Meet Michelle Poler, The Venezolana Inspiring Women To Face Their Fears
According to Michelle Poler’s checklist, her life was close to perfect. After graduating high school in Caracas, Venezuela, she moved to Savannah, Georgia to study advertising. While there, she said “I do” to her then-boyfriend. Once she received her bachelor’s degree, she relocated with her husband to Miami, where she swiftly landed an ideal industry gig. But as she fulfilled each life goal, many of them feats for immigrant women of color in the US, she didn’t feel as gratified as she’d been told she would her whole life.
In fact, Poler, who had always lived life according to the safe and secure to-do list society created for her, didn’t start feeling happy until she ditched the rule book entirely and started uncomfortably facing her biggest trepidations through Hello Fears.
A social movement, Hello Fears empowers people to step outside of their comfort zone, engaging in activities that make them a little uneasy, so that they’re able to tap into their full potential. The project, started in 2015 when Poler was a graduate student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, uses storytelling and media content to help people embrace fear and realize the joyous life they fantasize about.
“The core of this project is to inspire people to tackle daily fears,” Poler, 30, told FIERCE. “We discovered that courage is contagious, so by me sharing my story and other people’s stories, others reading are more willing to face their own fears.”
But before the Brooklyn-based entrepreneur started encouraging her more than 30 thousand followers to be courageous, she had to confront her own terrors. While earning her master’s degree in branding, she had a class assignment that required her to do something, anything, for 100 days. The self-described scaredy cat used the opportunity to help her confront the anxieties that were limiting her from success and pleasure. From there, “100 Days Without Fear” was born.
For the next 100 days, Poler tackled a new fear each day. Starting small, the New York transplant, who at the time was scared to ride the subway alone or be out late at night, found herself conquering those apprehensions. She also ate foods that freaked her out. She experienced the torture of a Brazilian wax. She faced rejection passing out flyers on city street corners. And she dined at a bar alone.
“I started getting confidence as I was facing my fears,” she said. “Achieving those small things and gaining that confidence helped me move to more complicated fears.”
Soon, Poler was tackling horrors that few brave individuals would even dare to think about, from holding a tarantula, to skydiving, to posing nude in front of an arts class. Once she completed the physical tasks she thought she was never capable of doing, she moved on to a bigger feat: facing the fears that were getting in the way of her leading her most fulfilled life. That meant quitting her secure but unsatisfying job in advertising and confronting problems in her familial relationships.
“One of my biggest fears was losing my parents, but I wasn’t going to kill them for this purpose,” Poler jokes. “So I decided to write a letter, a very honest letter as if they were dead, telling them all the things I love and appreciate about them and also things I would like to change in our relationship so we can enjoy life together on this planet.”
The experience was emotional, both for her and the now thousands of followers she had as her project went viral. But the tough and tearful conversation, which Poler shared in a video, were worth it. When it was time for her to face her 100th fear, speaking publicly about her experience at a TEDx Talk, her Panama-based parents were in the crowd, being more present and expressive, just as she had asked of them in her letter.
With her class assignment complete, and now jobless because of it, Poler was inspired to turn her personal journey into a business and movement, one that could inspire others to lead their best lives just as she was starting to. Through Hello Fears, the Latina now helps thousands of people take the first step of welcoming the things that make them uneasy and provides them with the tools to conquer those trepidations. She does this primarily through storytelling, from original, empowering Instagram content, a digital course, a blog where people share their own fear-defeating stories and through keynote speaking engagements. Poler averages about 70 conferences a year, bringing her powerful message of triumph to teenage girls as well as big corporations like Google, Facebook, Netflix and Microsoft.
“Fear is so universal. Everyone can relate. I speak to people of all ages, backgrounds and genders, and all relate to fear and courage,” she said, noting that most of her talks are for girls and women.
In speaking with tens of thousands of people around the country, she has found the thing most people are afraid of is failing the people they love. Unhappy wives don’t leave toxic marriages because they’re worried about how divorce might impact their children. Talented artists don’t pursue their passions because they’re scared of disappointing their parents. Partners with academic dreams don’t apply for graduate school because they fear losing income could put their relationship in turmoil.
“The fear of failing others, that’s the thing people take into account the most before taking a risk. But when we think like that and stop taking risks because of our fears of failing others, we start failing ourselves,” she said.
According to Poler, there are two types of fears that keep people from realizing their dreams: personal and culture. The former, which also includes not wanting to fail loved ones, is avoiding hurting your ego. Rejection is painful, and trying and failing is a bitter death to the soul, so we protect ourselves from that hurt by refusing to face the fear. Similarly, cultural fears, the worry of what society might think of you for behaving outside of the status quo, also keeps people in unhappy situations.
But Poler says when we remain in our comfort zone, we risk never evolving into the people we have the potential of being. For her, we grow when we challenge ourselves and we accomplish our goals the quickest when we look fear straight in the eye. She would know. Before embarking on her “100 Days Without Fear” class project, she was tasked to write a ten-year plan for her life. A year later, by braving her fears, she made all the ambitions she thought were slightly unfeasible to complete even in a decade happen in 365 days, from being paid to speak publicly, to starting her own company to building a brand with her husband. Now, just four years later, she started a relationships podcast with her husband, is writing her first book and had her story picked up for a series on Fox.
“If you have any goal in mind, if you face your fears, the probability is you will get to your goal faster and you actually get there at all,” she said.
For those hoping to conquer their fears but are unsure where to start, Poler suggests making a list of the rewards that facing their fear could bring them, from tiny outcomes to possibilities that might at first seem unrealistic. “Ask yourself, what’s the best that can happen? Fill your mind with rewards and positive thoughts that take you back to the reason you wanted to do this in the first place,” she said. She also proposes keeping an accountability partner, someone who will remind you of what you stand to gain by overcoming your terrors and will inspire you when you feel like giving up.
For Poler, facing her fears not only allowed her to live the joyous life that degrees, a career and marriage couldn’t do alone but it also showed her, for the first time, how mighty she is.
“One thing I learned is that I’m way stronger than I thought. I perceived myself as a fragile person who was going to break at any point and needed someone to rescue me. I’m way stronger than that. Maybe not physically — I should probably go to the gym for that — but mentally I’m way stronger than I thought. I can handle myself. I can survive on my own, if I wanted to,” she said.
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