We are all afraid of something, whether it be fear of change, rejection, failure, success, fear of missing out (FOMO), fear of being alone, fear of aging/illness/death, fear of loss of control, fear of the unknown, just to name a few. It’s quite normal to have these fears. In fact, these fears are part of being human.
For example, let’s take the fear of being an impostor. We fear being “found out” by others because we think we are not good enough, which causes us to lose faith in our own abilities. We end up losing self-confidence and don’t believe in our own self worth (because we have low self-esteem).
Many of us live our lives out of the fear of what other people think of us, so we are always implicitly seeking their validation and approval. We’re waiting for others to give us permission to be ourselves. We are afraid of our weaknesses being exposed as if no one else has them. We aren’t living our dreams because we are living our fears.
Let me share with you another example. Fear of the unknown. I know when I haven’t clarified things in my inbox for more than a few days, there must be something in it that will explode and come back to haunt me later because it might be overdue.
As Marianne Williamson has so beautifully put it:
Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here.
We are not born with fears, but we learn about them as we grow up. One way we learn about fears is when we let others project their (false) beliefs and insecurities (or fears) onto us. For example, just because they couldn’t do something in a particular situation or accomplish their goals doesn’t mean that we can’t do it either. In this instance, the people we surround ourselves with become incredibly important.
Fear by definition is irrational. That said, let’s make the distinction between irrational fears and legitimate ones that we should actually be afraid of. When I talk about “fears”, I am not saying that we shouldn’t be afraid of physical pain that might come from jumping from a building or diving into the ocean from a cliff just to prove that we are “fearless” (which is also not the point). That would be crazy. What I am talking about are our everyday irrational fears that keep us from living our lives to the fullest.
Fear of physical pain, fear of natural disasters such as earthquakes or storms, etc. are legitimate fears. Police officers have a legitimate fear of getting shot in the line of duty. For those of us who have 9-to-5 jobs or who work for ourselves, what have we to fear? It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet, we all experience it (despite what others might tell you or have you believe), so take solace in the fact that you are not alone.
Not all fears are bad. Sometimes fears are good (and needed) in order for us to grow and to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones. A lot of the times our fears are masked in the form of self-doubt, anxiety, the unknown etc. Unless we push ourselves through them, we won’t grow.
Here’s the thing. Fear never really goes away as long as we continue to grow. There is a name for this everyday irrational fear, which I wrote about earlier. It’s called Resistance. It’s what keeps us from moving forward on things — especially those things that are closest to our soul, but which we avoid for many reasons.
We fear things any time we start/do something new. That is resistance telling us to keep the status quo because that’s when it feels safe and happy. That’s why artists are the ones who often take the most risks by trying new and different things to change the world — that’s how they overcome Resistance.
Here’s what I wrote in my draft on overcoming resistance:
The job of resistance is to keep us safe (and to keep us from change) because it perenially lives in fear. It will do everything in its power to maintain the status quo. And because it loves the status quo, it keeps us from reaching our goals. It’s easier to be how we are now than to change into what we want to be.
We also know that if we are not growing over time, we are moving backwards. There is no such thing as stagnating or plateauing. In other words, our fears prevent us from growing.
I don’t know how, where, or when I learned about this, but you could think of FEAR as fantasized experiences appearing real. Fears are nothing more than beliefs you have about things that you want to change, but feel reluctant about for many reasons.
By the way, having courage is not absence of fear as it’s commonly touted or understood. Courage is facing the fear and doing the things anyway regardless of the fact. Sometimes you can overcome the fears through your actions, while other times you acknowledge it and do the things despite it (but more on this below). What matters is how we use our fears to our advantage and not let it drive our lives, which it can by default if left unchecked. To reiterate, the point is not to be fearless or think that it doesn’t impact you — just don’t let it make the decisions in your life.
As Seneca has wisely said:
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
Here are some examples of everyday fears:
- fear of breaking up with a loved one (because you’re afraid of the other person’s response to the “rejection”)
- fear of rejection from others in work and in relationships
- fear of calling prospects and asking for business
- fear of rejection after shipping things
- fear of approaching an attractive stranger
- fear of public speaking
- fear of voicing your opinion (or asking a question) in public
- fear of cold showers
- fear of being hospitalized upon discovering you have an illness that is treatable and not so serious but nonetheless urgent (this happened to me not too long ago as I had never been hospitalized before; this was a first for me)
- fear of getting on a rollercoaster, going down the waterslide, or facing a blank canvas (all of these can be scary or thrilling depending on how you feel about it and/or whether or not you’ve done it before)
- fear of not making it to a meeting or flight on time
My topmost fear is losing my family and being alone. Knowing that my parents won’t always be around, there’s nothing I (or anyone) can do about that outside of accepting the fact, making peace with it, and doing as much as I can for them, make them proud, enjoy their company, and accept the fact as is — don’t cry that it’s over, but smile that it happened. Couple this with knowing and having the self-confidence that I’ll be able to deal with it when it comes (as there is no alternative) and to celebrate their lives rather than mourn about it.
When we focus on our fears (rather than focusing on things we can do to overcome them), our mind becomes a prison. Our fears hinder our growth. They create self-limiting beliefs in our minds, which drives our attitudes, and ulitmately our behaviors (or the decisions we make). In other words, how we think determines how we behave and what we do.
For instance, when we fear things at school or work, we procrastinate and delay the inevitable for as long as possible fully knowing that we have to attend to it eventually. For a student, this equates to not studying for the exam and leaving things until the last minute because they think they’ll somehow deal with it later. Then one of two things happen: they realize that they won’t be able to study everything, so they simply give up and take the exam unprepared. Or, they burn the midnight oil knowing they can’t study everything, but they’ll do the best they can with the time remaining. Another example is a knowledge worker not starting on a project early enough and becoming afraid over the looming deadline knowing that they won’t be able to complete the project on time. Then, they scramble, and the quality of their work suffers in the process.
So why conquer our fears? Well, what’s the alternative? To live a life being afraid of things? Where’s the joy or challenge in that? The greatest risk is not taking one. There is no doubt in my mind that life throws challenges at us so we can grow. We need to embrace our fears instead of trying to get rid of them. We fear things when we don’t do enough of something, and our fears will never go away as long as we continue to grow — and that’s okay. Therein lies our greatest opportunity for growth. The root fear under all our fears is that we may not be able to deal with our “what-if” situations. We don’t trust ourselves enough to handle those situations. We have to overcome our fears as that is the only way to become the person we want to be from the person we are now.
Make a list of things you’re actually afraid of (without judging them; just write!). Then, ask yourself how many of these fears are actually legitimate? Chances are most (or even all) of them would be irrational fears. These are fears that we can do something about. They are self-limiting beliefs that are holding us back.
As Joseph Campbell has profoundly put:
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that can happen? Fear is a sign that we need to do the thing that we are afraid of. There is no other way. The sooner we do it, the better we feel about ourselves, and the more self-confident we become in the process. For instance, let’s say you are afraid of eating an artichoke (insert your favorite example here) because you think you might not like the taste of it and/or you’re afraid to try it because of how it looks. That is an irrational fear. Think through this logically. The worst that can happen from eating it (or doing that thing you’re afraid of) is that you might not like the taste of it. But this is how we psych ourselves out. Try it, and if you don’t like it, you can stop having it. What’s to fear?
Consider this a corollary of the above. What is the cost of inaction? If you didn’t do anything about this fear right now for the next six months, a year, or even three years, what would happen? Fear of not doing things is a form of escape. It never really goes away even as we may try to live in denial about it. Remember, the obstacle is the way (forward).
We only fear things because we are afraid and less than confident in dealing with situations if our fears come true. We don’t trust ourselves enough to handle any situation that may manifest. Another thing: we cannot control things outside of our reasoned choices, so it doesn’t quite help our cause if we worry about those things that we have no control over. Just trust yourself that you’ll be able to deal with your challenges.
Also, we can’t prepare the road for ourselves (or for our loved ones, i.e. we can’t “protect” them from the outer world). We can only prepare ourselves (or help others) for the road. Come what may, we are ready to face any situation proactively. That is our choice and is always under our control.
Don’t be afraid to abandon your old friends. Sometimes becoming a better person comes at the cost of losing old friends (and even families). In the same vein, let go of people who can’t stop complaining and who project their insecurities and fears on to you; surround yourself with people who encourage you to succeed.
This is what I wrote in my piece on abundance:
Don’t be afraid to abandon old friends and make new ones. I don’t mean to suggest that you cast off your friends, but if you have friends that are keeping you from moving forward (inadvertently or not, with their stagnant beliefs/behaviors), then you’re better off without them. Other times, it could be that your spouse/partner is holding you back (inadvertently or not) [in which case also you relieve them].
It’s always our choice when it comes to doing (or not doing) things. Here are some examples.
Sometimes overcoming our fears requires a change in mindset: from taking something to giving (adding value). Think in terms of giving and not taking things from others. We don’t call our customers because we feel we are intruding on them. The truth is we are doing them a favor by offering them our services proactively as a way to help them overcome their challenges, and they are all the more grateful to us for having called them (because almost no one does it). It’s a Win-Win. You are proactively calling your customers routinely, and not simply responding to their important/urgent needs.
Remember that change is the only thing that is permanent in our lives; we can either adapt and acknowledge or resist it — the choice is ours. Instead of trying to get rid of your fears, embrace them. Our fears will never go away as long as we continue to grow, and that’s a good sign. If we’re not growing, we are moving backward. What is life without growth?!
As Marie Curie has so nicely put:
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.
Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. We have to get our fears in some kind of rational order. Instead of fearing things, we need to understand them logically and objectively. Be as granular as you can with your reasoning. When it comes to questioning our fears, logic and reason are our best friends, so use it to your advantage.
We need to take risks (the greatest risk is not taking one). When we are not failing, we are not trying. No one goes through life being safe and not failing. Those who succeed the most are the ones who take the most risks (and/or often fail the most). There is no better example of this than Michael Jordan, who has said that the reason he succeeded in basketball and in life is because he took the most shots and risked failing, thus leading to his success. Again, we are talking about taking prudent (not ridiculous) risks. Don’t be stupid and stop being afraid of failing.
We need to acquire skills and experiences. We need to talk to ourselves because what we believe will inform our behaviors. Get outside help. Hire an expert (coach) to help you reduce/overcome your fears. Get therapy for things you can’t let go of in your past.
Be grateful for all that you have in your life. The antidote to fear is gratitude. We can’t feel fear while feeling gratitude at the same time.
To wrap up this piece, let me share with you a personal example of how I overcame a fear in my own life. I was going through a difficult time in my personal life, and it had been greatly affecting my work and, more importantly, my overall well-being. I thought it was only temporary before things could be worked out, but they never did. In fact, the more time I invested in it, the more I lost in the relationship. This reminds me of the sunk-cost bias. We keep investing in things (or relationships) hoping they will get better (but they never do), when in fact we should quit. Of course, hindsight is always 20-20.
Case in point: I was scared of losing a loved one, not to any serious illness or death, but from my life. At one point, it was unthinkable for me to imagine living a life without them (it still is). They were a pillar of love and strength in my life. I used to dote on them. I used to say that I would never give up on them, as I had learned to never give up on my relationships, ever, albeit with an important caveat — we can’t help others at the cost of our own well-being.
I know that when things get difficult, we don’t give up on our relationships, but we try harder and we try to do things differently to make things work, all in the hope of living joyfully together. The question then becomes what is the price we are willing to pay to make it work? And is that the best thing going forward for all those involved? Then again, we may be victims of sunk-cost bias, which is, the more time we invest in someone or something, the more we are inclined to think that good things will happen inevitably, but they rarely turn around.
The best analogy I could come up for the aforementioned example was: imagine a loved one stuck in quicksand. Not only do they not want to come out of it (to give them the benefit of the doubt and for reasons beyond their control, let’s say), but when you extend your hand to drag them out, they drag you in with them (unwittingly or not). It ends up being a Lose-Lose situation for both people. What do you do? You have to let go. We can’t help others at the cost of our own survival. We need to look after ourselves first. If (or when) others don’t want to change their ways, then you just have to accept the fact and move on because there is nothing you can do at that point to influence the relationship.
The whole point of this story was that I learned to move on. Previously, my thinking was that I loved them so much that I couldn’t live without them. In hindsight, that was dependent thinking. I can live without them — I have, and I will. You see, our happiness cannot be determined by something outside our control.
Everything we want is on the far side of fear. We need to define our fears before they define us. For instance, if you fear losing a loved one who you dearly love (like I did for whatever reason), use rationality. Allow logic and reasoning to come to your rescue rather than letting yourself get carried away solely by your emotions. Maintain your inner strength. Remember, it’s not our situations that hurt us the most, but how we respond to them. You have to be at peace with yourself so you can deal with the situation better. If that doesn’t happen, your situation may get out of hand.
Fear is no way to live your life. Don’t let your fears overcome you. Battle those demons inside of you. It’s not the war outside that we have (with others), but the wars within ourself. The problem is never out there; it’s within.
When we overcome our fears, we truly live our lives to the fullest. We alter our belief system about our own ability to change, which in turn makes us more confident. With this confidence, we have the courage to take on tougher challenges and we become more self-efficacious.
As long as we keep growing, there will always be fear. The best we can do is to acknowledge it and do the thing that we are going to do regardless.
Just let go of the fears. Be free.