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Consider for a second how powerful positive memories can be. Can you think of a winning moment, even one that occurred in early childhood, that has fed your confidence over the years? I've never been much of an athlete, but the summer I was ten I joined the local swim team and won a bunch of blue ribbons in the breaststroke. Those ribbons, along with my decade of ballet lessons, left me with the life-long conviction that I'm a strong swimmer and a darn good dancer. It doesn't matter that I probably couldn't do ten laps of breaststroke today or that the last time I hit the dance floor was at a Bar Mitzvah three years ago. I remain unshakably convinced of my talents. Now consider the negative power of fear and anxiety-based memories. As part of our natural defense system, fear memories have such strong and lasting impact that many of us create entire mythologies around the time we almost drowned in a neighbor's swimming pool or were bitten by a stray dog. Humiliation, another holdover of our ancient survival system where not being part of a tribe meant swift extinction, is also a compelling contributor to feelings of fearfulness. See if you can recall a time you were ridiculed by the popular kid in class or got in a fight with the neighborhood bully. Odds are you can remember every detail. Just thinking about it now may bring up feelings of discomfort or even shame. Yet even when the physical danger is long gone or we're mature enough to deal with any emotional uneasiness, we can unknowingly remain fearful of situations that mirror those memories. Maybe we balk at venturing into the ocean with our children, shy away from giving office presentations, or decline to ask someone we're attracted to on a date because of similar past experiences. When we generalize the fear and pain of the past and unwittingly apply those negative feelings to our present life, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to take the kinds of risks that are necessary to create the personal and professional lives we so desperately desire. Hence, we repeatedly rob ourselves of the joy, pleasure and rewards we might otherwise reap if we were able to conquer our outdated fears. To make matter worse, if left unchecked, those negative recollections can actually grow over time because of the way we process and consolidate memories.  This process is called fear memory consolidation. Powerful memories including pain, rejection, humiliation and failure remain lodged in the amygdala region of the brain where they can be called up in appropriate situations, a bit like scanning through our computer's random access memory to find the file we need. Those memories were once critical in helping us remember that crocodiles are dangerous and, therefore, we should avoid them lest they take a chunk out of us. Now we're processing more data and less danger, but the intensity of fear memories still causes us to react emotionally rather than rationally. Good thing, too, since we would never have survived if we'd stopped to think through everything we knew about crocodiles and then


acted on the information. Further, because of what scientists now know about the process of memory consolidation, it appears that we actually grow our fears over time, often wrongfully attributing them to situations where the fear response is no longer relevant or useful. The traditional view on fear memory consolidation was based on the idea that our brain stored these powerful memories and each time we retrieved the information, we were pulling up the initial memory. But now most researchers in the field believe that we learn, store and retrieve not our initial memory, but the last memory formed. In other words, we continue to breathe new life into old fears, enlarging and embellishing them without our even realizing it. When we then globalize those fears, taking them into environments where they are either distracting or downright destructive, we set ourselves up for staying stuck. Take the case of Rene, who worked in marketing at a major technology corporation. Completely out of her element in the fast-paced high-tech environment, Rene longed to work for a company that was smaller, more laid-back and better suited to her personality. Although she was miserable, the thought of quitting what was considered a prestigious job put her in a panic. As she became increasingly unhappy, Rene fantasized about finding a new job but couldn't seem to make a move despite having great skills and connections. Four years later, Rene was still fantasizing about a job change. So what was the problem? That's exactly what we needed to discover. As with most people I guide through career transition, Rene worked out her CSE profile, looked at her underlying fear of failure (both failing at her old job and the one she didn't have yet), but there was clearly something more holding her back. Before she went through the motions of a resume update, informational interview or job search, we needed to identify the fear memory that was keeping her frozen in place. IS IT REAL OR IS IT MEMORY? If you're old enough, you might recall the TV commercial where you'd see an opera diva or pop singer, then hear her hit a high note or sing a signature riff. The question posed in the ad was, Is it real or is it Memorex? Meaning, were you hearing the singer live or listening to her on tape? The point was, of course, that it was impossible to tell the difference. Like Rene, with her inexplicably overblown anxiety about changing jobs, fear feelings can seem so real we believe that they are authentic.  But, in truth, they're recordings of our past, of what we used to feel, enhanced over time through our brain's memory consolidation process. So our behaviors, which eventually turn into habitual patterns, are reactions to fear memories rather than choices based on present-day feelings. Even with these new insights, Rene still felt paralyzed about finding a new job. So we decided to dig into her fear memory bank to see if we could locate what was keeping her stuck. This doesn't require agonizing hours of delving into your past or years of psychotherapy, though both may be helpful. It just requires that you ask the right questions, the right answers usually aren't far behind. Here's how Rene plugged her questions into the CSE framework:


Clarify (the fear): What does this fear of changing jobs remind me of? Simplify (the memory): What exactly were the circumstances of that negative experience? Execute (the change): What behavioral changes can I put in place to lessen or alleviate this fear? It didn't take Rene long to put her finger on the fear she was continuing to relive. She recalled that, when she was young, her father was an Air Force pilot and her family was constantly moving from place to place. Every two years throughout her childhood and adolescence, Rene would find herself starting over in a new school, trying to make friends and adjust to a new neighborhood or military base. Though some people thrive in that ever-changing environment, for Rene it was torture.  Although she was well aware that she preferred constancy to change and knew that she didn't want to raise her own children like she'd grown up, Rene had never connected her desire for job stability to her old fears about packing up and leaving all that was familiar to her. As she examined her fear memory, she began to see how she had enlarged the experience and transferred the anxiety to other areas of her life, particularly her career.  Although we often refer to overcoming fears, scientific evidence is mounting that what actually happens is that once we begin to react to the same stimulus without feeling fearful, the effect is cumulative. "The available data indicates that one does not unlearn fear but instead learns not to fear the threatening stimulus in particular contexts," says Dr. Denis Paré, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has been working to isolate the cells critical for overcoming the fear response. Like soldiers who learn to fear loud noises on the battlefield (another survival instinct), once they come home and re-acclimate to loud noises, over time they learn not to fear, or at least to minimize their fear of, those sounds. Obviously, Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome is nothing to take lightly. My point is that even something as serious as PTSD can be unlearned, given the proper treatment and attention.  Just like fear memories consolidate over time, unlearning fear memories also becomes a cumulative exercise. It's like the Old West wisdom of getting back on the horse after you've been thrown, the idea being that eventually you won't be afraid of getting thrown anymore. Over time, by making small changes in her life like remodeling her apartment and joining a new gym, Rene was learn not to equate change with fear. Eventually, after a fullscale search, she found a position in non-profit marketing which was a much better fit for her skills and temperament.         RISK-TAKER'S TOOL - Minimizing Fear Memories  Let's mine your memory banks to see what fears or anxieties you may be allowing to affect your current behavior.   Take a look at the list below and see if any of these situations remind you of events in your own life. Being in a severe accident or auto collision


Losing a loved one through divorce or death Experiencing a serious illness, your own or another's Panicking because you're out of control in a potentially dangerous situation like skiing or boating Surviving a natural disaster like a hurricane or earthquake Feeling humiliated in front of classmates, friends or colleagues Suffering the pain of rejection in a romantic relationship Being forgotten, ignored or disregarded at important times Failing at a competition, election or exam Being victimized by crime or violence  If none of the items on the list apply to you, thank goodness. Just think of one that feels more applicable to your life.   Now, without connecting too deeply to the intensity of that moment, take a few minutes to visualize the past event. Next, write a paragraph about your fear/anxiety memory, seeing if you can recall the details of the event as factually and objectively as possible. As you're writing your fear memory, ask yourself the following questions: Am I remembering the memory as opposed to the event itself? Is my memory factual? Real? Relevant? Have I embellished or enlarged the memory over time? Did I build the memory into some kind of personal story or mythology? Have I used the event or memory as an excuse to avoid risk-taking or challenge in my career or in my relationships? In other areas of my life? Now going back to our initial concept of fear as an evolutionary gift to keep us safe, ask yourself how that fear-inducing event, and the memory itself, has been a blessing in your life. While I don't believe that all bad things happen for a reason, I do believe that you can make the best of them. What lessons did you learn? What are you grateful for with regard to that situation? Now write another paragraph, even just a line or two, describing how that fearful event has transformed into a life blessing. RISK REINFORCEMENT - Now that you've identified a core fear memory that has limited your life, be on guard that it can pop up in different disguises. List all the ways that your fear has and may manifest and make a decision that you will push past that fear starting right now!


Libby Gill is a business coach, brand strategist and bestselling author who works with entrepreneurs and executives to achieve a higher level of success. To learn more about her new book YOU UNSTUCK, coaching, speaking and telecourses, or to sign up for her free newsletter, please visit http://www.libbygill.com/

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