How To Ditch The How-To

kate_swobodaRecently, someone asked me about creating living practices of courage.

“How do you work with fear?” they asked, and then I’d give an answer, and they’d have another variation on that question: “But then how do you handle XYZ? and ABC? But what about…?”

After answering a few, I noticed that each of my answers kept prompting another question– “Well, okay–so how do you do that?”

In that moment, I realized that I was getting caught in the trap of “how-to.”

Brene Brown, a lecturer and researcher who studies shame, talks about this in her book, Daring Geatly. We are a culture caught in the throes of “how-to,” perpetually trying to figure out “steps” to happiness rather than looking at something more critical: what gets in the way of feeling happy.

So: “How do you work with fear?”

My answer is devoid of concrete steps—in other words, there’s a lack of specific, linear “how-to”: This involves getting present to it. Accepting that fear is there, and not resisting or hating fear. You can ask yourself what stories there are behind the fear. You can take action despite the fear. You can practice gentleness with yourself, not making yourself wrong or bad for feeling afraid.

And if someone asked me, “Well, how do you do that–not resist it? Or look at the stories? Or take action even though you’re terrified?”– then my response would be an ever-more ambiguous answer: “It’s a highly individual process.”

Selling Something

The attainment of wisdom and fulfillment is this thing that our society tries to make concrete. We want to make it into a series of steps, or exercises, when the truth is that wisdom, learning and real growth is something that is beyond all of that.

Society tries to sell people on getting the wisdom and growth while completely avoiding pain—often, with 1-2-3 step plans–and, paradoxically, we suffer more that way.

Why do we suffer more that way? Because the avoidance of pain is a kind of pain itself. If you’re tired of feeling like you’re on a self-help hamster wheel, or like you’re endlessly trying to “improve” yourself, you might be getting caught in the snare of endless “how-to.” It might be time to do less planning, and more simply being with the what-is of your life.


I can see someone throwing up their hands: “What, so you’re saying to just accept things as they are?”

Yes. Acceptance over resistance. If you’re living, you’re learning and growing, and there’s fear to be felt as you stretch into what is unfamiliar. The more you become comfortable with uncertainty, the less bumpy the ride will be–and that’s not some kind of esoteric hogwash.

When we aren’t putting energy into trying to avoid suffering altogether, a lot more energy is freed up to take positive action towards creating what we do want: social justice, compassion, inner stillness, committing radical acts of love.

Here are a few ideas for examining your life—without a specific, concrete, “how-to” style process:

  • Release energy expenditure, where you can. Look at where you’re currently expending most of your energy to try to get something to change. Are there any possible benefits to releasing that, and letting what-is, be what-is?
  • Embrace dichotomies. Dichotomous relationships are relationships of contrast and contradiction…that still kinda fit. For example, I often feel that goal-setting is dichotomous—it can be very powerful to do, yet it rides so closely a line of attachment to outcomes that it can be less powerful. Instead of making goal-setting into an either/or equation, embrace that it is both of these things, at the same time. It is both powerful and not powerful. It is both helpful, and not helpful.
  • Trust your body. Learning about somatic awareness—the ability to know what sensations in your body mean and use that information to decide how you want to respond—teaches you how to trust what you feel. If you start tuning into your body and noticing what feels good and what doesn’t, you’ll start to realize the difference between those times when hesitation is sound judgment, and when hesitation is just an expression of fear. You can start this practice with just five minutes spent noticing your body, daily.

With all of the suggestions above, the journey that you undertake will be totally unique. There’s no one set outcome that all people will see if they experiment with any of the above.

And of course, when it comes to self-help or personal growth, it’s not somehow bad or wrong to establish goals or action steps, to map out a plan, or to create structures for support and accountability.

Just don’t forget to notice where you might be trying to subvert a natural part of life and living–the part where you can’t anticipate everything, where sometimes pain arises and the tears we shed are holy, and that’s how we get to the beauty of what happens when we sit through it all and awaken, transformed, on the other side.




Kate Swoboda, a.k.a. Kate Courageous, is a life coach, writer and speaker who teaches people how to practice courage in their lives and livelihood. Learn more about her and how you can practice courage in your own life and business on her website , or follow Kate on Twitter or Facebook.

  • Maureen Ross Gemme

    Katie, this is very similar to the passage I read in Eckart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now” this morning. And you said it well! When I see two similar messages come to me in such a short period of time I know it is a message from Spirit. I quit my corporate job (retired really) yesterday and I’m embarking on my soul’s journey. I’m elated with joy and have moments of feeling terrified! The lesson is to embrace the uncomfortable feelings and really feel them. Thanks for being a messenger for me today!

    • Andy Morel

      Great words of wisdom Katie and David. Learning to accept and love the uncomfortable, releasing the “how to” expectations and the incessant scrambling for answers is starting to work within me. Along with greater somatic awareness and trust, I am so much more…. myself.

      • Kate Swoboda

        When I imagine no longer “scrambling for answers,” it’s like I can take a deeper breath. I love this image, Andy.

    • Kate Swoboda

      Biologically, your body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement–the only difference is the thoughts associated with each–this is something I remind myself of as I navigate those flip-flops of fear and excitement, too. 🙂

  • David H. Breaux

    Hi Kate,

    Thank you for sharing this wisdom. Grace provides for most of the “how-to” anyway, based on our intent and motivation. I often find when a question is asked, the answer is embedded into the question–“How do you work with fear?”–By working WITH fear–“Who am I?” I AM. Etc., etc.

    With compassion,
    David H. Breaux

    • Kate Swoboda

      That’s a beautiful perspective, David, and so true! 😉

  • Thanks for sharing this Kate. Particularly love the power of somatic awareness, powerful practise and I totally didn’t know that was what it was called! Also – freaking love this message… “the avoidance of pain is a kind of pain itself”. Bernadette 🙂

    • Kate Swoboda

      Thanks, Bernadette! Somatic awareness is pretty powerful. I really enjoyed the book Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine