Tame Doubt and Fear: Enemies of Success
Have you ever dreamed of making a bold change in your life, only to be stopped short by the disabling forces of doubt and fear? Did you know that those forces start deep within our powerful brains? The disabling forces are part of our natural design, and understanding their origin and purpose may bring you one giant leap closer to the success and happiness you deserve.
Think of the reptile that lies on a dirt track, warming itself in the sun. As you approach, it rises to warn or attack you, slithers away, or lies motionless, hoping that its inactivity and camouflage will leave it undetected. These instinctive survival reflexes, originating deep within its brain, keep it safe.
The same reflexes exist in humans. Mother Nature built our primitive reptilian brain to enhance survival. These centers control instinctive neurological reflexes that keep us safe. When these centers are active, we respond with predictable behavior: fight, flight, or (sometimes) passive evasion.
Mother Nature subsequently enhanced the mammalian brain substantially, adding new layers that further ensured adaptive success and survival. First, she gifted us with our emotional brains, which drive us to nurture our offspring and collaborate with others, and then she followed that with our cognitive brains, which enable thought and reason. These latter strengths, and our huge cerebral cortices, differentiate us from all other animals.
But deep within our brains, our reptilian instincts persist—often loudly. Understanding their residual value is an important step on the road to personal mastery.
The deep, disturbing thoughts and emotions of the reptilian brain prompt survival behavior, even when the resulting actions are not particularly helpful—such as when you’re trying to make that bold change in your life. This is the trick to managing doubt and fear: understanding when they are valuable and when they are limiting, and then knowing how to overrule them when they are keeping you from success.
Doubt and fear are valuable when they alert us to real (mainly physical) danger. You should listen to the persistent voice that cautions you to hurry through (or better still, avoid) a dark alley in a dangerous neighborhood. The fear that grips you when you lean out of a window of the 112th floor of a skyscraper is valuable. In both situations, your reptilian brain is alerting you to real danger.
For the most part, those of us who live in safe, protected worlds are not often in real physical danger. Yet, I’m sure that you will agree that doubt and fear are frequent visitors in your mind. And, yes, you usually respond to them with fight, flight, or inactivity.
Remember the time in the fourth grade you had to sing the solo at the school concert in front of all the parents? Or the time you had to ask that good-looking boy out on a first date? Or the day you decided to register for the toughest course at your college or university? Or the day you dreamed about writing a book or starting a company?
In each of these cases, your reptilian brain responded in a protective manner. The serpent’s voice rang loudly in the chambers of your mind, probably in the form of a daunting question: “What if you forget the words and all the parents laugh at you? What happens if he rejects you? What will people think if you fail your final exams? What happens if nobody reads your book or patronizes your new business?”
Do you think that the reptilian brains of Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks, Taylor Swift, or Nelson Mandela asked these questions before they set out to change the world? You bet! They—and all successful people—have the same brains we do, the same survival instincts. So, something special is happening in their brains to negate or override the doubt and fear that keep the rest of us from the huge success we desire.
Not surprisingly, the secret lies in Mother Nature’s most recent gift, our cerebral cortex. Our cognitive centers are the only parts of our brain under our complete voluntary control. This gives us the ability to imagine, desire, and then deliver success. We control the reigns of success—if we choose to hold them.
Successful people employ several different strategies for managing their serpent voices. In each instance, they invoke the power of their cognitive brains.
First, they question the negative voices. They push back, demanding reasons for the fear and doubt. “Why should the parents laugh at me at the concert? Aren’t all they all just proud and happy? Don’t they want me to succeed?”
They challenge their reptilian brains. “I am smart. I have passed all my other courses this year. There is every reason to believe that I will be up to the challenge of this tough course, too.”
They repeat their positive arguments and beliefs. Each morning when the writer sits at her desk and the little voice starts chipping away at her confidence, she floods her mind with positive thoughts and images of herself as an accomplished writer. She visualizes success. The weight of these thoughts drowns the plaintive bleating of her protective brain.
And if all this fails, they distract their reptilian brains, busying themselves with the important tasks required to build a new business. Before long, it’s done and happy customers are leaving the store with loaded shopping carts.
Remember, the cognitive brain is under our complete voluntary control. The first step toward success is to understand that doubt and fear seldom alert us to real danger. The four counterstrategies above are within the capabilities of each and every one of us. We can practice them and perfect them. This is the proven road to success.
Your success is always in your own hands.
Dr. Roddy Carter, MD, has over 30 years of experience working across a range of medical disciplines and corporate settings.
At the height of his successful career, Roddy experienced a personal health and happiness awakening. During this profoundly transformative time, he began applying his deep knowledge of performance neuroscience to his everyday life. He discovered that, in moments of stress, the brain develops intricate psycho-protective adaptations to ensure our short-term survival; however, these adaptations often impose substantial residual limitations, create profound (and often hidden) distress, and prevent us from reaching our innate potential.
Today, Roddy is an executive coach and author dedicated to helping others unlock their full potential throughout their lives by applying compassionate neuroscience and sharing his unique approach to Personal Mastery™.