Fear of the Illogical

I’m on my way to Newcastle to talk to their Women’s Network about confidence, and it’s made me think a lot more about the phrase ‘Feel the Fear and Do it Anyhow’ – the title of a book I must admit I’ve never read. It’s a catchy phrase that probably should be borne in mind by anyone being made, or encouraged to do, something that takes them out of their comfort zone. Fear is a strange thing, because it most certainly isn’t always rational. Why is it that I am quite happy giving talks but, as I’ve admitted before, hate asking questions after someone else’s talk? Why is it that the things that worry me aren’t necessarily by any means the things that might end up having the most disastrous consequences? It is worth trying to unpick one’s fears to see whether they are concrete and valid enough actually to be worth wasting one’s adrenalin on.

As a teenager with a penchant for ornithology, I used to go down to the south coast and wander round Poole Harbour’s shores through the stubby heather and gorse. Usually it was at this time of year when it was perishing cold and windy, but that was when the bird-watching was most satisfactory in the Harbour and out to sea. Occasionally we would stray down there during the Easter holidays, when the sun might shine and the ground was warmed up. Then I would get nervous. Why? Because it was well known that the heaths were inhabited by adders and the spring warmth might just be going to tempt them out to cross my path as I scanned the gorse looking for an elusive Dartford Warbler. I was constantly vigilant.

It was only many years later that I realised that what I was really frightened of was, not the snake minding its own business on a bare rock, but the hordes of snakes that – sub-consciously – I thought would make a beeline for me if they were within a mile or so. I realised that my fear really stemmed from the fact that I imagined I acted as some great attractor for snakes, a magnet pulling in their nasty little bodies from large distances just so they could spoil my day. Bizarrely, now all these years later I can’t remember if I ever really did see one there (I certainly did in the New Forest on several occasions), but I can remember that Eureka moment when I discovered just how illogical my fear had been.  Not liking snakes is one thing, imagining that they will actively bestir themselves to seek me out is quite another.

So, I suspect many of our fears (although by no means all) may have an illogical hint to them and we should try to tease this out, so that we can save our energy for the genuine problems we have to face. Giving a talk is scary, no doubt about it, and often talking in front of one’s own group feels even worse than talking in front of a bunch of strangers – but why? One’s friends and peers are probably aware of the fact that it may be their turn next; this may make them comparatively gentle, their criticism may be painful but constructive, whereas strangers have much less to lose by being challenging or nasty.

What about applying for promotion, something I have discussed before that women seem to be particularly nervous about doing? If you apply and fail, will other people start pointing their finger at you and laughing? Almost certainly not. Will they think the less of you for having the temerity to apply? It seems unlikely, particularly since most of them either already have applied (successfully or not) or are working out how soon they would themselves be a plausible candidate. So, what is it you fear except your own self-judgement – and why should this be harsher than other people’s assessment?

We can be our own worst enemies. Being reticent when it comes to volunteering for some major, visible role may sometimes be wise. It may be that success rather than failure is what frightens you because the task itself might be unpleasant, in which case the decision is easy. But, imagining yourself progressing along the career ladder by accepting an invitation to give a major talk, deciding to apply for that fellowship or promotion or agreeing to serve on a significant committee and then quaking in your boots and hiding your head in the sand is probably only self-defeating. Taking your fear out and inspecting it for logic is useful. And if, such progression still seems a bridge too far for your own levels of confidence, maybe you can identify some small step you can take that will be beneficial and allow you to test your powers in more modest ways.

So feel the fear and do it anyhow is not a bad mantra, even if sometimes to be taken with a pinch of salt.  If some particular step seems too large, can it be broken down into manageable smaller steps which seem less daunting? Applying for promotion without encouragement may feel intimidating, but why not ask a senior, trusted colleague or friend to cast their eye over your CV?  They may reassure you the time is ripe or they may say wait a-while, but either way you have some input to add to your own anxious thoughts. If they’re really helpful they may say your CV is potentially strong enough but could be rewritten to improve it – this, after all, is exactly why Cambridge now runs a CV-mentoring scheme so that women can formally request an experienced mentor to provide objective advice as to whether or not an individual is well-placed to apply for promotion. The same applies to those considering applying for a fellowship (although then an outsider reading through the scientific case would obviously also be advantageous). Many people may naturally receive support and encouragement from those around, but not everyone is so fortunate. Plucking up courage to ask for help may be the little step that is all it takes to make the difference. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: many (although indubitably not all, so picking wisely may be crucial) senior academics are only too happy to help, time permitting. Most will not like to offer such help cold if they have no formal responsibilities to do so, in case it looks patronising.

So, as I put the final touches to my presentation on ‘Building Self-Confidence’, I am reminded that fear can be pernicious and misplaced. Simply acting it out and holding back because it feels so large and scary, rather than finding a way round or through a problem, can cause its own stresses and pains. From time to time it is wise to inspect that fear-sized hole in your life and see if it can be plugged.

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5 Responses to Fear of the Illogical

  1. BB says:

    I managed to quell most of my fear before giving my first undergrad lecture by realising that I was actually genuinely afraid that the students would attack me either by throwing things or verbally. Once I realised this was pretty unlikely (I hope) I managed to sleep again.

    On the flip side I have the very fear of applying for promotion that you mention. I was working my way towards getting over it when I female colleague drew criticism (over coffee) for being over ambitious in applying. I took the opportunity to point out loudly that plenty of men had applied and been knocked back so wasn’t it interesting that they felt it was more obviously wrong for a woman to apply a year early than a man?

    But unfortunately the whole incident has rather confirmed my fears that the worst thing that can happen if you apply for promotion is that people are sniggering and calling you arrogant/naive behind your back.

  2. nerdoscientiest says:

    Your comment about not being afraid to give a talk, but being afraid to ask a question … I thought you were talking about me. Interesting how two women, with nothing in common other than science, can have the same phobia. Thanks for the great piece on fear!

    I have decided to battle with my phobia, and I am trying to take the advice of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer. Women in business face the same issues as women in science, and I think they can offer good mentorship sometimes. In a recent piece in The New York Times, Sandberg is quoted: “We [women] hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”

    I’m making a conscious effort to ‘lean in’. I’ve written it in large letters over my computer at my desk at home and work.

    • Brigitte says:

      I too was so glad to hear about this particular fear, as I also have it, especially when I believe that I am asking an important and not just a trivial question….

  3. Murfomurf says:

    That expression “feel the fear and do it anyhow” has been a guiding statement since I was cured of panic attacks when I first began university many years ago. No one said it to me, but I just decided that the feelings of a panic attack were not going to kill me, so I should just ignore them and get on with what life required. I always bring that to mind when I have to tackle something like applying for a job or driving an unfamiliar, large car (I’m very short). However, as a mature age applicant for jobs I have finally come up against a brick wall that I cannot break down with my old mantra after unsuccessfully being interviewed for 4 jobs in a row. In 2 of them I felt that the interviewers were laughing at me as they treated me as though I was some sort of naive “housewife” sort of person who didn’t really know how to do the job offered. They pretended to be surprised that I could construct computers, manage networks and write scientific papers “at my age” when I was well-qualified for the position but up against a bunch of young people who were working their way through the system from the bottom for the first time. Now that I have been very depressed for several years, although continually updating my suitability for employment, I am not brave enough to apply – not that there are many jobs around I could do these days. I REALLY DON’T KNOW what to do next. That old fear is holding me hostage.

  4. Sue Pearson says:

    This is a great blog post and so very true. I too have a fear of asking questions publicly at conferences which can a be a problem when I’m there covering it for a journal article! I’m going to make more effort to do things that are out of my comfort zone again. BTW every woman should read feel the fear and do it anyway, it’s written by a woman and is probably the only self-help book I have identified with as most are written by men. Keep up the good work.