Fear? Breaking Through, Italian-Style

I nearly missed the view from the top of the Duomo due to a new-found phobia... a lesson and tips to to clear the fear from your path to greatness.

"Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. "


I felt my chest start to tighten at what was probably the halfway mark. I was climbing the narrow staircase of the Duomo in Milan last week, still nursing a knee injury with the stitches to prove it. I was out of breath and out of shape being off the knee and on my ass for the last few weeks and now it was catching up with me. Telling my friend, Carol, to go on I would be fine once I rested for a minute. In that moment I was grateful we decided to go at 8AM as soon as it opened as no one was behind me in the narrow circular never-ending staircase.. Finally, I caught my breath.....Why, then, was my heart rate still up? I felt trapped. The staircase was narrow and there were no floors or landings--only up or down.

There is no air in here. I thought as I felt the panic creep up. 

Carol yelled down, “You are close, really close! Just a little further!” I started climbing again but didn’t feel good at all. Then I heard, “I’m here!”  Instinctively, she had started coaching me and I almost sprinted the rest of the way. Trying not to think about that fact that I …someone who enjoys being on top… doesn’t always like the ride to get there. Especially when my options are closed and limited.
Nearly 5 to 7% of the world’s population is known to suffer from claustrophobia– the fear of small or restricted spaces. This phobia is mainly related to the fear of suffocation or the fear of restriction.

I did feel like I was suffocating.

Restriction is something I always admired like all those devout people who restrict themselves during lent or like practicing restriction when you are a married man and someone from your office throws herself at you at the company Christmas party.  Claustrophobia is often confused with cleithrophobiam which is the extreme fear of being trapped.

Clearly, I have both. You do not need to be in a tight space physically, to feel this, either.
This whole experience is critical metaphor for the work I do. The executives I coach are in restricted spaces.  Either in the corporations they work for or with the investors that are funding them. They have budgets and all kinds of limitations to work with including not knowing who to trust. Many entrepreneurs have no idea where they will end up with a new idea and most have endless pivoting and refining to do to stay on course to whatever outcome they are envisioning. These pivots and refinements are not always the solution and the feeling of being trapped can come up over and over again. Recently, a client felt traumatized by the aggressive nature of her developers. She was having incredible anxiety not realizing her being backed into a corner was triggering a familiar feeling of being fenced in. After working together, she discovered that It felt similar to the horrific PTSD that she had experienced being at the World Trade Center during 9/11 and it makes sense why. She was experiencing cleithrophobia in a wide open office space, once again with much different circumstances. This is exactly why leaders get stuck. When you get into that 'restricted space' real or imagined, you can’t see where you are and you are not in control.
What you do have is team mates, partners and support but you may need to ask for help.
What you do have is your imagination and your ability to visualize where you are going.
What you do have is control over is your breath and breathing patterns. Focusing on the pattern of you breath and moderating the flow of your breath. This is also known as meditation.
What you can do is get outside yourself, your fears and your baggage and be open to something new. 

You are a leader because you can’t NOT be leading.



Let’s examine FDR quote above for a moment: 

"...the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."

What exactly is the “itself” of FEAR?  Many define fear as a false expectation appearing real. I suggest that fear is great anxiety and a clear change in your body’s vitals. Many times fears are unconsciously connected to old patterns, thoughts and mind viruses that play out like an automated attendant that never changes its script.

What I do know is that the flip side of fear is excitement. Excitement can drive you effortlessly forward while fear holds you back.

When Carol started to say she was there, she also yelled, “It’s beautiful!” That triggered excitement in me and I started thinking about what it must look like from the top and how few people would be up there making the experience even more special. Once I focused on why I was in the stairway to begin with, I flew up to the roof. 
Here is a trick to work on your fears especially for the ones you keep meeting the ones that will not flip into excitement anytime soon.

Warning: the below can be powerful. Working with clients on this exercise (1 and 2) we cut the anxiety and fear in half!
#1 Write down what you FEAR. Write out the details of why you fear and what could happen. Think about reasons you have to back up the fear.
#2 Tell someone else about your FEAR. Be graphic and detailed. Make sure you pick a supportive person that you trust and not someone who will laugh at you. That won’t help.
#3 Practice and Face your FEAR. If it’s a fear of flying, get on a plane.  A fear of public speaking? Visit a toastmasters session. Fear of firing the aggressive team member that is dragging the team down? Practice in the mirror until it’s clockwork. Pull in that supportive person from Exercise 2--your fear coach. 

A good coach helps you move past those blockers and gives you that encouraging ‘push’ when you need it most.

Beautiful scenes and a magical perspective awaited me at the top of the Duomo, but I almost ran the other way. The fact that I couldn’t gauge where I was or how much longer I had to be in a restricted space was overpowering me. In fact, had Carol not encouraged me exactly when she did I may have just run down the stairs. Seriously.

Check out what breaking through my phobias looked like from the top of the Duomo in Milan.

What have you discovered from breaking through fear and what is still in the way?

Let’s talk. Tweet me @KarinBellantoni