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Should You Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway?

Pushing through anxiety to achieve your goals isn't always a good idea.

Key Points:

  • Anxiety can be adaptive when it's manageable or anticipatory; excessive anxiety, however, can be debilitating.
  • There's a difference between discomfort and distress—and being able to identify it can help you manage anxiety.
  • To gradually expand the limits of your comfort zone, break larger goals into smaller steps so that discomfort remains at a tolerable, adaptive level.

Anxiety is something we all experience from time to time. A certain amount of anxiety is a good thing and can enhance your ability to perform by causing you to pay attention and put forth extra effort. Some anticipatory anxiety can also heighten the emotional experience of an event by making it seem more exciting or exhilarating. But for many people anxiety can be debilitating and impair one’s ability to function. Knowing how to tell the difference between helpful anxiety and anxiety that can be detrimental to your performance is important because it can be the difference between success and failure.

istockphoto w/permission
Source: istockphoto w/permission

Anxiety is an emotion and like all emotions, it is sending you a message about what you are perceiving in your environment. It can be one of the more difficult emotions to decipher, especially when you are trying to make a change in your life. Any time you make a change that forces you to grow in some way, you must step outside of your current comfort zone. By definition, being outside of your comfort zone will make you feel some discomfort or anxiety. This kind of discomfort is almost a prerequisite for growth. For example, if you are someone who prefers staying home instead of going to parties, being at home will be the place you are most comfortable and, hence, your comfort zone. If, however, you decide that you would like to make more friends, you will have to acknowledge that staying home isn’t helping you achieve what you want; you will have to step outside your comfort zone and perhaps go to a few parties. Doing so will almost certainly elicit some uncomfortable anxiety.

Many experts will say that if you are working to achieve a positive goal then you should push through the anxiety that comes up as you step outside the comfort zone. The idea being that if you push yourself through the anxiety you will get past it and achieve what you are wanting. The problem with that advice is that it only works if you do actually achieve the goal. You go to the party and you meet some nice people who invite you to dinner the next weekend. But what happens if you don’t achieve the goal? What if instead, you go to the party, no one talks to you, you feel awkward, spend the entire night standing alone by the punch bowl feeling like you want to die of embarrassment, and then go home by yourself? When you push yourself outside the comfort zone and you feel like it is a failure instead of a success, it can reinforce your fear and belief that being outside the comfort zone is a dangerous place, which makes it much harder to go out the next time.

Telling "Good" Anxiety From "Bad"

What’s important is to know is the difference between discomfort and distress.

Discomfort should feel tolerable. When you are feeling discomfort what you want to do should still feel exciting and like something you are looking forward to. This is the type of anxiety you should push through, as it feels more good than bad. Distress, on the other hand, feels overwhelming and gets in the way of doing something that you want to do by impairing your ability. For example, if you’ve always wanted to sing on stage but your anxiety so overwhelms you that you freeze up, the anxiety is preventing you from achieving what you want. Distress tends to feel consuming and overwhelming; you may even feel panicked or like you might die if you take the action. When you are in a state of distress, it's is the wrong time to act. Your belief that you can succeed is likely not strong enough to carry you through in a successful way and any unsuccessful experience will just reinforce negative beliefs you have about doing something new.

Distress tends to occur when you have taken a step that is too far outside of your comfort zone. If the anxiety you feel seems distressful, try to refocus your thoughts on all the positive reasons why you want to do what you are feeling anxious about. If that doesn’t work you may need to pull back toward your comfort zone a little until the distress goes down to a tolerable level of discomfort.

You may have big goals but you don’t have to leap all at once. Small steps can often be more effective in the long run because if you take a small step and succeed, it reinforces your mental view of yourself that you can do it. However, if you take a big leap that causes distress and then you fail, you are likely to end up believing you really can’t do it.

Just remember this rule of thumb: Discomfort feels more good than bad—you may feel uncomfortable but still look forward to where you are going; distress, on the other hand, feels more bad than good: Negative feelings overwhelm you and you can’t focus on where you are trying to go.

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