On my nerdy vacation, we had the opportunity to listen to a series of lectures that were supposed to be about the nature of fear. We noticed pretty quickly that few of the presenters actually wanted to talk about fear, which we got some good chuckles about, because really we all pretty much want to avoid fear whenever we can, right? Being afraid is the pits. People don’t want to feel it; they don’t want to study it; and even when asked to, many don’t want to talk about it all that much. We just don’t want to have anything to do with it, but fear is part of the human condition. It is hard-wired (not necessarily in terms of WHAT we’re afraid of, but that we will be afraid).
Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Economics and all around smart guy at Duke University, answered the question of whether or not fear serves us with a qualified “yes.” I’ll paraphrase the rest by saying that fear acts as a repellant for things that might kill or hurt us (like tigers or grizzly bears), but our fear response hasn’t evolved as quickly as society. There is a phenomenon called the “Identifiable Victim Problem” which makes us afraid of the wrong things. The way this works is that the problems with which we are most familiar through exposure (i.e. media exposure) like terrorism scare us more than the statistically likely death by car accident or health issues related to dietary choices. Our fear is primitive and is ripe for manipulation.
I would suggest, and I am no longer paraphrasing Prof. Ariely, that our fear is regularly manipulated, but not just by the media or politicians or advertisers. We manipulate our own fear all of the time with an extended chess game in our heads. Our primitive brain tries to manipulate us with fear any time we threaten to change the status quo. We can see this in large and small scale. In the larger world big change, or the threat of big change, often unleashes reactions that are so strong that they could only be caused by fear. The same thing happens within us. We toy with a new idea and before we know it, our primitive brain has us sure that taking even the smallest step in that direction will unleash some version of hell. “We’ll go broke. He’ll leave me. Everyone will know I’m a fraud. Nobody will love me.” Whew. That lizard brain really knows how to get at us, and convince us that change is foolish.
If we’re really good, we can even convince ourselves that all of that wasn’t fear, it was logic, analysis, adulting, good decision-making. We can frame it lots of ways, but the truth is that part of us is trembling in the corner with a blanket and a bowl of popcorn asking for the remote so she can change the channel. This kind of response to fear makes it pretty much useless. Dame Stella Remington (the former director of MI5 – i.e. chief spy of the U.K.) said: “I don’t think fear, which implies sort of sitting in a corner shaking, is ever a sensible reaction to anything.” And I agree with her, at least as far as that kind of response goes. All of this still doesn’t tell us what good fear is to us when we’re not facing the immediacy of a tiger or grizzly bear, or even a celtic warrior painted in blue.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we respond to fear and I’ve come to the conclusion that aside from acting as an early warning system, fear also acts as another kind of signal. It raises a flag, gets all of our attention, sets off all of the alarms, but maybe it’s not always to indicate that we should run and hide. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes those alarm bells are there to let us know that there is an opportunity in front of us to grow in some way that will fundamentally improve our lives. What if all of that fear is just your body and your psyche’s best attempt to get you to wake up and pay attention because THIS IS IMPORTANT? The problem is that we get so bowled over by the physiology and brain scrambling nature of fear that it’s hard to pay attention to what’s in front of us. We lose track of where the lesson might be. We look for our familiar bogey men. We try to make sense of the fear, when usually it’s our favorite self-defeating story. Usually we let the fear get big enough that its origin seems somewhat secondary.
At times like this, I like to do something Tim Ferris calls Fear Setting. I didn’t know it had a name, I just stumbled into it when I was really struggling with some anxiety. With Fear Setting you really lean into the fear. What am I afraid of? What am I putting off? What am I not doing because I’m afraid? When you’ve got a handle on that, you imagine the worst possible scenario for all of those things – how bad could this really get? What would happen? If the fear is preventing you from acting in some way, then you imagine the benefits of taking that step. Finally you figure out the costs of inaction. It all sounds very spreadsheety, which is not my usual jam, but leaning into the fear in this way allows us to measure our momentary fear against the cost of being controlled by our momentary fear. More often than not, this allows us to bring our reactions into line with where we really are RIGHT now. I’m okay. I’m safe. I’m here. There are things I can do. I should do them. I will be okay. In fact, I will probably be better than I am right now.
Our fear is a signal. And it’s super powerful, because of the tigers and grizzly bears, but how we respond to that signal is always up to us. Developing a sense of curiosity in the face of fear may just allow us to see that our biggest gains are just on the other side of a little teeth chattering and quaking.