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'If we overcome the fears that keep us silent and stuck, we can achieve so much'

Author Helen Cullen has felt the fear – and done it anyway. It led her to leaving her job and writing a book. Here’s her advice for you on facing fear.

Helen Cullen

WE ARE ALL inundated with inspirational quotations about fear: ‘The only thing you have to fear is fear itself’ or ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway.’

These platitudes are easy to say, but often much harder to put into practice.

Even when we recognise that fear is an obstacle to our happiness, perhaps preventing us from pursuing what we want most, it can still be very difficult to work out ways to combat it; often we are too afraid to try.

And yet, if we can overcome the niggling doubts that plague us, the sometimes rational, and often irrational, fears that keep us silent and stuck, we can achieve so much.

Fear keeps us safe

One of the difficulties about overcoming our fears is that we learned from our very first days that fear keeps us safe; it stops us from putting ourselves in danger or taking unnecessary risks, so it can be hard to know when fear is protecting us from ourselves or just being a spoilsport.

If fear had its way, we would never take any chances at all, never take any leaps of faith, keep all apples safely in their cart. Like an overprotective parent, fear can keep you too safe and prevent you from taking advantage of the opportunities that life throws at you; it can drown out the internal instinct that whispers life could offer more for you.

Fear excels at asking just the right questions to paralyse you: What if you fail? Who do you think you are? Will people laugh at you? What if you lose what you have because you took a risk? Is this really the best time?

I understand how difficult it is. From when I was a child, I always wanted to write but didn’t really try until I was already thirty years old. The instinct that I should do it was always strong, but I was afraid to risk finding out that I didn’t have any talent. It was more comfortable for me to stay hoping I might do it one day than to really commit to finding out if it was something I could do at all.

I think one of the saddest things about the way our society operates is that we learn very young that you focus your energy on the things you are most successful at, regardless of whether they are the things you love the most. You only choose art as a subject in school if you have talent, only play sports if you make the school team. It’s a hard lesson to unlearn. The fear of doing something out of love, without any reason to believe you’ll be successful, can be incredibly debilitating.

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‘I burst into tears’

In the end, the fear of never writing a book was more powerful than my fear of failing in my attempt. That didn’t make me any less terrified, however, when I eventually plucked up the nerve to join a writing workshop. In my first feedback session, when the other writers were kind about my work, I burst into tears. It was as if I’d been waiting my whole life for someone to tell me I was allowed to write.

Why couldn’t I have given myself that permission? I had let fear stand in the way and I only overcame it by taking it one step, one word, at a time. I wasn’t trying to write a whole book, I certainly wasn’t trying to get published, or create something brilliant every time I sat down to work. Instead, I just focused on the next small stage; writing the next page, the next chapter.

It was similar to how I found the courage to leave a job I loved in RTÉ (working in the live music department of 2FM) to move to London with few job prospects at all. In my heart of hearts, I knew I needed to spread my wings, experience living away from home and embrace new work challenges, but it wasn’t easy to sacrifice what was loved and familiar in order to do so. In the end, I found the compromise of taking a career break that gave me enough of a security blanket to feel confident enough to break free because I knew if it didn’t work out I would have somewhere to come home to.

I was fortunate to have an employer who gave me that opportunity but I think there are always ways to experiment with the new direction we’d like for our lives if we think creatively about how to introduce it incrementally.

Perhaps it’s growing your own business slowly while keeping your day job in the hope that one day the sideline becomes your mainline.

Or spending a summer working abroad before you commit to emigrating completely. If we break down the big scary thing into smaller pieces, I think it’s a lot easier to build up our courage. When you move to a new house, packing up your whole world seems impossible, but you do it box by box and eventually, somehow, it all gets done.

Acknowledge the fear

Whether it’s pursuing a creative ambition, a career change, or personal goal there will always be plenty of fearful questions to scare the dream away. Most ideas will collapse under ruthless interrogation, unless you can find the nerve to reason with your worries. I think it’s important to acknowledge the fear, to question where it comes from, to take a step and back and decide if there is any merit in the anxiety.

If you are considering leaving your job to become an actor without any plan for how you will achieve that goal or ability to pay the bills in the meantime, then fear has a right to object. If on the other hand you are considering a six-week drama course, then fear can mind its own business. Having a rational conversation with your fears, as mad as that sounds, can help neutralise them.

Fear asks, what if people laugh at you? You answer, why would people laugh at me for trying out something I’ve always wanted to do? And if they do, isn’t that really their own fears talking?

And so on.

Because of feeling the fear and doing it anyway, I believe that we have to fight against the fear that stops us doing the things we love; and after a thousand tiny battles, you too will win the war.

Give yourself permission, you’ll never regret it.

The Lost Letters of William Woolf by Helen Cullen is published by Michael Joseph, priced at €16.

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Helen Cullen

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