Why Fear Is Good for Your Business

by | Apr 20, 2007

Ever been afraid? If you work for yourself or are thinking about it, you may feel a good deal more fear than you thought was appropriate for a reasonably self-aware human bean.
Self aware or not, when you set out on the path of self-employment, there are plenty of things to be afraid of. Will people want to hire you? What if they think you charge too much? Are you really good enough at what you do to strike out on your own? What if you fail?
Fear is inevitable whenever you face the unknown. It is scary not to know what to do, how to do it, or even if something should be done at all. Because fear arises when there is something you don’t know, it’s easy to let what you fear distract you from what fear can do for your business.
Fear carries at least one of the following messages, sometimes both.
Watch out! You are in danger, and you’ll need all your faculties to survive.
Wake up! That pot of gold over there is yours, but first you have to figure out how to walk the rainbow.
Whether you are energized or paralyzed by fear depends on your ability to distinguish between these messages and respond appropriately.
Watch Out!
When you hear fear calling, “Watch out!,” your lizard brain, the amygdala, takes over. It floods your nervous system with powerful neurochemicals, sharpens your hearing and vision, and blocks out anything that might compete for your awareness so that all of your resources are devoted to staying alive.

an almond-shaped mass of gray matter,
one in each hemisphere of the brain, associated
with feelings of fear and aggression and
important for visual learning and memory.
Encarta® World English Dictionary

That’s a good thing, unless fear is trying to say, “Wake up!” Confusing these messages can make self employment miserable, if not impossible.
The High Cost of False Alarms
If you mistake Wake Up! For Watch Out!, you find yourself poised at the brink of action until you realize that there is no crisis. By that time, whatever opportunity was waiting at the end of the rainbow may well be gone.
The lizard brain is designed to stay on alert until it has disarmed or escaped the threat or simply exhausted the body’s energy stores. Your mind tries to make sense of this by finding evidence that there is something terribly wrong. Minor obstacles and irritations are magnified. It can be hours or days before something interrupts the cycle.
Meanwhile, you live in a state of hyper-vigilance or frozen retreat, wearing out your adrenals, exhausting your neurotransmitters, and, by the way, sending out all matter of random, prickly signals to the people around you.
Trust me, I know this game. I’m a former world champion, and from time to time I step back into the ring like a battle-scarred veteran determined to show her chops. Ugh!
When Fear Feels “Just-Right”
Have you ever felt the exhilaration of singing in public? Of skiing a slope steeper than any you’ve skied before? Have you set an audacious goal and experienced the thrills and chills of achieving it against all odds?
No matter what your particular brand of challenge and thrill, I’m betting that you know what it feels like to take a significant risk for the sake of something that matters to you and come out the other side.
It feels pretty terrific, doesn’t it? That’s fear that feels “just-right.”
“Just-right” fear is all about waking up and staying awake for as long as it supports your purposes. Unlike the fear that gives control to your lizard brain, just-right fear wakes you up to opportunity, issues challenges, offers choice.
Don’t Let a Hair-Trigger Alarm System Run Your Business
For more than 30 years my husband and I have lived a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle. The ferries are big boats, and their massive engines plus the resistances of water and wind set up a mighty vibration.
Every crossing since the advent of car alarms has been punctuated by the honks and sirens of car alarms activated by the vibration. Imagine trying to conduct business from the car deck of a ferry in the midst of all that noise! That’s what self-employment feels like when “Wake Up!” sounds like “Watch Out!”
If your alarm sends the wrong signal, sounding an alert at the least disturbace in the field, it’s you will most likely get mired in perfectionism, procrastination, and second-guessing.
Energizing Fear
Remember that time when fear felt “just-right”? You were energized, enthused, and awake. Your body and mind were focused – but not hyper-focused – on the challenge at hand.
Just-right” fear energizes so that you can respond to opportunities for learning, growth, and –yes – profit.
I could write a book on recalibrating your alarm (now there’s an idea). For now, consider these two “adjustments.”
The problem with car alarms on the ferries is that they fail to recognize context. Their mechanisms interpret the vibration of a moving vessel as the equivalent of a hoodlum trying to muscle into the vehicle.
When you work for yourself, many – if not most of the most meaningful opportunities arise in the context of business. If you are new to business, your alarm may be triggered because what’s appropriate in business, selling, for example, had not been appropriate in the context of previous employment or relationships.
See if you can identify which fears arise because the context of self-employment – of business as a whole – is unfamiliar. When you find one, reconsider it in the light of the appropriate context. You may still find that you are afraid, but the message may morph from a dire warning to a call to learning.
Coaching vs. Rescue
It’s natural to want help when you are in trouble. Over the years, you’ve learned that the best help is that which teaches you to help yourself. But when your lizard brain takes over, learning is the last thing on your mind. (Rightly so. If you are truly in danger, the priority is to get to safety.) You may reflexively seek rescue rather than the support and challenge that you need in order to succeed.
In his marvelous book, The Power of TED*, author David Emerald demonstrates how to transmute fear and reactivity into empowerment. That’s not a word I generally use, but David’s book infuses it with practical significance.
Coaching is to TED*, or The Empowerment Dynamic, what rescuing is to the familiar drama triangle.
If your alarm is keeping you from engaging with the opportunities in your work, take a look at your professional relationships, both the ones you have now and the ones you dream of. Are these relationships sources of rescue or coaching?
Notice, I’m not talking about professional coaching, though that’s certainly an option. I’m talking about your attitude toward all your business relationships: customers, vendors, colleagues, competitors, prospects.
Consider each of these relationships and ask yourself:
What do I want from this relationship?
What can I learn from this relationship?
What can I give in this relationship?
Reviewing your relationships and re-orienting them to challenge and support rather than rescue (or escape) will go a long way toward recalibrating your alarm.
When you work for yourself, your alarm is likely to go off at the least trembling breeze unless you have a wise, trusted network of support – people who will hold a lantern while you study the terrain, who will share the rules of the road and believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.