Lean Into Your Fear


On a group trip to Lake Tahoe I hooked up with a few people I didn’t know to ski with for the day.  It turned out they were great skiers.  Many of them were even former ski instructors.  Following them had me push my own limits in ways I would likely not have on my own.  It was incredibly satisfying and I was amazed that I seemed to improve more in that one morning than I had in the last 5 years on the slopes.

After lunch we went off into some lesser traveled territory on the mountain.  I had to work hard just to keep up.  As we stopped in front of a few rock outcroppings to catch our breath, I watched with a growing pit in my stomach as one by one they chose the path of the chute between the rocks.  It looked like a cliff to me, but there did not seem to be a way to get around it.  So I waited and watched as I felt the fear expand.

“Here I am, Says Sam I am”

I found myself in a situation requiring that I “feel the fear and do it anyway” or quit and ask someone to send help.

As I was about to choose the latter one of the guys in the group came up behind me and asked if I was ok. He could sense my fear, but told me confidently:”You can do this.” Since he was an instructor I chose to believe him. (Although I did ask for him to wait for me in case someone had to pick up the pieces!)

He then reminded me of one of the most important lessons in skiing. When you are afraid the natural tendency is to lean back. To your mind, leaning back is akin to pulling away from the fear. It seems like it will protect you but the opposite is true.  Lean back on a steep slope and you could get into real trouble because you could lose control.  You have to lean into the mountain, defying your mind’s faulty attempt at self-protection.

Turns out it is also a very important life lesson. When you are afraid, the natural tendency is to lean back – to pull away from what you fear.

It’s natural because your mind’s job is to protect you. Except your mind doesn’t always know the difference between a real danger and an imagined one. I used to be terrified of public speaking, for example. It wasn’t life threatening but my body’s response indicated otherwise. There might as well have been a tiger chasing me.

We all fear something:  often that “something” is between who we are and where we are in life now, and who we want to become and where we want to be.

The fear is very real. There are, of course, risks even if they aren’t threatening to life or limb. Yet it is only when you are willing to lean into your fear so you can move through it to the other side that you will discover who you really can be. Sure you may fail, but if you don’t try you may never discover what is possible for you or take a step closer to learn how to succeed.

What do you want enough to be willing to lean into your fear – to feel the fear and act in spite of it? 

Give yourself a reason to expand your limits.  Want something bad enough and you will find the courage to challenge your mind in favor of who you can become.


Enter A Comment

Scott Mabry   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

Very encouraging story Susan. I could totally relate from some experiences I have had snowboarding. Love the analogy of leaning in. Thank you.

Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

Thanks Scott

Kent Julian   |   28 January 2013   |   Reply

Love these thoughts:

“We all fear something: often that ‘something’ is between who we are and where we are in life now, and who we want to become and where we want to be.”

Outstanding insight. Best way to get through this is to chunk it down in little steps. “Big is little and little is big.”

Susan Mazza   |   30 January 2013   |  

Yes Kent – “Big is little and little is big”! It’s often those many little, sometime seemingly inconsequential, steps that give us the courage to take the big leap when the opportunity presents itself.

Chery Gegelman   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply


Thank you so much for this post! It is a great visual and a perfectly timed reminder! My first instinct is to flee what I fear and although I have intentionally leaned into fear and grown immensely, I still need reminders and encouragement to make that choice!

..Leaning in again!


Susan Mazza   |   23 January 2013   |   Reply

Thanks Chery. That “fight or flight” instinct is so incredibly powerful. I am more of a flee-er like you! Reminders and encouragement are so important to fuel our courage.

Carl   |   24 January 2013   |   Reply

Susan, I loved this post –
Living near the Tahoe area, I know very well the physical challenges you faced – but more importantly it is such a great metaphor for the difficulties we face in life.

Thank you for your thoughts and work

Susan Mazza   |   24 January 2013   |   Reply

Thank you Carl. You live in an absolutely beautiful place! I haven’t been able to ski for the last 5 years due to a back injury but I am getting close and still have Heli Skiing on my bucket list.

Always appreciate your kind comments generous support!

Mike Henry Sr.   |   24 January 2013   |   Reply

Thanks for the great post Susan. If we’re going, we must go with everything we have. Your post is a reminder, “Lean in or stay home.” Mike…

Susan Mazza   |   24 January 2013   |   Reply

“Lean in or stay home.” I LOVE that Mike

Christopher Avery   |   24 January 2013   |   Reply

Excellent story Susan. And congratulations. My research shows that we humans can be extremely weak when it comes to facing things that we don’t know or understand. That means we are very easily stopped from improving, learning, or reaching. AND, we humans can also be extremely strong in facing things we don’t know or understand.

It can be a physical skill like skiing double black diamond — or unrated — runs when you are a green/blue slope skier. Or it can be a challenging life situation like job loss or relationship upset.

So this continuum in each of us, from extremely weak to extremely strong, can be accessed by doing exactly what your story reports — leaning into our fear. We call it a communication skill and label it “confront” which means the ability to face (think about the words of your ski instructor friend: “You can do this”).

Confront is an ability you can build that will give you the courage to face greater and great challenges. And yes, you only do it by feeling the anxiety and leaning into it.

Susan Mazza   |   24 January 2013   |   Reply

Thank you so much for adding to the richness of this conversation Christopher. You have a great context for/use of the word confront which often has a negative connotation. It is most definitely an ability you can build and is essential to leadership.

Jane   |   04 March 2013   |   Reply

Your story makes me consider with courage…. the story about who to trust as a leader, a supporter, someone who has dared to tread where we want to tread…leading by doing, modelling and caring enough
Your ski story I can identify with…I just need to find the ski instructor in my work place to assist me/ enable me to be a good leader…How do I keep the ernergy to bounce back (maintain the resisilence) and avoid the downhill slope? or do I just find another run and have more fun ?

Susan Mazza   |   04 March 2013   |   Reply

Hi Jane, your question about “who to trust as a leader, a supporter, and someone who has dared to tread where we want to tread” is a great one. I think the place to start is to discover the leader within you. From my point of view that means choosing to be a leader even if you aren’t THE leader by speaking up, stepping up and standing up for something you care deeply about and that serves the commitments of the organization you are in. In those moments in which you are courageous enough to act despite fear the leaders you can count on will become very clear because they will stand beside you and support you in making a difference.

I have had that experience more than once and was often surprised by who emerged as the leaders I could count on and be guided by.

Page Cole   |   22 March 2013   |   Reply

Super post Susan… We’re at a critical juncture with our business, and we’re facing some big decisions… Thanks for the encouragement to “lean in” instead of “lean back”…

You made a difference in my life today. Thank you.


Susan Mazza   |   23 March 2013   |   Reply

Happy to know I have made a difference for you Page. If you ever need a nudge to remind you to lean forward you know where to find me!

Amber-Lee Dibble   |   25 March 2013   |   Reply

You ALWAYS fill me with such… purpose!

I encountered this, same life lesson, last Fall! (This is what I learned and was trying to teach my Trainees… http://pioneeroutfitters.com/the-line-between-fear-and-respect/ )

The safest place to be, in my experience, is closer. Leaning into the fear.
Thank you for this.

Susan Mazza   |   03 April 2013   |   Reply

Thank you for your kind words Amber-Lee. You make a fabulous distinction in your article regarding the line between fear and respect.

When you are going to do anything involving risk you will only have the courage to lean in if you respect every aspect of the situation you find yourself in. That means you have to be prepared and aware before ever taking the first step. I think that may just be the difference between purely risky behavior and the conscious choice to take intelligent risk.

Thanks for sharing your story and your wisdom!

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