According to an article published by CNN and neuroscientist Seth D. Norrholm, PhD, we’re born with two fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. Every other fear we have is developed over time by what is said to us, what is witnessed by us and what is inflicted upon us.
Have you ever experienced heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, nausea or dry mouth? If you have, then you’ve experienced the physical effects of fear. To live is to know fear. It’s programmed into our nervous system and displays similarly to our instincts.
From the time we’re infants, fear exists as a way to protect us when we feel unsafe, whether the perceived danger is physical, emotional, psychological, real or imagined. While most people would consider fear a negative emotion, in the presence of actual danger, it serves us well.
When you perceive a threat, even if it’s not real, the fear is. Many fears we hold based on the lifestyles of others are illusions. They’re stories we make up in our minds or we’ve been told by others, and they rarely hold truth. Your body’s response to fear is the same regardless if it’s based on fact or fiction.
In each and every workshop or diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program I teach, I ask the question, “what do you fear the most when it comes to DEI?” The most common response from individuals regardless of their *intersectionality is “doing or saying the wrong thing.” The last thing any of us wants to do is to offend, discriminate against or hurt another person in our pursuit to create equitable and inclusive spaces.
In 2013 I had one of the most significant experiences related to the fear of saying the wrong thing. I was part of a queer dodgeball league. I didn’t know any of the players on my team and I learned during team introductions that many of them used the pronouns they/them/theirs. At the time I was still trying to understand the concept of using they/them/theirs in the singular, not to mention I had played sports my entire life and had grown up cheering my team on using the phrase “let’s go guys.”
In a group of non-binary identifying individuals cheering for them using the term “guys” didn’t fly for long. I was corrected by several of the individuals on my team and alternative language like “folks” or “team” were suggested as a replacement. At that moment, I had a choice. I could quit the team for fear of saying the wrong thing and offending my teammates (which I considered) or I could learn from the experience and make a conscious effort to practice and do better moving forward. I chose to stay, learn, make mistakes, apologize and push past my fear.
Many of the fears you might be facing are coming from a place of misunderstanding, lack of knowledge and lack of practice. What we don’t know or understand, we fear. When we feel fear many of us feel uncomfortable and become paralyzed. This means we’re far less likely to take action on something despite the importance of it.
Common things you might fear when it comes to DEI are:
- Misgendering someone in the 2SLGBTQ+ community
- Saying or pronouncing something wrong when making a land acknowledgement
- Using the incorrect terminology when addressing a Black individual or person of colour
- Inadvertently excluding someone
- Accidentally discriminating or insulting someone, causing microaggressions
- Insulting or invalidating an entire group of people without intent
Each one of these situations will cause discomfort and resistance. It doesn’t feel good to make a mistake. It doesn’t feel good to discriminate, insult or invalidate another person. But, mistakes are one of the most valuable teachers. They give us feedback so we can expand and grow. Am I saying you should go around making mistakes so you can learn from them? No. I’m saying to approach your DEI journey from a place of humility, care and concern for others. Take responsibility for your actions, apologize when necessary, and continue to strive for progress over perfection.
The way I see it, there are always two choices. You can choose to continue to feed your fear by saying and doing nothing to progress yourself or your organization. Or, you can take conscious action that includes education, personal development, practice, asking questions, making mistakes, owning those mistakes and doing your best. Progress will never happen from paralysis or inaction.
Here are three strategies to help you move past some of your deep-rooted fears and opening the door to inclusivity:
- Look at the evidence.
Challenge your beliefs by reading books, reports and peer-reviewed articles, by listening to podcasts and by attending Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training. Educating yourself on any subject will help ensure you’re coming from a place of certainty not speculation. The more evidence you have, the better you can bust through any fears that may be holding you back.
- Talk it out.
Sharing your fears can take away their charge and bring clarity. Connecting with people that are willing to share their stories and hear yours, free of judgment, is very empowering. Voicing what you’re thinking and feeling aloud will help you process your thoughts and feelings so you can take courageous action. This could mean connecting with a friend, close colleague, family member or counsellor and opening up from a place of humility and curiosity.
- Face your fears.
Avoidance makes everything bigger and scarier. Avoidance makes having those challenging conversations and interactions seem so much worse than they need to be. A good place to start would be attending events or gatherings that push you outside your comfort zone. The only way to move through your fears is to face them.
You may also find it helpful to review past experiences similar to the one I shared. Replay how you got through it, how it felt and what the outcomes were. You might realize that what you’re fearing is actually nothing to fear at all.
You have the ability to change your future and that of your organizations. The moment you can let go of what holds you back is the moment progress will be made. I believe the best progress is the simple day to day actions that add up to big changes. By implementing one or more of the strategies above, approaching DEI with an open-mind and a willingness to put your fears aside, you will begin to break down the barriers that breed exclusion.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to dive deeper on this topic, I invite you to check out my book, Dismantling The Obstacles To Workplace Inclusion. It’s available by CLICKING HERE.
Be the change you wish to see.
*Intersectionality: The acknowledgement that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression. These overlapping aspects of our identity put you at an advantage or disadvantage. This includes everything about a person that can marginalize them, which can be but is not limited to: gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, skin colour, physical ability, family role and occupation.