What are you afraid of? Everyone is afraid of something. Fear is a primal, vital emotion, hard-wired into our psyches over millions of years as a survival mechanism; humans are born to it, as to love and aggression. Who doesn’t know the power it wields over us – the way it makes our hearts race, paralyzes our limbs, overwhelms reason and composure? And there are so many sensible, even grand, fears to take hold of us: fear of snakes, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of pain, and of course, the ne plus ultra, fear of death.
This is why it is perverse that my own most troublesome fear is fear of telephone. It’s embarrassing to admit; it’s like having a fear of socks or potatoes. Mind you, I’m not one of those poor souls (and they do exist, apparently) who are literally afraid of the object itself, and can’t bring themselves to answer a ringing phone. Not at all! I carry a phone around in my pocket! I answer phones with brio and swagger! In fact, if you heard me speaking on the telephone, you might doubt my claim of phone-phobia. I almost always sound articulate, warm, and relaxed. Often I am. But sometimes, it’s just an act.
To be clear: my phone-phobia only attacks infrequently. Answering phone calls is never a problem; nor is calling friends, family, acquaintances, or service providers (like pizza parlors or utility companies). It’s only when I have to call a stranger, one who isn’t being paid specifically to answer calls from people like me, that I start having heart palpitations. It’s obviously a mild, irrational social phobia, which is funny, because otherwise I’m not a social-phobia kind of guy. I like meeting people and being in crowds and I’ll take a stage or microphone without a qualm. I think the phone thing has something to do with the narrowness of the communication: the sense that this new person is going to judge me solely on my words, without seeing the whole me. (But if that were the whole problem, I wouldn’t be writing a blog, now, would I?)
In any case, as with most of our behaviors, in the real world the cause or source of my phone-phobia is not as important as the effects. People who are afraid of things tend to want to avoid them. This is not helpful when those things are important to your career success. Sometimes this is glaringly obvious, and actually those are the times when it easiest to deal with fears. I learned this years ago – in fact, it was part of the process of realizing that I had phone-phobia. In my first real job search, when I first tried to network and reach out to potential employers, I had compiled a list of folks to call, then had to find ways to force myself to make the calls. I used a lot of tricks then – getting moral support from friends, psyching myself up for each call, preparing written scripts to refer to, scheduling calls for specific times so I felt an obligation – and over the years I’ve learned which ones work best for me, and when to use them. I still dread every one of these phone calls – even though nothing unfortunate has ever happened in any of them – but I’ve known for years that when I have a list of strangers I have to call, these are the strategies that work.
What I did not realize until relatively recently is that it’s the little fears that interfere much more successfully with my work. When I have to call 20 people, the phone-phobia is obvious; when I only have to call one person, it is so much easier to believe that I’m putting off the call because the person’s probably not in right now, or I’ve got this other project that demands my attention, or I need to do a little bit more research . . . Only a few years ago did it dawn on me that I was making excuses, finding ways to avoid the anxiety of the phone call until the anxiety of not making the call became greater. Because it’s easier for us humans to fool ourselves a little at a time.
So now I’ve just made a rule for myself: whenever I have a call to make, I have to treat it as a high-priority item. We can’t trust our ordinary assessments of priority when they are tainted by anxiety.
Which brings us back to: What are you afraid of? There’s a reason, in the context of your career, that it’s important to know. Sure, the big fears are obvious, and that makes them easier to confront: if you know that standing behind a podium freaks you out, and it’s keeping you from moving up into a leadership position, you can figure out that perhaps you should join Toastmasters. But the little fears can do as much damage or more in the long run, and they may be harder to attune to. You might tell yourself you don’t bring problems to your boss’s attention because you know she’s busy, when really it’s a fear of confrontation. Use the big things that make you afraid to help you identify the little things. Once you realize they are there, the little things are easier to address.