The Question That Ends Stress

By Don Goewey

We humans generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads. We can experience wildly strong emotions, provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar, all of it linked to fearful thought. That’s the bad news.  The good news is we can dissolve a stress reaction by asking a simple question: What am I afraid of?

I once conducted this exercise with a prominent corporate lawyer.  This lawyer was in litigation with another attorney, both of them representing powerful corporations. My client was furious with the opposing attorney,  perceiving her  as a crook and a shyster.  The case began to consume him. He thought about the case incessantly, lost sleep over it, and became impatient and demanding with his legal team.  It reached the point where he began to lose his edge and make bad decisions.

I asked my client, “In this situation, what are you afraid of ?”

Losing, was his answer.

What are you afraid of if you lose the case? I asked.

Looking like a fool, he said.

What’s the fear of looking like a fool?

That I will lose my reputation.

What’s the fear in losing your reputation?

Losing my clients.

What’s the fear in losing clients?

Being asked to leave the firm.

What’s the fear under this?

That I will end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street, he answered wide eyed.

I read his fear statements out loud, turning it into a story.  He laughed at it, basically it’s ridiculous. Of course, what is not funny is the way his storyline was operating unconsciously, beating him down with fearful images, negative self-talk and attack thoughts that obliterated his confidence, optimism and leadership.

You can perform this exercise yourself. Here’s how: Take out piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, dividing it into two columns.

  1. Close your eyes and bring to mind a stressful situation that occurred recently.
  2. Tune into this stressful situation. Experience it again. Make it vivid, as if it were happening all over again.
  3. Now ask yourself: in this stressful situation, what am I afraid of?
    When you have your answer, write it down in the left column, keeping it to one sentence or a phrase.
  4. Next, reference back to the previously stated fear, asking yourself: what am I afraid of if this happens? Write it down in one sentence or a phrase.
  5. Repeat the process until you have identified five or more fears or until you feel complete.

The next step is to inquire if there is any real basis to these fears. Return to the first fear on your list. Clarify each fear by asking yourself:  What is a more realistic outcome?

Here is how his worksheet looked for my client, the lawyer.

  1. The fear of losing the case. Clarified: I have not lost the case yet. There is still a chance to win.
  2. The fear of looking like a fool. Clarified: I am not a fool. I’m a competent lawyer who has served his clients well in the past.
  3. The fear of losing my reputation. Clarified: I’ve made my bones. I am regarded as a respected litigator in this county.
  4. The fear of being asked to leave the firm. Clarified: They are planning to make me a partner.
  5. The fear that I will end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street. Clarified: I have always made enough money.

I asked the lawyer which scenario was closer to the truth: the fearful one or the one countering his fears?  He said the latter.  Once you have refuted the fears on your list, ask yourself: who would I be without these fearful thoughts? Write down your answer on a separate piece of paper. Post what you write where you will see it periodically over the next week.


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