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How Introverts Can Navigate Fear Successfully

Quiet strengths can help you win.

StockUnlimited, used with permission
Source: StockUnlimited, used with permission

What role does fear play in the career of an introvert? For me, it has played a central role—whether it was my hesitation to speak up at meetings during my corporate career or my perfectionism preventing me from committing my thoughts to the written word over the years. Professionally, I’ve always gone after whatever scares me the most. And currently, as a coach, I enjoy helping my clients navigate their career obstacles.

Speaking of obstacles, I found answers to handling the mother of them—fear—in the new book, Untangling Fear in Lawyering: A Four-Step Journey Toward Powerful Advocacy by Heidi K. Brown. She gears it toward lawyers, yet her insights apply across the board. And while her book doesn’t focus on introverts, she agreed to help tease out the answers her research provides introverts.

This interview is on the heels of our prior one, “How Introverts Succeed as Lawyers,” based on her book, The Introverted Lawyer: A Seven-Step Journey Toward Authentically Empowered Advocacy. Brown is the director of the legal writing program and an associate professor at Brooklyn Law School.

NA: What inspired you to write Untangling Fear in Lawyering?

HKB: In researching and writing my prior book, The Introverted Lawyer, I learned the differences between introversion and extroversion, but also the differences among introversion, shyness, and social anxiety.

I’m an introvert who likes to think before I speak, and I process stimuli, information, and questions internally before sharing my thoughts aloud. But I also often experience shyness and social anxiety—different from introversion—which can stem from a fear of judgment, criticism, or exclusion.

In writing about how introverts can amplify our voices authentically, I realized I needed to delve more deeply into what drives my own fear of others’ evaluation, which can cause self-censorship. That led me to study the science of fear—what happens to our brains and bodies in certain intense performance moments.

For introverts, who naturally prefer to process thoughts before speaking, the added fear that others might—erroneously—size us up as less engaged, competent, or intelligent can cause some of us to stumble, even though we have a wealth of creative insights and ideas to share. Untangling Fear focuses on how to identify unhealthy drivers of fear, and how to engage practical mental and physical techniques to thrive in any performance scenario.

NA: That sounds incredibly useful. What are the main insights from your research, and how do they apply to introverts—even those who aren’t in the legal profession?

HKB: Often, well-meaning mentors advise introverts to “just speak up” or “fake it till you make it” or “just prepare and practice, and you’ll be fine.” That type of advice never worked for me.

Fear blocks learning and performance. Our fight-or-flight response initiates, and our brains and bodies go into what experts call an “amygdala hijack.” Our brains and bodies shift focus to protecting us from a perceived threat. So instead of being able to access substantive intellectual content quickly, it takes some of us even longer to respond to questions, jump into a debate, or participate in a rapid-fire dialogue. In my research, I learned how we can recognize this automatic fear response, consciously interrupt the process, and retake control of our thoughts and our physical reactions.

First, we can train ourselves to notice the onset of fear-driven physical responses, like a rapid heartbeat, sweating, blushing, or perhaps the launch of a negative internal soundtrack. Next, we acknowledge, “Oh, that’s just fear here again.” Then, we remind ourselves of our power to retake mental control and focus on our substantive preparation and the truth about our performance abilities. We adjust our physical stance to facilitate the productive flow of oxygen, blood, and energy. Ultimately, we move through the performance with enhanced fortitude.

NA: It sounds productive to go from awareness of the fear to making the necessary adjustments to navigate it with confidence. What surprised you most about your research results?

HKB: While I never considered myself a “real athlete,” I realized that any of us can untangle our fears and perform masterfully if we begin to regard ourselves as athletes.

NA: That sounds like a useful mindset.

HKB: Yes. If we approach the process of preparing for performances in our daily personal and professional lives as an athlete would, we can improve our understanding of our fear drivers, and adopt techniques to set fear aside when we move into the spotlight.

In training, athletes run through drills and hone and fine-tune movements and behaviors. They do this over and over during training so routines and rituals become automatic in an actual performance. We can do the same.

NA: How does this approach apply specifically to introverts?

HKB: When we step into meetings, negotiations, or other scenarios where we are expected to speak, we initially might feel the familiar sensations of resistance to constant interruptions, multiple voices vying for attention, or competing stimuli. If we are self-aware enough to know how this resistance can manifest into fear—of not being heard, of being left behind, of feeling invisible—we can implement our athlete-style training.

We can notice our internal resistance, recognize that it is simply a form of fear, and launch a new mental soundtrack: “I’m prepared for this. I know what I’m talking about. I’m entitled to have a voice. I’m entitled to speak in my own style.” We also can recalibrate our physical frame to maximize effective oxygen, blood, and energy flow. By adopting an athlete’s balanced physical stance—seated or standing—with both feet on the ground, uncrossed arms, shoulders shifted back, and a straightened spine, we can slow our heart rate, calm our breathing, and allow our bodies to power our brains.

NA: In the chapter titled “The Science of Fear,” you share what happens to our brains and bodies when we feel fear. You describe the amygdala’s inability to distinguish between real threats and everyday distractions. Would you elaborate on that?

HKB: When the body is busy firing off fear hormones, pumping blood to our arms and legs, and dilating our pupils as part of the fight-or-flight response, it is not exactly focused on discerning a real threat from a false alarm or an easily solvable problem. In those moments, our brains do not distinguish between the level of threat posed by, for example, rough turbulence on an airplane or the sudden realization that we missed an important deadline. The physical fear response is the same.

But through enhanced self-awareness of how fear works, we can make a conscious effort to distinguish perilous from manageable hazards and put situations into realistic perspective so we can think clearly.

As author Meera Lee Patel notes in her book, My Friend Fear: Finding Magic in the Unknown, “Our brain is designed to protect us. It doesn’t always know the difference between facing a hungry shark or saying hello to a stranger. It’s up to us to teach it the difference.”

For individuals who freeze up during a public speaking scenario, for example, the initial fear response can feel as strong as if we just encountered a rattlesnake on a summer hike. Through the mental and physical training mentioned earlier, though, we can get much better at staying in the moment and assessing that we are not realistically at risk of bodily harm.

NA: What role does fear play in making mistakes?

HKB: Ed Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and longtime president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, warns about the relationship between a fear culture and a lack of creativity in his book, Creativity, Inc.

He says, “In a fear-based, failure-averse culture, people will consciously or unconsciously avoid risk. They will seek instead to repeat something safe that’s been good enough in the past. Their work will be derivative, not innovative. But if you can foster a positive understanding of failure, the opposite will happen.”

So, fear of making mistakes can thwart creativity. On the flip side, unchecked fear can cause mistakes. In many professional scenarios, if we fear that asking for help or seeking guidance will make us look incompetent at our jobs, we might forge ahead on our own and make mistakes that are easily avoidable.

Untangling Fear seeks to highlight the connections between fear and mistake-making in the legal profession, and encourages law offices to foster a culture in which new attorneys are not afraid to ask for help solving complicated legal problems or making complex judgment calls. In any work environment, we can provide educational and professional development training on how to process fear so that we can reduce, anticipate, recognize, admit, and resolve mistakes.

NA: Great. Here’s to encouraging more work environments to support employees around fear. On another note, would you summarize your four steps to fortitude in lawyering—and their broader applicability to introverts in many occupations?

HKB: In The Introverted Lawyer, I outlined a seven-step process for amplifying our voices authentically, instead of trying to fake or force extroversion. In Untangling Fear, I refined those steps to focus on untangling our individual drivers of fear and adopting mental and physical techniques for disrupting our automatic fear response, staying present, and thriving in each performance.

I call Step 1 “comparative fearlessness”: identifying scenarios in our personal and professional lives that—by society’s standards—arguably should induce fear but do not, and those that seemingly should not, but do. We then discern the differences between those two sets of circumstances.

In Step 2, we reframe and reboot our mental approach to fear—using vulnerability, authenticity, and humility to tap into personal power. We listen carefully to, and then transcribe verbatim, any negative messages that automatically launch and replay in our heads in anticipation of, or during, a performance event. We note the outdated or inaccurate nature of these messages. We delete the old messages and launch a new mental soundtrack.

In Step 3, we cultivate an athlete’s mindset toward the physicality of fear. We first conduct a physical inventory, notice any automatic yet unhelpful physical fear responses, and then adopt new physical stances, postures, and movement techniques to better manage and channel excess energy ignited by the fight-or-flight response.

Finally, in Step 4, we foster a culture of fortitude in tackling individual legal challenges and in helping others within our professions untangle fears. We make it okay to talk openly about fears—toward judgment, criticism, mistake-making, and exclusion.

NA: What are a few practical strategies for managing fear?

HKB: Individuals who are fortunate enough to not have to grapple with destructive fear often proffer advice like, “Just face your fears . . . Conquer your fears . . . Just do it . . . Fake it till you make it . . . Do something every day that scares you . . . If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” To untangle my own fear, I had to give myself permission to reject these cliché messages about how easy it should be to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” or how fear is “the world’s greatest motivator.” My fear doesn’t work that way.

What does work is highlighting areas in our personal lives in which we already are fiercely courageous. We discern the differences between those scenarios and others in which we feel fear. Then we study our automatic mental and physical responses to fear.

What mental messages are we telling ourselves about our abilities that are not true or accurate? Can we delete and overwrite those outdated or flawed messages with accurate truths about our performance abilities? For example: “I’m prepared for this. I know what I’m talking about. I have something important to say. I deserve to be here.”

What unhelpful physical responses do our bodies launch in the face of fear? Do we hunch our shoulders, make ourselves small, cave inward? Instead, we can open up our frames, stand in an athlete’s balanced stance, breathe, and remind ourselves that we can retake control. Reframing our mental and physical approaches to fear helps us move into, and through, each performance with maximum personal power.

Raymond Montalvo, used with permission
Heidi K. Brown
Source: Raymond Montalvo, used with permission

NA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

HKB: Through writing Untangling Fear, I became hyper-aware of the barrage of fear messages that permeate our daily personal and professional lives.

To untangle our individual fears, it’s really important to honor the fact that some scenarios in our personal and professional lives simply are going to be harder or scarier for some of us than others. That’s okay. We can acknowledge that reality out loud. It doesn’t mean that we—as introverts or shy or socially anxious folks—aren’t “cut out” for our chosen professions. Quite the contrary. By studying the basic science of fear, recognizing our own automatic mental and physical responses—our bodies’ and brains’ natural drive to protect us—and making subtle, but pivotal, shifts in our mental messages and physical stances, we truly can become our most powerful selves.

Copyright © 2019 Nancy Ancowitz

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