Leana Wen, M.D.

Leana Wen M.D.

The Doctor Is Listening

3 Steps to Turn Your Fears Inside Out

Lessons learned from a lifelong battle.

Posted May 05, 2014

Have you ever had a shameful secret, something you hid from the world, something you wished more than anything that you could get rid of?

I did. Growing up, I had a severe stutter that was often so bad I couldn’t get out any words at all. One of my earliest memories is hiding in the janitor’s closet during recess so I didn’t have to talk to anyone. In second grade, I stabbed myself with a pencil so I could get out of answering in class. That piece of pencil lead is still in my leg as a testament to my shame.

If only I could get over my deepest shame, my terrible fear.

Surely fear is something bad, because it prevents us from reaching our goals. Books and movies are filled with stories of success that only come after overcoming fear and facing adversity. So how do you select for the good parts of fear that build character rather than destroy confidence? In my struggle to come to terms with my stuttering, here are three lessons that helped me the most:

  1. Separate fear from shame, and take shame head on. It took me many years to learn that shame is different from fear. Fear is when you are afraid of something, afraid of doing or trying something. Shame is when what you are afraid of is yourself. Hiding feeds shame, and openness is its antidote. To overcome fear, we have to first overcome shame.
  2. Tackle your “what if?” with “so what?” There are four words that plague us and feed shame and fear: "What if I fail?" Instead of avoiding them, answer with two more: “So what?” If there’s something you want to do, what’s the worst that will happen if you go for it? We know the answer, right? We’ve all been there. Nobody will laugh. You won’t die. As Tina Fey says, you can't be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.
  3. Ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen if I DON’T do it? Who will it hurt? If you want to be a doctor and don’t become one because you’re too afraid, who will serve your community? If you’re afraid of speaking up to help someone in need because you’re afraid of stuttering, who will do it instead? All of us are here today because other people made sacrifices, because they faced fear head on for us. Now it’s our turn, for those who follow.

In February, after more than 30 years of hiding, I finally “came out” and talked about my stuttering in this TED talk. Becoming open about your deepest, darkest secret—it’s not easy. Actually, it’s downright scary to open that closet door when you spent your whole life keeping it shut.

Today, I encourage you to join me: to find what it is you’re really ashamed of and bring it out into the open. To figure out what it is you really want to do, and do it here and now. To reframe your fear and turn it inside out, from shame for yourself into action for others.

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