Have you ever come to one of those fork-in-the-road moments where you face a difficult decision and start going back and forth, trying to figure out which way to turn? 

Perhaps you’re at a turning point like this right now.

I call these moments gates. 

Gates are moments of great decision or ordeal. Gates mark the boundary between the known and unknown worlds, between life as you’ve known it and life as it will be once you make your choice. The gate promises something valuable to those who dare cross, an invitation to develop wisdom you could not access any other way. But when you’re at a gate, it can feel agonizing. Not knowing what to do can create stress that permeates the rest of your life. 

When potential clients sign up for a discovery session with me, one of the three words they use most often is “confidence.” (The others are “clarity” and “focus.”) 

Confidence can mean a lot of things. If you asked my new clients what they mean, most would tell you that they want to 1) be sure they’re choosing the right path, and 2) get rid of their fear and doubt. 

The sometimes hard-to-hear news is that although it is entirely possible to reach a place where you feel confident that you’re making the best possible decision, it is entirely impossible to know with certainty what will happen after you make your decision. (I mean, deep down, most people know this, but it can be hard to be reminded.) And, it is virtually impossible to get rid of your fear.

Fear is an inevitable part of the journey. 

To embark on any new adventure, you must step beyond the safety of life as you’ve known it and the boundaries of who you’ve been. You cannot make the journey if you stay home. Even if you gather all the information available, you still cannot be certain of what awaits you on the other side of the gate. Not knowing what comes next is scary. It just is. 

Fear does not mean you’re on the wrong path. Fear is a normal physiological response when you’re about to take a risk, and you don’t know what will happen next. Fear is a sign that you’re on the edge of something new. When you’re responding to your heart’s calling, fear is usually a sign that you’re moving in the right direction. 

How you choose to view your fear will make the difference between staying stuck and moving forward.

In American culture, we’ve been raised with the myth that the only thing to fear is fear itself. But as Stanford health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, discusses in her TED talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend, this myth is quite harmful. McGonigal starts her talk by sharing about a study that looked at stress levels and death rates. The study found that people with the highest levels of stress also had the highest death rates. But (and this is a big but!) the people who had high stress levels and did not believe their stress was a problem had the lowest death rates of anyone in the study. 

McGonigal defines stress as “what arises when something you care about is at stake.” 

She writes that how you respond to stress depends largely on whether you think you can handle it. 

In other words, if you think stress is a problem, it likely will be.

When people see their stress as a threat, they are more likely to respond by freezing, fleeing, or fighting. Here are a few examples of what this might look like:

  • Freezing: You sit down to write, and the gears stop in your head. No words arise.
  • Fleeing: You clean the house, watch a movie, say yes to something you don’t actually want to do, stay late at work, or do anything besides doing the scary thing. 
  • Fighting: You turn the fight outward: You focus your attention on blaming someone else or life itself for the way things are. Or, you turn the fight inward: You beat yourself up for not taking action, or you argue against your Voice of Doubt.

Freezing, fleeing, and fighting have kept our ancestors safe since the beginning of time, and they can still be appropriate responses to dangerous situations. However, they serve us less well when we’re building a business or leading an organization or finding new work. 

People who believe their fear is a problem are more likely to try to avoid stressful situations or pursue meaningful goals. They are more likely to waste precious time trying to get rid of their fear, refrain from reaching out to allies, and get stuck in the Refusal of the Call. 

The good news is that if you see your stress as a normal part of a meaningful life, the odds are that you’ll be healthier, more productive, and more fulfilled than people who don’t experience much stress at all. When you stop trying to make the scared parts go away, you’ll likely still feel fear, but it will be easier to face your fear, keep showing up in the face of challenge, and pick yourself back up after you fall.

And great news! Even if you’ve always believed that your fear and stress were problems, you can still change your perspective.

Rather than trying to make your fear go away, you can choose to see your fear as an opportunity to become the person you want to be. 

In Mandarin, the character for “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” When you’re facing a gate, the danger can be considerable, but there can also be massive opportunity.

I invite you to pause and think back to a time in your life when you discovered a newfound sense of purpose or experienced significant personal growth. 

Pause long enough to bring a moment like this to mind.

Would you describe that time as stressful? Perhaps, even, scary? 

When I think about the most stressful time in my life, I remember back to twelve years ago. My partner had just been deported to Mexico (profiled and picked up while driving to work). I’d moved across the country from New Haven to Phoenix to continue my work while being closer to Mexico. I discovered that I was pregnant while at a routine doctor’s visit. And, then, I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, when I was seven months pregnant. I could go on about the gates I passed through and stresses I encountered over the next several years. 

Was this a time of danger and risk? Certainly. 

Was this also the moment of the most profound transformation that I’d experienced until then or since? Definitely.

Our most stressful and scary moments are often the moments we experience the most profound gratitude, strength, and connection. The challenge is that the gifts of our gates are often far easier to see in retrospect. It’s far easier to focus on what we’re letting go of than what we’re receiving. That said, we can always shift perspective.

As you face whatever gate you’re facing now, I challenge you to have compassion for the scared parts and to proceed with the questions: What do I have to gain? What is the opportunity here? 

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sending you lots of en-courage-ment and virtual hugs,

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