Some fear is normal and healthy. It's a helpful animal instinct that kept our ancestors from being eaten by bigger animals. Fear, generally speaking, keeps us out of trouble. However, it can be paralyzing if not examined or kept in our modern context. Fear can pop up when we start to think about the "what ifs." Changing jobs, starting a new business, or leaving a partner are just a few examples that commonly spark fear in an unproductive way that inhibits our ability to make our best decisions.

When facing these scenarios, common advice is to just buck up and don't be afraid. That advice is neither actionable nor realistic. Instead, you can develop a more productive relationship with your fears. By being open with yourself about what you're afraid of, you can use fear to your advantage to propel you forward and keep you out of avoidable trouble.

Getting to know your fears is an important part of getting to know yourself and how you react when bad things happen. One way to build that self-awareness is to think back to a time when one of your fears came true.

To start, pick a time in your life when you feared something bad would happen and then it did. Think about a big area in your life -- job, health, romantic relationships, etc. when something went terribly wrong. Once you have that event in mind, review and respond to the following questions. Grab a pen and a piece of paper and jot down the first thoughts that come to mind. Don't overthink it.

  1. Before this bad event happened, what were you worried about?
  2. How did this fear come true?
  3. How did you feel the moment you first learned about this terrible event?
  4. While you were feeling what you were feeling, what did you do?
  5. What actions did you take to start to improve the situation?
  6. What worked? What didn't work?
  7. One week after the bad thing, how did you feel?
  8. What about a month later?
  9. Who came to help you out?
  10. Who said "I told you so" or reacted in a judgmental way?
  11. Did your pre-worrying about the event help prepare you?
  12. What did you learn about yourself going through that event?
  13. Do you think of yourself as resilient?
  14. Do you believe you are resourceful?

These questions are designed to help you better understand your fears and how you typically respond. Your answers can help give you perspective and prepare you for future difficulties.

3 months ago I lost a big client. It was exactly the thing I'd been most afraid of, and then it happened. It felt terrible in the moment and continued to feel pretty awful for several days after. I felt like a failure and was really worried about what it meant for the future of my business and career. As bad as that felt at the time, I didn't have any regrets about the risks I'd taken to get to that point. I also remembered that I have a remarkable support network and a lot of friends and colleagues who are willing to help out. I learned that I can be pretty resourceful.

Understanding your fears and how you respond in a crisis can help you be more prepared and better able to heal whatever damage is done. That's resilience.

We're all similar in that we're much more resilient than we realize. We learn and grow but don't always give ourselves credit for coming through the tough times. But these moments of struggle are opportunities to gain strength and build up our confidence. They're also opportunities to think of how we can be more prepared for future hardships.

Immediately after reflecting on what you did the last time you faced adversity, answer this simple series of questions to put your current fears in context.

  • What is your biggest fear currently?
  • What's the worst case scenario if your fear comes true?
  • Who will be there to help?
  • What reasonable action could you take today to minimize some of the damage if that bad event where to happen?
  • Will you be able to get through your worst case scenario and recover?

I'll fill in the answer for you on this last one: Yes. You'll survive just like you have whenever bad things happened before. You're so much stronger and more resourceful than you give yourself credit for. Answering these questions builds further self-awareness about your fears, what might happen if they come true, and your ability to react and respond.

Published on: Dec 22, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.