Focus on where you want to go, not where you're afraid to end up

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Shawn Healy, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Fear and anxiety are like gravity: just enough will keep you grounded and protected but too much will crush you.

While fear is a protective device (and there are many benefits to experiencing fear), many of us experience fear or anxiety at levels that are unhelpful. To make matters worse, our natural reaction in the face of anxiety is to do the thing that is least helpful, that is, to focus on what we are afraid will happen.

A new associate who fears making a mistake is more likely to focus on that dreaded future mistake, not focus on all the details of the task at hand, miss something due to distraction, and end up making a mistake that he feared was coming. A solo practitioner who fears saying the wrong thing and upsetting a difficult client is more likely to avoid speaking to that client, thereby upsetting the difficult client.

While examples are plentiful, I find a metaphor more helpful. I give you the motorcycle metaphor.

I have been riding motorcycles for many years now. And in addition to it being an amazing activity (I understand I am biased), riding motorcycles has been very informative in terms of how to approach life’s fears in general. But before I get into that, allow me to give a little informational background on how motorcycles work.

As you know, motorcycles are two-wheeled motorized vehicles, which means that they are influenced by gyroscopic forces that help the motorcycle stay upright when it is traveling forward (above 5 miles an hour). The forward momentum (and gyroscopic forces) of the motorcycle maintains its balance and direction.

In order to change directions while moving (steering), the motorcycle has to be tipped over in a controlled fashion. The way you tip over a motorcycle in motion is through counter-steering or, in other words, turning the front wheel in the opposite direction that you want to go (and by “turning” I mean applying slight pressure). Turning the front wheel to the left will start to tip the motorcycle over to the right, and hence change directions to the right.

Most motorcyclists who have been riding a considerable length of time have encountered the situation of riding on an unfamiliar road and coming into a corner that turns out to be much sharper than expected.

The natural reaction to this is intense fear. Specifically, a fear that you are about to crash, accompanied by rapid thoughts such as, “Oh, this is going to hurt,” or “My mother was right, I never should have started riding motorcycles. What was I thinking?”
The natural reaction is to look where you fear you will end up (the guardrail, a tree, a ditch), to apply the brakes to slow your rate of speed, and to tense up your muscles in expectation of a painful sudden stop.

That natural reaction, however, is the worst thing to do in that situation. Focusing on where you fear you will end up causes panic, which leads to tense arm muscles, which leads to the motorcycle being steered straight, and leads to applying the brakes, which stands the motorcycle upright, making it impossible to steer the motorcycle in the direction you actually want to go. The natural reaction actually makes it much more likely that you will crash.

The best thing to do in that situation is just the opposite, but it is quite unnatural. First, you should look where you hope you will end up (through the corner), lean into the corner more, which leads to a tighter turning radius, and maintain your speed or accelerate (stay off the brake), which increases the G force and traction. This unnatural reaction violates the old adage of “preparing for the worst” and can feel downright negligent.

Translating this to regular life, if you focus on where you fear you will end up (let’s say, in an argument with someone), your natural reaction will make it more likely that you will get there.

Scenario 1: You anticipate a fight, you become actively defensive in preparation, you tend to try to make sure your point of view is heard, you become tenser, and you become less flexible or compromising.

Or scenario 2: You anticipate a fight, you become passively defensive and withdraw, you try to acquiesce to avoid confrontation, you become more isolated and resentful, and your counterpart knows little about your interests or how to come to an honest agreement with you.

In both scenarios, all that leads to an increased chance of having an argument. However, if you were to focus on where you hope to end up (let’s say, having a helpful conversation that ends in a mutually beneficial outcome), you’re more likely to think well of the other person, which leads to a friendlier interaction, which allows you to think of compromises, which then increases your chance of coming to a mutually beneficial outcome.

I encourage you to test this out in your life. Identify a situation in which you would naturally focus on where you do not want to end up, try focusing on where you hope to end up, and act as if you are going to be successful in that desired end. See if that changes anything.

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Dr. Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He is the co-author of “The Full Weight of the Law” (an ABA publication) and he also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at shawn@lclma.org.