Overcoming fear of flying: a goal-achievement expert shows you how

Overcoming Fear of Flying: A Goal-Achievement Expert Shows How

Dr Heidi Reeder

Do you know what separates people who succeed at overcoming their fear of flying from those who don’t?

It’s commitment.

In other words, you’ll only reach your goal if you’re DETERMINED to do so.

After all, it takes guts to put yourself in feared situations over and over again.

But what is ‘commitment’? And how can you get it (then keep it alive)?

Those questions (and many others) are the subject of a new book that’s getting loads of attention right now.

The book is called ‘Commit to Win: How to Harness the Four Elements of Commitment to Reach Your Goals’.

It’s written by Dr Heidi Reeder, a commitment expert at Boise State University in the United States.

Amongst its raving fans is The Economist magazine which says the book is “… delightfully practical as well as informative, packed with intelligence and clarity of both thought and expression. Learned, yet eminently accessible, it is a rare pleasure.”

When I read that, I knew I had to get Heidi on the Fear of Flying School podcast. Because as you’ll see, her ideas are CRUCIAL if you want to stop fearing air travel.

When you listen (or read the transcript below), you’ll discover:

  • What ‘commitment’ really is (hint: it’s not what you think).
  • The 4 elements of commitment.
  • Commitment and fear of flying.
  • How you can use Heidi’s ideas.
  • And MUCH more.
Play

Interview transcript

[STARTS]

Tim Benjamin: Are you worried you don’t have what it takes to beat your fear of flying?

If so, you’re going to love hearing from today’s guest.

Hi – I’m Tim Benjamin with the Fear of Flying School, podcast.

Dr Heidi Reeder is a social scientist at Boise State University where she’s spent years researching how you can use the idea of ‘commitment’ as a tool to achieve your biggest goals.

Heidi has appeared everywhere from the NBC Today Show, National Public Radio and Time magazine.

And, now, she’s written a new book that explains what ‘commitment’ is.

And how deliberately committing yourself to something will help you overcome barriers to success.

The book is called ‘Commit To Win: How to Harness the Four Elements of Commitment to Reach Your Goals’.

And it’s a book that’s getting rave reviews.

In fact, The Economist magazine says – and I quote – “Her book is delightfully practical as well as informative, packed with intelligence and clarity of both thought and expression. Learned yet eminently accessible, it is a rare pleasure.” end quote.

Heidi, The Economist isn’t exactly known for hype, so you must be very happy with that review?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – I was very happy,

It came out right around April Fool’s Day – and I had to double check that it didn’t come out on April 1st – and that it wasn’t some kind of a joke – because it was such a kind review and I was thrilled.

Tim Benjamin: Now, you’re an academic in the field of social science.

Can you just explain to me, what does that area actually involve?

Dr Heidi Reeder: So, a lot of people consider science generally in the fields of chemistry and sort of the ‘hard’ sciences.

So, as a social scientist, what we’re interested in looking at is how do we create our reality around us.

How do we construct our relationships?

How do we construct our ideas of self?

How do we construct our culture and our society?

And we like to be able to – when we give advice – have it based on evidence instead of just our intuition or our own personal experience.

Tim Benjamin: Now, your new book – it’s called ‘Commit to Win’.

What do you mean by the word ‘commitment’?

Dr Heidi Reeder: What do I mean by the word ‘commitment’?

I think the word gets tossed around a lot to mean a lot of different things.

Like, a lot of people will use it to mean an obligation, like something that you HAVE to do.

And I understand that it can be used that way.

The way that I’m thinking of it, though, are the things that we’re really invested in.

What are the things that we’ve decided are REALLY a part of us?

And that we feel – both like we HAVE to do them – but also that we WANT to do them at the same time.

The way that psychologists define ‘commitment’ is having a psychological attachment to something.

And an intention to stick with it.

And so, the question I’m asking in the book is: what are the kinds of goals that we really want to get ourselves to be psychologically attached to – and that we really are going to be vested in continuing them – despite the difficulties that come up?

Tim Benjamin: OK – so what sorts of things are you talking about?

Dr Heidi Reeder: You know, it ranges.

A lot of the research is on relationships: why do we commit to certain relationships or not?

If our goal is to have a long-term relationship.

What if our goal is to start and succeed at a business?

What if our goal is to have long-term health?

Long-term weight-loss or exercise routine?

It takes more, in my view, than just having a will-power on any given day.

You can do certain things with will-power.

But if you want to actually have a long-term investment in something where it becomes a little easier over time, then I would recommend commitment.

Tim Benjamin: Well, this is a good point.

I mean, you mention will-power.

How would you define will-power against the concept of commitment?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – will-power is a little more aligned with self-control.

Right?

So, how can I make myself do something in this moment – or avoid doing something in this moment – to have that power over myself, right?

Commitment is more along the lines of – will-power would help with commitment, right, because if I can make myself do something right now, maybe over time I’ll get comfortable doing it.

And then it will become more natural in terms of commitment.

So, I think commitment is more about long-term resilience.

Commitment is more about making those consistent decisions over time – not just in the moment.

Tim Benjamin: Now, you say in your book that commitment to achieving a goal – like overcoming a fear of flying for example – contains four elements.

Can you explain to me what those four elements are?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah.

There are four elements that have been found – over YEARS with social science research – of predicting HOW committed someone is.

And I call them ‘Treasures’, ‘Troubles, ‘Contributions’ and ‘Choices’.

And it works like this: if we REALLY treasure something – what I mean by ‘treasures’ is if we really VALUE something, if we really see the BENEFITS in something – we’re going to be more committed.

But we weigh that against how TROUBLING is this situation?

How DIFFICULT is it?

What sorts of stresses and – you know – costs come along with it?

And then, commitment is also a matter of: what have I already put into this commitment?

I call it ‘Contributions’.

What have I already invested in it?

Have I put something in towards this goal that I can’t really get back?

And so it makes me want to continue to get the benefit out.

And then ‘Choices’ is the last component which refers to: ‘What are my other options?’

If I think I have more attractive options doing something else, then my commitment is going to be lower.

And it creates a kind of a little equation: we’re most committed when we REALLY treasure something – and we’ve contributed a lot to it – and our troubles are few – and our choices are few.

Tim Benjamin: OK, well let’s start with the first of those: ‘treasures’.

Can you just outline in a little more detail what you mean by ‘treasures’?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – so what I mean by treasures is – you know – whether it’s a job or a relationship or a goal like overcoming a fear of flying, what do I really – what is really the benefit for me in doing this?

What is the positive outcome for me?

You know, when I think of – you know – the fear of flying, for example, which – I don’t know if I would say I have a fear of flying – but I definitely have experienced high levels of anxiety in various flying circumstances.

And what’s really helpful is to focus on – OK: what do I really value about this?

Because it can be easy to get distracted by the negative anxiety feelings, right?

Am I going somewhere where I get to do some work that I really value?

Am I going somewhere where I get to interact with people that I really value?

Or see new things.

You know – really focusing on what is important to me.

Or that I’ll just feel good about myself for overcoming this situation.

So, those would be the kind of treasures that might come up in – ah – the fear of flying situation.

Tim Benjamin: OK – well – balancing ‘treasures’ is the exact opposite: what you call ‘Troubles’.

Where do they fit into the picture?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Well, you know, I think when I’m experiencing anxiety and other people experience anxiety with flying, I think what we’re really focusing on are the troubles.

You know, that it is really costly to get on this plane and experience what I’m going to experience.

And that can throw the whole equation out of whack.

I may be less committed to – you know – going on this great vacation or taking this new job opportunity because the trouble just seems too much.

So, if we want to be committed, we have to find ways to minimize those troubles – either mentally put them in perspective in our head which I think a lot of the stuff that you offer on your website does.

Or actually find ways to make the troubles LESS.

Like be VERY specific: what is the trouble that I’m thinking?

Is it that I’m not going to be able to breathe?

Well, is there something I can actually DO about that?

Right?

So, that’s kind of how the troubles play out.

If we can focus more on the treasures and LESS on the troubles – or actually INCREASE the treasures and decrease the troubles – we’re already on our way to higher commitment.

Tim Benjamin: So when you’re balancing treasures with troubles, how is somebody supposed to measure the relative weight of those two things?

Dr Heidi Reeder: You know, a really good way to think about it is like a cost/benefit analysis.

Right?

So, I think people who have a fear of flying have already done the cost/benefit analysis.

You know – I know that I felt this way myself.

You know – it’s not worth it, right?

To be able to go there, to get on that plane – it’s not worth it for what I’m going to experience, right?

And I’m saying that I think we can ALTER that cost/benefit analysis by actually taking steps to increase what we value about – you know – going to this new location.

And DECREASE what’s so difficult and costly about it.

You know – think about where we place our attention.

Sometimes those of us who have a fear of flying, we focus on say the TV shows that, you know, show crashes and traumas – and that’s clearly very troubling to us, right?

So, a way to balance that out would be: ‘Why don’t I actually ACTIVELY watch a lot of those shows that show people going to interesting, great locations.

Because it’s not even statistically close the number of times that people make it to these wonderful locations and have these amazing experiences relative to the times that they don’t.

The ACURATE treasure/trouble ratio – or cost/benefit analysis – is a GOOD one.

So, it’s a matter of getting our minds in line with that reality.

So, what do I watch?

What do I pay attention to?

What stories do I read?

You know – do I get Time magazine which might have scary stories in it?

Or do I get a travel magazine that shows all these beautiful, wonderful locations?

So that might be part of it.

Tim Benjamin: In other words, deliberately focus your mind on the positives?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Deliberately focus your mind on the positives.

Now, that’s the COGNITIVE part of it – the mental part of it.

But I think there’s also a BEHAVIOURAL part of it.

You know, for me – for example – one of the things that makes me really anxious about flying is that I often have air sickness.

So – OK – is there something I can actually DO about that?

You know – actually go into problem-solving mode and find a way to reduce that trouble.

You know – try out different – you know I get those little knitted elastic wrist-bands – I think they’re called C-Bands – where they apply pressure to your wrist at an acupressure point.

That reduces sickness.

So that’s something I can ACTUALLY do, right?

Another trouble for me is the chaos around me.

So what can I do?

Can I put in headphones?

Can I bring my favorite music or my favorite podcasts?

Or special shows that I’ve just downloaded for that trip?

That increases my treasures – right – and also decreases my troubles at the same time.

It’s about making a plan, I think.

Tim Benjamin: So, it’s an active process – it’s not just a kind of WILLING process – hoping somehow that the treasures are going to outweigh the troubles?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – I think it’s really easy whenever we have a challenging part of ourselves to say ‘well – that’s just the way I am’.

Right?

Or ‘I’m just an anxious person’.

Or ‘I’m just fearful of flying’.

You can apply that to any number of things.

But I think a better approach is to say – yeah – that IS how it’s been in the past.

Now, how can I be PRO-ACTIVE? Can I actually sit down and make some choices that would increase how much I’m going to value this?

And decrease how difficult it is?

Now, it may ALWAYS be difficult at some level.

But if you can reduce it – even a little bit – it can make a big difference.

Tim Benjamin: OK – so as we were saying a little earlier, there are four factors involved with building a commitment.

And we’ve just been talking in detail about treasures and troubles – which are factors number one and factors number two.

Factor number three is the concept of ‘contributions’.

Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – there’s a really powerful process that social psychologists have seen again and again.

Which is, when we start to contribute to something – when we invest our time in something – when we invest money in something – when we invest our creativity in something – we tend to want to see it through.

It’s almost like the commitment can take on a life of it’s own.

So, if you can find ways to INVEST in overcoming your fear of something, it’ll sort of push you to keep doing it – even when you don’t feel like it, right?

So, you can think about this in a BAD way.

Like what gamblers do, right?

The MORE they gamble, the more they want to keep gambling to get it back.

Well, can we use this in a way that actually HELPS us?

Can I invest something?

Can I invest in – um – you know – a great suitcase?

Well, now, I might feel like I need to use it, right?

Could I invest by putting on Facebook – or some other social media ‘Hey everybody, I’m going to travel to X’?

Well now, I’ve invested in my identity.

I’ve invested in my ego a little bit in maybe needing to follow through with this, right?

There’s actually a website – it’s called StickK.com – where they have you do something called a ‘pre-commitment’ which means you put down what your goal is.

And then you say ‘Here’s my goal – and if I don’t complete it by X date, then I’m going to pay this much money to these people.’.

So, what you might do is say ‘If I don’t successfully complete a two-hour plane trip in the next month, then I’m going to pay $100 to the political party that I’m AGAINST.’.

Or some cause that I’m AGAINST.

And so you actually put your credit card in – and everything – into the website.

And, now, there’s this PRESSURE like ‘I need to follow through on that.’.

If you combine that with INCREASING what you value about going – and DECREASING all the challenges – you’re setting yourself up.

It’s a pretty good little equation that starts to put things in your favor.

Tim Benjamin: Now, there’ll be people listening to you say that who’ve got a cynical – they’ve got a cynical hat on, right?

They’ve heard things like this before.

Does that stuff REALLY work?

Or does it just sound good?

Dr Heidi Reeder: [Laughs] There’s SO much research on pre-commitment it’s actually kind of amazing.

I mean, obviously, any ONE person is still a person that’s allowed to make choices.

And they may decide not to follow through with it.

But – statistically speaking – when people put themselves out there and they say ‘I’m going to give X up unless I do that.’- it actually really DOES increase the likelihood – at least statistically – you know – across ALL people.

It increases the likelihood that – you know – you’ll follow-through on it.

And here’s the thing: each time you follow-through on it – even if it’s awful – even if the whole time that you’re on there you’re like ‘This is terrible’ – at least I’m not paying $100 to this thing I don’t want – but it’s miserable.

At LEAST then you’re getting the experience.

And as you know – and as I’m sure everybody knows – just getting more experience flying – or with ANY fear that we have – whether it’s snakes or public speaking or whatever – just familiarity – will help out a LOT.

Tim Benjamin: Now, factor number four in your equation is the concept of ‘Choices’.

Tell us a little bit about that.

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – we’re more committed – this is going to sound kind of strange – but we’re more committed – whether it’s a relationship or a job or whatever – we’re more committed when we don’t think we have a better choice.

Right?

So, maybe I’m not all that happy at a job or something like that, say.

But if I still think it’s the BEST job I can get right now, I’ll be more likely to stick it out, right?

But other choices that are more attractive can lure us AWAY from our commitment.

So, let’s say that I – you know – applying it to the fear of flying scenario – you know – what are my other choices?

Right?

I can get on the plane and I can get somewhere I want to go.

And meet some needs in terms of having a full life and all that kind of stuff.

OR – I can stay home, right?

OR – I can travel via car or bus, right?

And so we sort of – you know – make this judgment in our head about what is the better choice.

And MY suggestion would be that you really look at that realistically and say – you know – given the options, maybe this really IS the better choice.

Or it isn’t, you know.

Tim Benjamin: That’s a really interesting point in terms of my own story.

Because for several years, I couldn’t get on a plane at all.

And I was living in Australia in the city of Sydney which is on the far east coast of Australia – which is about the same width as the US.

So, it was kind of like living in New York – but having my family based in the equivalent of San Francisco.

And I found myself once actually taking a train for THREE nights ONE-WAY.

And a train back – ANOTHER three nights – the other way.

And that was the thing that kind of – ah – REALLY made me realize that when it came to choices, there was NO other choice other than to get back on a plane again.

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yeah – exactly.

And I think keeping that in your mind – you know – it’s easy to just focus on what I don’t like about having to go on the flight – I mean I know that it’s easy for me like ‘Oh my gosh’ – you know – kicking and screaming.

But REALLY – what’s my option?

Do I REALLY think it’s a better option to take a three hour trip?

OK – no.

Do I really think it’s a better option for me to live my life – you know – in ONE location?

No!

If I REALLY think that through – along with the other elements – you know – that’s the thing – as I think if you come up with a plan where you’re saying ‘OK – let’s get realistic about my choices. OK – great – now let’s INVEST in getting me to want to fulfill this goal of overcoming this fear – or at least going DESPITE the fear.’.

Right?

And finding ways to value it more – to REALLY treasure the opportunities that come with that.

And reduce the troubles where I can.

You know, you’ve just changed the commitment equation in your favor.

Tim Benjamin: So, we’ve talked about those four elements.

When a person first decides that they’re going to commit to something, where should they start?

Dr Heidi Reeder: So – I think when people want to begin, I would actually – you know – what’s occurring to me right now – is to actually begin with ‘Contributions’.

To actually begin by putting something towards the goal.

So, if I want to overcome my fear of flying – or if I want to fly DESPITE the fear – how can I start to CONTRIBUTE to that goal?

Can I sign up for a class?

Can I start investing some of my time in listening to these podcasts?

Can I – can I contribute to other people in helping THEM overcome THEIR fear?

If I start to take – you know, I think a lot of times what social scientists are trying to point out to people is that you’re feelings will FOLLOW your actions.

Right?

So, whether I feel like it or not, if I start taking actions, if I go onto that – you know – united.com or kayak.com website – and I start looking at the trips, I start investing my time.

Or I start creating a really cool itinerary for somewhere – a dream place – I’d like to go to.

I think by taking those first little steps – and investing in a long-term plan – that the other ones will then start to fall in place as a result.

Tim Benjamin: Heidi – there’ll be people listening to this going ‘Look – I get the theory – totally understand it – totally buy into it – but somehow I just can’t FEEL it – I can’t see how it applies to me. Maybe it works for other people. But the nature of MY phobia – the nature of MY fear of flying – is so intense – I just can’t see how this could be relevant to ME and MY problem.’.

What do you say to people like that?

Dr Heidi Reeder: That’s a totally understandable thought to have.

I think people have the same kind of fear when they’re afraid of being in a relationship which is also kind of a common thing.

And so the idea is that – I think part of it is that you DO have to believe that something can work for you.

Or it probably can’t.

You know – I told you about those C-Bands I wear around my wrists.

I don’t ACTUALLY know if those reduce my sea sickness or flying sickness.

But if I BELIEVE they do, it actually does make a difference.

So, I think part of it is opening up a corner of your mind to the possibility that there IS – that you CAN grow.

That you CAN develop.

You know – that is a REALLY important thing to have that kind of self-belief.

And the other thing is that commitment isn’t just reserved for SOME people.

We ALL have the ability to deeply commit.

In fact, anybody listening right now is deeply committed to a variety of things in their lives.

So, commitment is an inherent part of us.

It’s part of our structure.

We’re all HIGHLY able to commit.

We wouldn’t have survived this long is we hadn’t committed to being part of society.

Or doing what it takes to survive.

So, applying that – saying – OK – if that’s true – you know – why can’t I apply that to this situation?

Tim Benjamin: When tackling a big life goal – you know – my personal experience – whether it’s fear of flying – learning to speak another language – trying to get really good at tennis – is that even when I commit, I inevitably hit set-backs along the way.

You know – if we take the flying example – my experience was that I’d have a whole series of flights were I got better and better and better.

And then – out of nowhere – I’d have a really bad flight.

And that can be dispiriting.

It can be depressing.

It can kind of sap your enthusiasm.

What’s a strategy for dealing with those sorts of setbacks?

Dr Heidi Reeder: That is SUCH a good question.

I think another myth about commitment is that once I’ve decided I’m committed that I’ll feel committed every day.

You know – it will all be forward motion.

But if we know – if we accept the fact that the research has shown us again and again and again – that our level of commitment is based on these four factors – we’ll are those four factors going to be the same EVER SINGLE DAY?

No.

Some days – whether it’s your job or your relationship or – you know – traveling – the troubles are going to be a lot worse.

The key issue is NOT to give up on that particular day.

Right?

If I was to say any day that I’m not happy in my marriage – for example – if I was going to say – well that’s it – I guess I’m not committed.

No! No! No! No! No!

It doesn’t work that way.

Right?

If there’s ever a time where – for whatever reason – I can’t contribute as much to my job – does that mean I’m no longer committed?

No! No! No! No! No!

You’ve got to look at the bigger picture.

Right?

And in the bigger picture, you just keep taking steps to get you back in line with what you want to accomplish.

Tim Benjamin: Listen Heidi – your new book ‘Commit to Win’ is published – I think I’m correct in saying on the 15th of May 2014.

Dr Heidi Reeder: Yes.

Tim Benjamin: Thankyou so much for sharing your insights with our community.

I think everybody will find this enormously interesting.

Dr Heidi Reeder: Thankyou Tim

Tim Benjamin: And to you in audience – thanks for listening.

[INTERVIEW ENDS]

Your opinion

What do you think of Heidi’s ideas? Will understanding them help you deal with your fear? Let me know in the comments below.

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