Here is the full transcript of fear facer Michelle Poler’s TEDx Talk: 100 Days Without Fear at TEDxHouston conference. This event took place on October 18, 2015 at Houston, Texas. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
Michelle Poler – Fear Facer and Speaker
Today, right here, right now, I’m facing my 100th fear.
It all started when I was doing my Master’s degree in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. And Debbie Millman, the director and the founder of the program asked the class to look deep into our souls and write an essay about our best possible lives 10 years from now. This exercise was both terrifying and liberating.
We had a free path to dream big. As soon as we were all ready to go after our biggest dreams, we were asked to think of all those possible things that could get in the way of our best possible future. But then we were asked to identify one crucial obstacle.
When I learned and I realized that my whole life was crippled by fear and I was missing on every new experience. Because of it, I was paralyzed. And that’s when the third part of this assignment was unveiled. We were all commissioned to start a 100-day project of our choice. For me, the answer was way too obvious to ignore. I knew that I had to start facing all of my fears one by one.
Since I was a little girl, my life had always been crippled by fear. Like I remember when I was little, and my uncle bought a huge dog for his house and my family dinners went from being happy memories to terrifying nightmares.
Or when I passed in a backpacking trip to Europe with my friends, just because the thought of having to sleep at a hostel or in a train station would make me tremble. And like that I never tried any substance that could mess up with my system. I was comfortable that way, and the easy answer to all of these things was always “no, thanks!”
Being the fearful person that I was, I thought that I had easily 100 fears or more. So I started by accepting the challenge to do this project as my first fear. I went on and held the cat for the first time ever. I tried all kinds of food, I went one day, an entire day, without my cell phone, and I went on and on until Day 39 arrived and something remarkable happened.
I was about to face my fear of donating blood when I realized that I was congratulating myself over and over again for having faced almost 40 different fears, when in reality I was facing the same fears over and over again. I wasn’t scared of needles, I was scared of pain. I wasn’t scared of doing karaoke, I was scared of being embarrassed. And I wasn’t scared of begging for money in the streets of New York, I was scared of being rejected. That’s when I realized I did not have 100 fears; I had 7 fears: Pain, danger, disgust, embarrassment, rejection, loneliness, and control.
For example, to face my fear of pain, I did all sorts of things. From getting a piercing, getting a Brazilian wax, trying spicy food, I did try acupuncture, I jumped off a cliff and all of those things that reassured me that indeed I don’t like pain. But hey, I really love my piercing and my husband loved the Brazilian wax.
As a way to better understand the difference between all of my fears and find their origin, I decided to classify them according to a stack of values. Values that define who we are and why we do the things that we do. And this is something that I learned from my SVA professor Dr. Tom Morello. We’re all born with a set of universal values and little by little we develop cultural and personal ones.
By categorizing all of my fears this way, I realized that all of the challenges that I was facing related to danger, pain, and disgust fell under the universal stack. If we asked anyone to try oysters for the first time in their lives, the reaction would probably be something like this. Same if we ask them to pet this, to swim around these, or jump from here.
All of the challenges that were related to embarrassment and rejection fell under the cultural stack. Society shapes us and gives us guidelines so one day we all become well-behaved rational adults. We all know that due to symptoms, right? Don’t do this, don’t touch this, and don’t walk around wearing this.
And finally, all of my challenges related to loneliness and control were deep embedded in my personal stack. I come from a family of World War Two survivors where half of my family were killed by the Nazis in concentration camps. My grandparents were lucky and they were able to escape and start a new life from scratch but their fears never went away. In fact, they were carried from generation to generation. My mom was raised with lots of fears, and so was I.