A few days ago, a former student of mine posted a picture on Facebook that included the following question:
If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only three words?
Maybe not surprisingly, the answers I got from my Facebook friends (who consist of people from 17 to 70+ years of age) were quite varied. But the one theme that popped up over and over again was this:
Don’t be afraid.
If there’s one thing that seems to stop people from taking chances and doing the things they truly want to do with their lives, it’s fear.
Fear of failing
Fear of disappointing others
And even fear of success
What I want to do in this blog post is make the argument that fear is, quite often, a nonsensical (or even silly) reason for not trying things. I also want to provide you with some possible ways to tackle your fear if you feel like it’s holding you back in life.
First, though, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s take a minute and talk about what fear is.
Fear: What It Is and How It Develops
By most accounts, fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat.
For example, being bit by a dog while you’re in the park might send your heart racing. Or standing on the glass floor in Toronto’s CN Tower (which stands about 1200 feet above the ground) might make you a little weak in the knees. Or you might even feel queasy as you prepare to take an exam in your Abnormal Psychology course.
So, where do these fears come from?
First, a very small number of fears are inborn. They are nature’s way of helping you survive, of telling you that danger is imminent and that you should probably “get the hell outta Dodge” as quickly as possible. The fear we experience when we hear a very loud noise or stand on a very high ledge are examples of this. In both cases, the threat is real and could conceivably impact your survival.
But most of the fears that grip our bodies and keep us from doing certain things are not innate. Rather, they are learned, and they emerge because of experiences we have (which I’ll discuss more in a minute). Examples might include:
Experiencing fear before taking an exam.
Feeling tense when thinking about asking out that attractive person in your sociology class.
Getting scared before you have to speak in public (which is frequently listed as the biggest fear people have and which prompted Jerry Seinfeld to joke that giving the eulogy at a funeral is worse than being in the casket).
The reasons we experience these non-innate fears is actually quite complicated and would require extensive discussion of some very interesting psychological phenomena called classical conditioning, stimulus generalization, and stimulus equivalence.
But here’s the short version: The human mind is complex and quickly learns how things in our environments are related to one another. We learn, for example, that thunder and lightning go together, that wings and football go together, that Kanye and Kim go together (#thankskanye).
In fact, the human mind has the ability to go even further than these simple associations. Sometimes we learn to associate things that seem, at first glance, unrelated (that is, until we create a connection between them).
For instance, if a person repeatedly goes on a diet and fails to lose weight, he might start to have negative feelings toward things that typically go with diets, things like “eating lettuce” or “exercising.” Interestingly, he might also start to associate “failed diet” with things like “shopping for new clothes and having nothing fit.” Because of this association, going shopping for clothes—or even thinking about shopping for clothes—might produce negative feelings.
Here’s one more example. Because we don’t always succeed when we try new things (often because they’re hard at first), we might associate “difficult” and “failure.” And if failing has made you feel bad in the past, the very thought of trying something difficult might be enough to produce negative feelings and keep us from moving forward.
Now, although it’s completely normal for the human mind to make these connections—even the seemingly irrational ones—there are at least three problems that arise when discussing how the fear that comes from these connections keeps us from pursuing things we truly want to do.
1. The Things We Fear Often Aren’t That Bad
First, because of how our mind connects things, we sometimes come to believe that certain things will be much more “dangerous” than they actually are. For instance, if we get bit by a dog in the park, we will equate the “danger” of the park with the “danger” of the dog bite.
But the park, by itself, is harmless. It doesn’t threaten our survival.
Likewise, failing an exam does not constitute a life-threatening situation (even though some of my students claim they’ll “just die” if they fail one). Nor does speaking in public or even approaching that good-looking person in your class.
And yet, we often convince ourselves that certain outcomes will be much worse than they actually are.
Most often, though, the things we fear are truly not as “dangerous” as we make them out to be.
2. Our Fears Are Not Reality
Second, because of the mind’s amazing ability to connect things, we sometimes act as if our thoughts are the same as the actual things themselves.
For example, to us, the word “dog” basically means the same thing as a picture of a dog or even a real-life dog.
What this also means is that thinking about a “dog” will produce the same response as if a dog was actually about to bite us; thinking about failing an exam will make us feel like we actually failed an exam; and thinking about our new business failing will feel the same if our business had actually failed.
But here’s the thing: Thinking about a growling dog and a real-life growling dog are not the same. Thinking about failing an exam and actually failing it are not the same. Thinking about your new business failing and actually having that happen are not the same thing.
What this means is that many of the fears we experience are dictated not by the actual event itself, but by a mental representation of a future event that may not even happen!
3. Fear Leads to Avoidance
The final problem—and one that’s related to the previous two—is that feelings of fear lead us to avoid. They keep us from taking action on the things we probably need to be doing to make better lives for ourselves.
When we are “afraid” of things, we try to stay away from them. This is because, in our evolutionary past, people who avoided dangerous things were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.
The problem, as I noted above, though, is that our complex minds lead us to fear things that aren’t that dangerous or that aren’t even “real” (thinking about failing an exam isn’t “real” like actually failing an exam).
And when we fear things, we avoid them, which further exacerbates the problem.
For example, imagine a person who wants to be more social but who also thinks she’s “socially awkward.” Her mind has convinced her that she’ll probably say something stupid around people, and so she gets scared and avoids the party (which produces some short-term relief).
Unfortunately, avoiding the party simply reinforces her already-existing belief that she is “socially awkward,” and this only makes the problem worse.
Or imagine someone who really wants to start her own business but is afraid that it’s too risky and might fail.
Even though her life’s dream is to open a restaurant, she fails to take action because doing so provides immediate relief from the fear and anxiety she experiences when thinking about starting her own business.
How to Tackle Your Fears
So, what’s a person to do if they want to move forward, but fear is holding them back?
There are three things I personally have found to be effective when tackling things I’m afraid to do:
1. Embrace the Fear
First, psychological research has shown that one of the best ways to reduce fear is not to avoid, but rather to approach—or to “embrace”—the thing that causes you fear.
If you’re afraid of dogs, you should spend time around dogs. Or if you get anxious when thinking about studying for an exam, you should allow yourself to embrace the negative thoughts (which is an important part of a new and effective therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).
Importantly, if the thought of doing these feared things overwhelms you, don’t try to do too much at one. Just take a small, manageable step and then build on it.
When you allow yourself to approach the things you fear, you often find out that they don’t have the negative outcomes you thought they would.
And when you realize this, the fear goes away (which is actually a psychological phenomenon called extinction).
2. What Could Happen: The Worst-Case Scenario
The second thing I try to do when I’m feeling a little fearful is to think about the worst-case scenario. Some time ago, I heard “lifestyle entrepreneur” Tim Ferriss talk about this on one of his podcasts.
Specifically, Tim suggested that people should identify the “worst that could happen” if they decided to try something.
For example, if you decided to ask out that attractive person in your sociology class, what’s the worst that could logically happen? Well, maybe he or she would say “no” to you. (It’s important to think logically when doing this. Failing an exam, for instance, will probably not cause you to die penniless and alone, as a former student once told me.)
Once you identify the worst-case scenario, you ask yourself: “Is there any way I wouldn’t be able to recover from this?”
Unless the worst-case scenario involves maiming or death (which is doubtful in most cases), recovery is almost always possible.
Asking someone out and getting shot down might suck, but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).
Failing an exam might hurt a bit (or even a lot), but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).
Even having your business fail might be a big blow to you, but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).
Recovery may not always be easy. But it’s almost always possible.
3. What Could Happen: Will It Matter in a Year?
A third strategy (which I use quite often), and one that is somewhat opposite to the last strategy, is to minimize the perceived negative effect by asking, “Is this really going to matter in 6 months or a year or 5 years?”
Quite often, we place so much emphasis on the near future, we forget that life is a marathon, not a sprint. And when we focus too much on the short term, we tend to blow little things out of proportion, thinking they are going to have much bigger long-term impact than they actually do.
When we slow down for a second, though, and look at things as part of a bigger picture, we often realize they’re not that important in the grand scheme of things. And when we realize there might not be as much risk involved as we thought, we are much more comfortable facing our fears and taking chances.
So, there you have it, my reasoning for why I think “fear” is often not a reasonable excuse for inaction.
Now, I’ll be completely honest with you: I still struggle this this—I still find myself getting anxious when I let my mind “run free” (but I’ve been practicing meditation to calm what Seth Godin calls “the lizard brain“).
But becoming more aware of how my fears develop and how I respond to those fears has allowed me to move forward and to do things that I probably would’ve passed on before, like joining a country band (shameless plug: Please check out my band’s Facebook page and our Instagram page. Also follow us on Twitter).
When we embrace our fears and move forward in service of what we really care about, we often surprise ourselves and realize that we had nothing to be afraid of in the first place.
If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.
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