Have you ever tapped a dream so big that it takes your breath away? Or a desire so true that it lights up your life? Like starting a new business where you can be creative to your heart’s content, writing that book that’s been developing in your mind since forever, or opening up and being more vulnerable in your relationship?

And what do you do with such dreams? Honor them and work toward them, or set about actively shrinking them down to the size of your comfort zone?

If it’s the latter, that’s fear at play, in the form of a built-in defense in the face of desires. It’s the work of a mind that operates on learned behaviors from the past, based on experiences that you or those around you have had.

And so your desires stay just that, and eventually turn into regrets of chances not taken and dreams left untouched.

Instead of shrinking your dreams down to your safety levels, you need to expand your mind so it begins to step away from its fear-based response and embrace the possibilities that surround you. That way, the next time your dreams come a-knocking, you’ll welcome them in instead of shutting them out.

Identify Your Defense

Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says that the way to be true to our desires is to work backward from our defenses. How do you react when a purpose speaks to your heart and calls your name? Do you feel a sudden rush of fatigue, an urge to run away, or perhaps a surge of mental justifications—like how you’re not good enough, competent enough, or presentable enough? Or perhaps that it’s not the right time, right work, or right fit? Such thoughts are self-focused, and the best way to counter them is to look beyond yourself to the difference you will make to others—if you were to follow your heartfelt desires.

Know Your Past

This is the time to get curious about your defensive bodily response and the mental chatter that accompanies it. Why is it there? How did it defend you in the past? What were the experiences that gave rise to it? Knowing that it exists for a reason is essential to creating space from it. Remind yourself that you’ve grown and changed—and so have your circumstances. A short, mindful moment can help you ground yourself in your current reality and allow you to open up to your desires.

Create a Plan of Action

In this less fearful state, you’re ready to plan the steps you’ll take toward turning your dream into reality. Again, work backward with timelines and milestones. What action steps do you need to take to reach each milestone? When will you take them? Who will you be accountable to? And who will support you through your struggles and celebrate your successes with you? The more specific you can be, the better your chances of reaching your dreams.

Build Your Inner Resources

Unless you’re made of psychological Teflon, it’s normal to feel thrown off every time your defense response tries to barge its way in. A steady diet of inner resources that buffer you from its intrusion will keep you steady, despite the obstacles that are part of every journey. Identify what will best help you, given your past experiences. Is it reliving the love you’ve experienced, or will savoring the times you’ve risen up to life’s challenges help you more? Think of what your own armor will look like, then find real ways to develop it.

Remember, fear is part of our biological inheritance. It’s what we have in common with every other creature on the planet. But what sets us apart is the uniquely human ability to visualize a better future, the desire to pursue long-term goals, and the need to make a difference to the world. If we are to find fulfillment, fear needs to become a silent partner in this common journey we call life.

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