The Voice Of Fear


I really have changed.

Really? Do something different.

I didn't say I could do that.

People don't like change - biologically or emotionally.


Have you ever tried to change the way you work out? If you have worked out a certain way for a period of time, your body will object to any change you try to make. The same applies for why it's hard to start working out if you haven't done so for a while. Ultimately, if you want your muscles to grow, you have to confuse them. They will react to change by adapting - becoming stronger and more flexible - to meet the new demand. Continue any pattern long enough, and the body will fight to keep it.


Emotions are a little different - most of our patterns are created by fear. If we endure a painful experience, we put sentinels in place to prevent that situation from happening again. When we are young, we cannot differentiate between emotional pain and physical pain. Pain is pain. That's all we know. Thus, a sentinel becomes our friend. We use them to protect and guard us from the pain we experience. The problem is, sentinels are fiercely loyal and will not stand down on their own. They are like the royal guard in front of Buckingham Palace - at any time, they will guard us during a situation they protected us from in the past. As we become adults, this can make us incapable of change unless we consciously "relieve" them of duty. 


For example: If a person is hurt emotionally and pledges to “not get hurt again,” they have actually just assigned a sentinel to prevent close relationships that could lead back to that same type of hurt. Unless that person decides to open themselves to being hurt again by asking the sentinel to leave, they will forever find themselves in shallow relationships - the sentinel will do anything necessary to prevent a deeper relationship from forming. This is an example of a negative sentinel; one that will prevent future growth because of past hurt.


However, there can also be very positive sentinels.


For example: A person might overcome a drinking or drug problem by assigning a sentinel to stop that behavior. This form of sentinel is put in place to block future instances of physically and emotionally self-destructive behavior.


Here is an experience in my life that illustrates the power of sentinels and the even greater power of releasing them.



Lab to Litigator



Over the many years that I have taught golf, I had one student who made a life transition. Not in his golf game, but in his life because of golf.


The game of golf is unique to any other sport because it is only you. There is no time clock and no opponent. The ball is not moving. All eyes are focused on you. As a result, I can tell a lot about a person when I teach. I get a clear view of how they see the world, themselves and the role fear plays in their lives.


When most people walk into a golf lesson, they think it's all about hitting the ball - the lesson is to help them improve this task. In reality, it is not about hitting a ball, but rather about making a swing in which the ball simply gets in the way. This means that golf is about trust and surrender to the swing.


The ideas of trust and surrender are greatly influenced by fear. The old trust exercise of falling back into someone’s arms and trusting that they will catch you teaches you to trust. But, for most people, the vision is more reflective of the situation between Charlie Brown and Lucy, where she promises to hold the football and not pull it away at the last minute … but she always does. Trust does not come easy.


I want to take a moment to define trust.


In order to trust, there must be the possibility of betrayal. If there is no possibility of betrayal, there is nothing that requires trust. There also must be some form of payoff that makes trust worth the risk of betrayal. If there is no payoff, why risk trusting?


So when it comes to the game of golf, students must understand the payoff that will result in trusting their swing in order to override the desire of trying to strike at the ball. As I worked with the aforementioned student, I could not get him to trust his swing because he was so afraid of missing the ball altogether. The more drills I gave, the more frantic he became. I stopped the lesson and suggested we get a cup of coffee and discuss what was going on. To his credit, he opened up and told me he was terrified of embarrassing himself - he felt missing the ball would be the worst thing he could do.


As we talked, I could tell there was a past trauma that had created this powerful fear of embarrassment, so I took a chance and asked what it was. He stared at me for a moment, considering whether he wanted to share this with me. He decided he would not. I accepted that and told him, if he was to learn the game of golf, he would have to overcome his fear of missing the ball. I also said that, if he wanted to try it again, give me a call.


The call came six weeks later. We met for lunch at the range and he told me his story: At the age of nine, he was asked to get up in front of the class and give a report. Everyone had to do a report on the country of their choice. The exercise was to teach the students how to use an encyclopedia. He chose Brazil. He said he was nervous about getting up in front of the class but had no idea how afraid he was going to be. Once in front of the class, he froze. He could hear his heart pounding in his head.


After a moment, a few kids started to laugh. Then the whole room broke out in laughter, except for the teacher, who looked horrified. Before he knew it, he had peed his pants. Listening to him tell me this story, I could feel the stress as if it were happening. 


He went on to say he had avoided public speaking and any situation in which he might embarrass himself in front of others since that experience. He chose jobs that required little human contact and, in the few times a job required giving any kind of talk in front of people, he would quit and find a new one. When faced with a golf ball, he said the same feeling of public embarrassment comes over him. I thanked him for sharing this very personal experience with me and asked if he was willing to challenge his fear in order to learn the game. He said he would try, so long as he could quit at any time. I agreed and we went to the furthest corner of the range for our first lesson.

He was paralyzed initially but, over time, I was able to desensitize him to his fear (at least on the range) with a couple of drills designed to give him quick success. Once he had enjoyed a little bit of success, we continued to build on that success and he began to relax. Eventually, he not only trusted his swing, he surrendered to it. His swing became a place of comfort - away from the stress of performance and fear. The next step was for him to play a public course and stand on the first tee.


When he was ready, I scheduled a tee time and told him I would play with him to make it easier. I got a call from him the night before and he was highly agitated. He didn’t think he wanted to play. The idea of the first tee terrified him. I suggested that he come and just walk with me as I played. This seemed to instantly allow him to relax and he agreed. By the seventh hole, I could tell he wanted to play. The course was quite empty and I asked the two men I had been grouped with if they minded me hanging back with my friend. They were fine with it and went on ahead.

Once they were out of range, my student stepped to the tee. He kept looking around to assess whether anyone could see him. Once he was convinced no one was around, he took his first swing. He hit a solid ball up the middle and, for the first time ever, I saw him smile. We played the next 10 holes out of my bag and he was doing wonderfully. Then came the 17th hole.


The group behind us had caught up and they were walking up to the tee as my student was about to hit. I saw him look at them, then at me and back at them. I could tell he was thinking about quitting. That would have been fine; he had come a long way that day. Instead, to my surprise, he got a defiant look on his face and crushed the ball down the fairway. One of the guys from the group behind us saw the shot and said, “Good shot, man. I wish I could hit it like that.” I knew something in that moment had changed.


As we walked down the fairway he told me he was done being afraid. I looked over at him and smiled. We finished the round in full view of other players and I walked off the course with a different man. From that point on, he not only had no problem playing alone, he played with as many strangers as he could. Eventually he played with people he worked with and even joined a men’s club to get a handicap.


I went to watch him play in his club championship. It was quite moving to watch him step up to the ball on the first tee - full of other competitors - and swing with confidence. He later told me that his secret dream was to be a lawyer and stand in front of a jury. Over the years, he went back to law school, passed the bar and became a litigator.


This is a powerful story of change. Change would not have been possible if the old sentinel had not been removed and a new one put in place. The old sentinel was not going to let him be embarrassed again. It would have given him a full panic attack and maybe even a heart attack if he had been forced to speak in public again. The sentinel that was holding his life back was not doing it to hurt him, it was just doing what he asked.


The problem is that sentinels don't have a mind of their own. They are Marines. They follow orders, they don't question them. It was only when he had that moment on the course when he realized he was tired of being afraid and released his old sentinel - and assigned a new one. The new one's job was to not let fear hold him back anymore. This sentinel was sent from the heart to ensure he could find inspiration in his life.


To create biological change, we have to change our patterns and develop new ones that give us the results we want. To create emotional and spiritual change, we have to release our fear-based sentinels and replace them with ones from our heart that keep us inspired. We have all heard the expression, “life is a journey, not a destination.” Fear and fear-based sentinels make life a destination. They hold us in place, and prevent growth and change. Sentinels of the heart, on the other hand, keep us inspired to live life as an endless journey.

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