Fear is fascinating.
It's one of my favourite emotions now. It's like a beacon that says...
"Yo! pay attention to this, there's something important to you here."
Like many people, I've avoided fearful situations for most of my life. Sure, some of them were logical and helpful... like don't run across the busy street. But there were many things I avoided that weren't actually dangerous...
- Going on stage in front of an audience
- Getting rejected by a pretty girl
- Failing, at pretty much anything
- Social disapproval
In fact, many of these scared me even more than running across a busy street.
How nuts is that?
On reflection, that tells me something essential...
There are two kinds of fear. Fear of dying... and fear of living.
For much of my life, I've been afraid to live.
That's not the life I want.
Lately I've decided to try a different tact, to go towards fear, rather than running away from it. And the experience has been phenomenal.
Here are some things I've learned...
#1 - Fear is all about predicted outcomes
Fear is all in your head... it has zero to do with actual reality. It is only concerned with what your mind predicts will happen.
When your mind considers a situation, it performs a risk-assessment, to determine how safe you are.
That risk-assessment process seems to prioritize information from three categories...
- First-hand ( personal ) experience. Your own actual, real-world, personal experience.
- Second-hand ( observed ) experience. The experiences of someone else, even if you just Something someone else told you.
- Imagined possibility. The worst case scenario that you can imagine.
Also, information is strongly prioritised in this order... personal experience is always stronger than observed experience, which is again stronger than imagined possibility.
#2 - Fear can be learned from others
When you don't have first-hand personal experience, your mind will readily use the experience of others as evidence.
Fred: Bob ate a peanut, and it nearly killed him.
Me: Oh shit... peanuts can be dangerous.
Watch out for this, and when you discover that you are afraid of something, consider who you have surrounded yourself with.
If you want to minimize unhelpful fear in your life, it's essential to surround yourself with people how also embrace courage and curiosity.
#3 - Without evidence, imagination wins
When you have no experience-based evidence, your Imagined worst-case scenario becomes the narrative.
Similarly, when sufficient first-hand and second-hand evidence isn't available, your mind is just as ready to use imagination. Your mind can be very creative at imagining worst case scenarios, and treating them as though they were real experiences.
This is why we're most afraid of the unknown, because by definition, the thing that isn't known, has no evidence. Our mind can only see our imagined worst-case scenarios.
So let me think... if I talk to that cute girl, I'll probably get kicked in the nuts, rejected, laughed at, banned from society, sent to the wilderness, and will die a hungry and lonely death? Seems legit."
#4 - My mind is a pessimist, and fear is my default reaction to new things
My brain is not my friend. It's a tool with one primary job - to keep me alive.
How does it do that? By vetoing pretty much anything that it imagines might possibly have a negative outcome.
We're usually afraid of the unknown, becuase by definition, we have no evidence to work with, only our imagination of the worst case scenario.
But have you considered that fear of the unknown includes fear of change, and even fear of success?
Your mind equally capable of finding the best aspects of the worst possible situation, and the worst aspects of the best possible situation.
#5 - All fear is fundamentally the same
We like to classify fear, and give it different names, but that's only useful to a point. In the most basic sense, all fear is about our mind predicting potential harm.
And we can predict harm most anywhere...
- Fear of injury or death is a clear aversion to physical harm.
- Fear of failure? People might no longer like me. I might lose money, time, self-respect, self-confidence.
- Fear of success? Whoa. Am I ready for new obligations and commitments? How will my life change? If I win this, now I might have to fight to keep it. And I'll have to leave this safe, known place, to move to that new one.
In a very real sense, all of the fears are about losing ground, ending up worse off than you are right now. When your mind is pessimistic, you focus attention on the worst-case, and become fearful of change itself.
Overcoming fear - it's so simple!
( And it can even be relatively easy )
In a simplified sense, this is how your brain performs risk-assessment...
While you're looking at the flowchart, I want you to ask yourself a few questions...
- How often do you find yourself feeling fear about things you've never actually tried?
- Do you find yourself generally feeling more fear, or more excitement, in your day?
- How often do you actually seek evidence about things you feel afraid of?
To combat an unhelpful, misdirected fear response, the solution is simply to build your first-hand experience with the situation. Gradually, carefully, safely, you can explore the edges of that fear personally, and discover for yourself whether or not the fear is real.
It's just like learning to drive a car...
The first time you drove a car, you were probably a bit scared. Your evidence map looked like this-
- Personal experience = ZERO
- Observed experience = LIMITED. I've been in a car before, and haven't died. But I've also heard of and maybe seen some bad car accidents.
- Imagined possibility = Yow, a car accident is nasty. People die.
But as you kept driving, you built evidence that you would survive, unharmed. Now, getting behind the steering wheel is no longer the fearful experience it once was.
- Personal experience = SOLID. I can survive, and I feel reasonably in control.
- Observed experience = SOLID. I've been in a car before, and haven't died. But I've also heard of and maybe seen some bad car accidents.
- Imagined possibility = Yow, a car accident is nasty. People die.
The trick is not to avoid those experiences that trigger fear, but to manage those experiences, so that you can proceed forward cautiously, but with courage.
The Power of Curiosity
A strong sense of curiosity is another powerful tool against un-founded fear.
My father is an engineer, and fantastic at his job, working for large engineering firms. When I told him I wanted to start my own business, he couldn't understand. "Sounds difficult," he said. "Sounds dangerous," he imagined. "It will be difficult to succeed," he counseled.
At 19, I had no experience starting a business either, but his fears didn't sway me. Why? Curiousity. I was deeply, deeply curious about the experience of starting my own business. That Curiosity drove me so hard, straight through Courage, and into Action.
And I'm so glad I did, I've never looked back.
Fear is a double-edged sword. Yes it can protect you, and it can also kill your ability to live.
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Fear and memory are deeply inter-linked.
Had a great experience before? You're more likely to predict it again. Had a bad experience before? You're more likely to predict it again.
No fear of the dark
When I was 7, a friend of my mother's brought over her 5 year old daughter late one evening.
I was an imaginative kid, and a little afraid of the dark, and as we headed up the stairs into my pitch-black room to play I was ready to flip on the light switch.
The 5 year old ran right past me, excitedly up the stairs, into the pitch-black inky darkness. Into a room she'd never even been before.
I paused in surprise. Her mother noticed, and said to me, "please don't give her any spooky ideas- she has no fear of the dark."
My brain exploded.
She had never been given any evidence that dark could be dangerous. So little evidence, that her imagination couldn't even conceive of it. Whoa.