My client, Leonard, owns a medium sized-distribution company. I’ve been coaching him for about six months. He’s had a bad temper as long as he can remember, which he blames on others. “Some people just tick me off,” he told me recently, “especially when they don’t deliver.” He’s not been aware, until recently, that he has no clear work agreements with his employees. His people are always doomed to disappoint him because they can only guess at what he wants. Leonard is angry and agitated a lot.
His realization that he doesn’t communicate clearly sparked a huge shift in his life. He became aware of how unaware he has been, both at work and at home. “You talk a lot about awareness,” he said to me as we walked through his warehouse one afternoon. “I’m seeing more and more that I act automatically, that I react to things the same way all the time. My wife tells me I’m a broken record, that I’m completely predictable. What’s behind the unawareness and my predictable, bad behavior?” he asked.
I was happy. Leonard was finally getting it. I explained to him that there are different levels of awareness, and different levels and qualities of being on “autopilot.” Sometimes we go on autopilot out of habit, boredom, or even efficiency—say, when we need to multitask—to walk, chew gum, and think about what we’re going to say to the boss at the budget meeting. But there’s another autopilot that we fall into, the one that’s caused by fear. Here’s what I told Leonard: Practice being aware of how often you think about fear. Ask yourself throughout the day, “What am I afraid of?”
Become aware of your thoughts about fear and your life will change. The fears may seem small at first, and you may not even consider them fears; like worrying about being embarrassed, or not being listened to, or appearing boring, or offending someone. There are bigger fears: losing your job, not making payroll, not being a good provider, or parent, or husband, or wife. And there’s always the fear of sickness and death.
Leonard began to see how his fears started with his thoughts. He thought it was lazy employees, the economy, or competitors that caused his fear and angry reactions. But it’s never something “outside” that triggers fear. Life events are neutral. They have no meaning except the meaning we give them—by what we think about them. It’s our thoughts that generate feelings. It’s our thoughts that cause fear. In fact, the scariest thing that can happen to you today is a thought. We become “victims of circumstance” when we take neutral events and interpret them in ways that cause negative feelings—feelings of fear (that often sound like, “What’s going to happen to me?”). And just so you know, other feelings like anger and sadness are just variations of fear.
How do you react to fear? You dredge up your old stories, the same war-torn tales you’ve been telling yourself and others for years to try to chase away the fears. You may make up a new story, but you usually access an old favorite. These stories are really lies because they don’t reflect reality at all; they distort reality and they’re a response to a specific fear. Here are some common ones, from the endless list of lies in our social lexicon: “You can always do better!” “You’re nobody ‘till somebody loves you,” “Winning is the only thing that matters,” “There’s something wrong with me,” “I’m not ready yet,” “It’s a jungle out there,” “I need more,” “Only the strong survive,” and “Don’t rock the boat.” Lies, every one of them. You access your story unconsciously and automatically. Your story is a habit. And it’s an unconscious, unbreakable habit until you become aware of it.
As long as your thoughts about fear remain unconscious, you’ll be unaware of how they fuel your stories. The strategy approach to the Enneagram teaches that there are nine strategies (“strivings to be”) associated with nine fears: If you’re afraid of being flawed, you strive to be perfect; if you’re afraid of being unloved, you strive to be connected; if you’re afraid of being worthless, you strive to be outstanding; if you’re afraid of having no identity or significance, you strive to be unique; if you’re afraid of being helpless, you strive to be detached; if you’re afraid of being unable to survive, you strive to be secure; if you’re afraid of being deprived, you strive to be exited; if you’re afraid of being harmed or controlled, you strive to be powerful; if you’re afraid of being abandoned, you strive to be peaceful. You adopt stories to support the use of your specific strategy—why you must always be this way. Habits form, flexibility, spontaneity and creativity disappear, and you’re living a life of unawareness and inertia. Nothing seems to change. You react the same way all the time. Your life is on autopilot.
Leonard was unaware that his same old thoughts caused the same old fears, which caused the same old stories. His primary fear was around being dominated, hurt, or controlled. His strategy was striving to be powerful; he wanted to express his will, and to avoid weakness. The stories he created were about losing control, being dominated by others, and about his need to be powerful and in control. His stories made his strategy make perfect sense, and his strategy seemed to make his fear go away, at least for a while.
Thoughts about Leonard’s main competitor, Tri State Distribution, always sent a chill up his spine. The facts were: Tri State was bigger, older, and regularly stole some of Leonard’s customers because they had better prices. Leonard’s thoughts and fears were: “Someday Tri State will steal all my customers and drive me out of business. My suppliers won’t deal with me. I won’t be able to make payroll or pay myself. I won’t be able to pay my mortgage. I’ll be penniless and on the street.” His strategy was: “I’ve got to be powerful, all the time, in every situation.” His stories sounded like: “Only the strong survive. If I’m not tough, people will goof off; they’ll take advantage of me. My sales people have got to make a lot more sales. My warehouse people have got to load a lot more trucks. I’ve got to whip my people into shape and show them who’s boss. That’s the only way I’ll survive.” Every time Leonard thought about Tri State he felt powerless and afraid and acted automatically, predictably, and badly. That’s when he’d storm into the warehouse and scream, wave his fist, and drop the “F” bomb on a forklift operator.
Leonard’s habitual behavior of striving to be powerful, regardless of what the situation called for, prevented him from thinking and acting differently. Being powerful was not called for in this situation. He needed to be more detached, more analytical, and more logical. He needed to do some planning and to market differently. The point is, always relying on his automatic strategy of striving to be powerful derailed his efforts to be successful and more competitive. He was using a hammer when he should have been using a screwdriver, or a wrench—or a computer!
Fear makes you behave in a limited, habitual way. But without fear you’re flexible, free to be curious, creative, and spontaneous. This is the way you were as a child, like a jazz musician: improvising, creating and playing, beat-by-beat, moment-by-moment. Remember when you played cops and robbers, or “house,” or “hospital?” You were the scriptwriter, director, actor, and audience. You had no fear. You didn’t worry about the opinions of the critics, or having a flawless performance, or having a degree from the Actor’s Studio. You weren’t controlled by an old, static “story.” You were fearless. You were all action.
Remember when the crayons came out? You weren’t afraid to create pictures with red grass or purple elephants. You weren’t concerned about an art degree from the Sorbonne. And sand castles? No degree in architecture required. No story needed. You were curious, industrious, absorbed, and lost in your creation. You would miss lunch if Mom didn’t drag you to it.
Leonard’s work is about becoming aware of how his thoughts trigger the same old fears of losing control and being taken advantage of—how he unconsciously relies on being powerful as a strategy regardless of the situation—and how he is trapped in the same stories: “Only the strong survive,” “You can’t trust anybody,” “It’s my way or the highway,” or one of a thousand other variations.
What would your life be without fear? It would be a life of flexibility, curiosity, creativity, and joy. You’d be free, and you’d be fearless. And you wouldn’t need all your stories.
BOB TALLON is and writer, speaker, teacher and coach, and the author of The Enneagram Connection: Using the Enneagram and Emotional Intelligence to Transform Personal and Work Relationships, and the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change. He specializes in team building, and executive and life coaching.