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How to free yourself from fear-based decisions

As long as our subconscious thought and behavior patterns remain unseen, we have no choice but to follow them. We act out the same scripts over and over again, wondering why we’re not improving. We might even begin to let go of the growth we want, thinking we simply don’t have the personality for it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

As a coach, my role is never to help founders make decisions, rather it is to help founders see the patterns and frameworks that underlie their choices so that they can make their own decisions more consciously. By training ourselves to see our thought and behavior patterns objectively, as something apart from ourselves, rather than as part of our immutable “self,” we are presented with a choice:

Follow the automatic pattern you’ve always followed and get the results you've always gotten, or choose differently.

So much of my work is centered around this process: moving the mind from subject to object, so it can be consciously managed and improved. This means helping a founder see her purpose clearly, those things that she most wants to move toward, and also her fears, that which she wants to move away from (although in my experience, moving away from discomfort is rarely the answer to the change we seek. More often, the better course of action is to know our fears, and therefore ourselves, better).

I wrote recently about two powerful tools I use to help founders become intimate with their desires (the death context and present-focused purpose). Today, I want to share one of the most powerful tools I use in helping founders become intimate with their fears. Maybe you’ve heard of the Enneagram.

Put together by Oscar Ichazo in the sixties, the Enneagram is a modern synthesis of a number of ancient wisdom traditions, designed primarily to help uncover the relationship between a person’s essence and their ego (or personality). In Ichazo’s own words: "We have to distinguish between a man as he is in essence, and as he is in ego or personality. In essence, every person is perfect, fearless, and in a loving unity with the entire cosmos; there is no conflict within the person between head, heart, and stomach or between the person and others. Then something happens: the ego begins to develop, there is a transition from objectivity to subjectivity; man falls from essence into personality." In one sense a personality profile similar to DISC, Kolb or Meyers Briggs, the Enneagram is in another sense completely different-- it is an amazingly effective tool to help people identify and become familiar with their fears. Specifically how, more often than not, their fears run their lives.

Why in the hell would I want to become familiar with fear? Because until you see and understand fear as an object, with its own characteristics, causes, and effects, it controls you. Fear is what decides how you allocate your budget. Or whether you let go of a faulty strategy or a problem employee, or hang on until it’s too late. Your fear sees these situations as matters of life and death, and in trying to keep you safe, your fear decides your life even if you think it’s just your personality. Or fate.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”― C.G. Jung

The Enneagram divides people into one of nine personality types based on the fear that drives them. Regardless of your type, fear plays a bigger role than we like to think in our decision making process. It’s not that fear always makes bad decisions (for most founders their fear is highly adapted to their environment, as it’s gotten them to where they are), it’s simply that it’s automatic, and will follow the familiar patterns in all similar situations. In other words, fear-based decisions will get you the results you’ve always gotten.

I’ve written before about the problems this type of fear-patterned behavior causes in organizations, although since we are not generally comfortable talking about fear directly we usually deal with the symptoms rather than the fear itself. It’s easier to address bad board management or cofounder infighting than it is to tackle the fear pattern that drives both of them. But while we may be able to force ourselves to act differently or learn different skills in the boardroom, until we recognize and deal with the fear pattern itself, we will continue to make boneheaded decisions in the moment and wonder why the hell we did that.

The alternative is to train yourself to see your fears in action in the moment. Once you see your fear truly, as a set of automatic impersonal patterns triggered as a response to some environmental stimulus, you can choose to let them go. Or to embrace them, or heavens to Betsy, maybe even to confront them head on. If you do that, all of a sudden, you can see what lies beyond their limits. Nothing creates artificial limits quite so effectively as fear. And nothing in life is quite as rewarding as what lies beyond those limits.

Fear as the bedrock of personality

Let’s approach this distinction between subject and object, particularly as it relates to the contents of your mind, head on. Nothing screams “subject” quite so much as one’s personality. It’s nearly the definition of a subject. It’s who I am. My personality. These are synonyms, right? Wrong. Far from being “you,” from the perspective of the Enneagram your personality is a direct response to your deepest fear. The process goes like this:

  • When you were very young (<5yo) something important happened, from which you learned something bad about yourself. Something that scared the crap out of you. Maybe you already know what this was.

  • For example, you might have seen mom and dad arguing, and you wanted to stop them, but as a three year-old, you couldn't. So at that moment you realized that you weren't good enough. (Other learnings take different forms -- not strong enough, not smart enough, not lovable -- each one corresponding to one of the nine Enneagram types.)

  • In response to this terrifying realization, you commit to yourself that you will never again feel that feeling. The fear of this feeling is so strong, you are willing to do anything to avoid it. And so you develop your personality, with all its wonderful attributes and quirks, as a kind of barrier between you and that feeling.

  • For example, when you learn that deep down you are not good enough, you might develop a personality of an achiever, someone who works their ass off to get accolades from the world in an attempt to cover up innate feelings of worthlessness with ceaseless mounds of praise. If this describes you (raises hand), know that this describes a lot of entrepreneurs, and Alice Miller talks about this dynamic at length inThe Drama of the Gifted Child.

  • As you grow, confirmation bias does its thing and you see evidence of your not-good-enough-ness everywhere, continuously reinforcing and strengthening your belief. The boundaries between you and your personality dissolve, and you forget that you ever had a choice.

The vast majority of adults are their personality. They have no choice in their personality, because they don’t see the distinction between those two things. That’s where the Enneagram is so powerful.

How the Enneagram helps you become familiar with your fears

By outlining our most intimate fears in high definition, along with the personality they gave rise to and support, the Enneagram allows you to see these things as an It, a (sometimes unhelpful) pattern that controls your actions and thoughts when you’re not paying attention, rather than You. Once you see your fear as an object out there, rather than an inalienable part of who you are, you have a choice of how to deal with it. Easy to say, but when the fight/flight/freeze reflex kicks in, it’s hard to find the mindfulness to notice it amidst all the reacting. You could meditate for 10 years to train yourself to see your mind in action, or you can provide your mind a high-definition photograph of the specific language your fear uses, so you’ll be more likely to notice it because you know what you’re looking for. Just like you see your unique Volkswagen everywhere the moment you buy a new car.

Over time, as you become more and more intimate and familiar with your fear patterning, both at a language level as well as at a somatic level (what fear feels like in your body and where it lives -- the next level of training after the Enneagram), the unlearning process begins. Your fear-supported personality (there is no other kind) doesn't go away, but it has progressively less control over your day to day actions. In other words, you gain more conscious choice over your life.

And giving you that, in a nutshell, is my mission as a coach. Feeling ready to get started? Find a free 30 minutes and $12, and take the RHETI test. (Yes, you can take free versions. No, it’s not the same.)

Who is Ryan Vaughn?

Ryan is an executive coach for startup founders at Inside Out Leadership, a role in which he gets to help founders expand into leaders. He's a 3x Founder/CEO who’s raised $20m+ in VC and built a market-changing company, as well as two other companies that taught him things. He's an avid writer, meditator, reader, athlete, father, husband, amateur physicist, student of leadership, and adventurer. He's also none of those things. Here’s a more detailed bio.

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