How to Overcome Anxiety by Making it Your Only Option

Earlier tonight, I was working on a Web site for a client and having some trouble with the version control software I use (called Subversion). Most programmers these days have told Subversion to kindly piss off and have moved on to more modern systems like Git or Mercurial. I’d been wanting to get familiar with Git for awhile now, but had always shied away from it because, frankly, I knew almost nothing about it other than it was super sweet and would give me six-pack abs and a better singing voice or something. So, a little while ago, I decided that the only way I was going to ever get started with Git was to hold my nose and jump in. I promised myself that, unless shit went very wrong, I was going to continue on this path, seeking help as I needed it and hoping like hell that everything would be a-ok. I looked my goofy fear of the unknown right in the eye before punching it in the throat and striding confidently past. It feels freakin’ awesome.

We’ve all seen movies or television shows where the handsome hero grabs the systems manual from the trembling nerd’s hands and tosses it out of the helicopter window (or, you know, something similar). He knows that the only way for El Dorko to solve the problem is to stop waffling and start thinking. Of course, the geek initially loses his marbles and is ready to pack it in because any hope he had of rewiring the reactor is now floating gently toward the surface of the Atlantic, but after a quick, heroic pep talk from the leading man, he wipes his brow and starts actually thinking about the problem. He’s forced to rely on what he knows and, while he may not get the problem figured out before the end of civilization, he’s damn sure he won’t meet his fiery end while trying to follow a manual. It’s his time to get creative and, ideally, save the day. Mr. Dreamy (who, for some odd reason, I imagine is being played by late-80’s heartthrob Tom Selleck) knew that the nerd would spend the rest of his short life second guessing his abilities if he kept reading the manual.

Ned (the nerd’s name, I’ve just decided) had every right to get good and freaked out in that spot. After all, he’d spent his whole life thinking about problems and solutions the way his professors taught him — evaluate all possible scenarios, consider their various permutations and possible outcomes before having a Diet Mountain Dew and, if the stars were aligned, give the most correct solution a try. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fear or anxiety when you’re staring at a problem that really seems beyond what you’re capable of. The thing is, this is precisely the kind of fear that will stand between you and success, laughing maniacally and polishing its monocle while a puddle quietly forms between your feet. Fear is acceptable, but only if viewed as a challenge to be overcome, an opponent to be bested.

In reality, throwing the systems manual somewhere permanently out of reach may have been a tad excessive (though, we are talking about my own made-up Hollywood). While the whole point is to force yourself into something you’re scared to undertake, it’s probably a good idea to leave yourself some type of out. Before I migrated the Web site to Git, I made a full copy of the site that lives elsewhere because, after all, these people are paying me and they probably wouldn’t want to find out that several days worth of work was lost because I got all cowboy on a weeknight. If you do give yourself a way of backing out of your quest, make sure it’s both a little costly to do so (in terms of time or even money) and make yourself a solemn promise that you won’t make use of it unless you absolutely have to. Remember that, unless you’re the nerd in the helicopter, you can probably find help with whatever you’re trying to do and, therefore, avoid stepping away from the big purple monster. Be bold, but be reasonable.

The thing that scares you doesn’t have to be as crazy as a reactor that needs rewiring or as banal as a version control system. It can be anything at all. Here are a few more practical examples:

  • Buy a non-refundable plane ticket to a place you’ve always wanted to go but have no idea how you’ll survive once you get there.
  • Go to a car rental place and rent a stick-shift (and, for Pete’s sake, get the insurance).
  • Tell your family that you’re going to make them homemade Gnocchi for dinner and they can beat you senseless with a phone book if you don’t deliver.

Believe me when I say that, if you legitimately do this and try like hell to not look back, you’ll feel superhuman once you hit the finish line.

Now go find your something you’re afraid of and kick its ass without mercy. Or try a new version control system.

Photo by divemasterking2000


  1. Harper Shelby says

    Nice – reminds me of a similar situation I had way back in my high school days. I was trying to learn my lines for a play, and couldn’t do it until I *quit holding the script*. As soon as I forced myself to drop the crutch, I was off and running.

  2. Lucy says

    Great tip . Though, one must be conscious that deadlines and tossing away manuals can be addictive on the long rung

  3. brenda says

    As I writer, I loved these lines…”There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fear or anxiety when you’re staring at a problem that really seems beyond what you’re capable of. The thing is, this is precisely the kind of fear that will stand between you and success, laughing maniacally and polishing its monocle while a puddle quietly forms between your feet.” And the whole point of your post wasn’t overlooked either. Good stuff.

  4. Dario says

    I did this just the other day. I confronted myself with my deepest darkest irrational fear. I think there is a thing in this world that could make me flinch now, because I shocked myself by how calmed and relaxed I was during the whole process. Mainly because I didn’t want the world to see be completely freaking out.

  5. says

    This does remind me of the sales calls I have to make. Just pinch yourself and do it. Just keep going and going. At the end of the day you get immense satisfaction.

    Highly recommended that everyone try something crazy for a change.

  6. Josh says

    I took a trip to New York City something that I had been wanting to do, I’ve always had an anxiety issue. So I bit the bullet and got in my vehicle and just went and I had booked non-refundable hotel rooms and a few other things so it didn’t allow me to turn back. In the end I enjoyed every minute of it and saw some amazing stuff and hung out with family and had a great time and now i want to go back.

  7. says

    Great article! Reminds me of when I was doing a lot of programming in Flash. I would have to weigh the difference between the amount of effort it would take me to try to massage the code I had into doing what I wanted and scrapping the whole thing to look for another better approach. It’s a fine line and the quicker you learn to make that decision without looking back the better!

  8. SACHA WALKER says

    I really appreciate this article. I thought I was crazy but in reality I just learn that was a way of overcoming my fear of certain things. I would try, I would get my self hurt even if later I realize that it’s not worth it. I see my self in your example of renting a stick shift. Actually in my case I bought a brand new stick shift car and then learn how to drive one on UTUBE. My family and friends thought I was irrational. But hey! i did it and I am very confortable driving it now. uphill, downhill, no problem.


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