fail’. I say go for it, do the best you can do, and make your impact on the world. Best wishes to you and Compassionate Man! I truly think you are making a positive change around you.

    Gnomey

    • Thank you for your kind words of encouragement, Carolyn! Finally going for it is scary, but the alternative…the sitting around thinking and planning and waiting for the perfect moment…well, a lifetime of that would be horrible. Doing it for a decade was long enough! Thanks again, Carolyn.

  • Thank you for sharing another little part of your life story, Nick. I know how hard it is to trust yourself and wait, and wait, (and wait!) until “the right time” to do virtually anything important, which could mean making things better, or worse, for yourself and your life. I feel I can relate to you that much more, as I too have had (and still have to this day) these same struggles you had expressed. It is really hard to overcome for some people…your own thoughts and low confidence really eat you up inside, which is not healthy and does not allow for positive action, and then you end up stuck…I know I’m not the only one who feels this way either, so thank you for sharing this deeper side of you that myself and others can relate, empathize, and feel a connection to.

    • It’s good to know we’re not alone with these struggles, Marianne. The best news of all, though, is that if we prepare a bit and tackle that fear head on, chances are we’ll pull through it with a few more life skills and a tad more confidence to clear the next hurdle.

  • Thank you very much for sharing your story and for creating this wonderful and so much needed magazine! Very encouraging and informative. I am at the process of launching vegan clothing project. There are moments when I wonder if I am good enough to handle it, if I am ready, if it’s a good time, etc. But the urge to be the voice for those who don’t have one is greater than anything.

    All the best!

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