Dec 072007

Main Point:

  • All fear is a feeling or fear that we won’t be able to handle it.
  • You can handle it. Especially if other people can, you can.

Let’s test the premise that all fear is a feeling of not being bale to handle it:

  • Fear: I might lose my money. Why do you care? Because losing your money might be a sign that you are incompetent with your money, or maybe you just have difficulty dealing with loss of all kinds and you feel you won’t be able to handle it.
  • Fear: My partner (or someone else important) might leave. Why do you care? Perhaps you feel your sense of self is threatened and that you won’t be able to handle it.
  • Fear: I might do badly on this assignment. Why do you care? Perhaps your sense of identity is tied up in doing well on assignments, or what they represent (ie, being smart enough or knowledgeable enough or hardworking enough, etc), and you wouldn’t be able to handle it. I believe some procrastinators (especially those with perfectionist tendencies) procrastinate so by that they have excuse for why they didn’t do well on the assignment, or what have you. I can proudly say that I’ve moved from procrastinating because of this reason to procrastinating because something is just not easy or clear.

So, the real risk is that you wouldn’t be able to handle it.

I want to put emphasis on my words, “Why do you care?” because I want to make sure you understand that caring is a choice, and there’s usually reasons for making this choice, even if it is made unconsciously. Moving to making this choice consciously is a step worth taking, even if it is hard at first. It requires introspection and building self-awareness.

You can test this for yourself. I know that for myself, I am only afraid of things or situations the aftermath of which I don’t feel I’ll be able to handle. More examples:

  • Fear: I’m scared of talking to strangers. Why? If they don’t like me, I won’t be able to handle it. I’ll become filled with self-doubt. Note: This doesn’t need to happen. Someone not liking me does not equal me having self-doubt, that’s my own choice even if made unconsciously.
  • Fear: I’m scared of public speaking. Why? If someone boos me, laughs at me or dislikes me, I won’t be able to handle it.

I’m not necessarily afraid of public speaking because of the public speaking itself, but because of the potential negative reaction and how I’ll feel about that reaction and how I may not be able to handle it.

Its important to draw a distinction between things around us and outside us and the meaning-making mechanism in our minds which creates certain meanings out of them. Sometimes that meaning leads to a feeling of fear, sometimes to empowerment. Fear (or any emotion, for that matter) does not exist outside us. Point out the amorphous black cloud known as fear in the real world. Fear (and other emotions, in many circumstances) are actually responses or reactions to certain situations or things. Some of these responses have gotten pretty standardized and seem almost invisible to us, but they are a social construction. For example, the only reason why it seems reasonable to fear something like the stock market is because it has been standardized that loss of money is a bad thing to get emotionally bent up about. There’s nothing in our evolutionary history to prepare us to fear the stock market (in fact, one of the few innate fears we have is of snakes and other such real world dangers), it is a social construction. And since it is an artificial social construction, it can be changed. But that’s a story for another day.

So. Let’s assume this conclusion that all fear is really a feeling that we wouldn’t be able to handle it. Examining my fears, I find that this is true. One of my more basic fears that I still have is a fear of ridicule. If someone ridicules me, I fear that I won’t be able to handle it. If someone ridicules my ideas, or debates my ideas, that’s ok, I can handle that. I just don’t feel like I can handle out-and-out ridicule, and this has lead to my not taking advantage of opportunities simply because they put me in a position to potentially to be ridiculed. I’m working through, this though, and recognition of the conclusion that all fear is the fear of not being able to handle it has really helped me to understand it.

So, what’s the solution? A few, actually:

  • The classic advice of facing your fears. Go out and do what you’re afraid of. Perhaps break it down into steps. If you’re afraid of public speaking, how do you feel about speaking in front of a group of 4-5 friends? If you have to do some public speaking, speak to some of your audience beforehand to see how normal, friendly, and like you they really are. Put in your position, they’d prolly react the same way. We like to think we’re all different but most people are actually very similar and very much like you.
  • Remind yourself that other people have gotten through those worst-case scenarios. Other people have gotten through bankruptcy, some of them have become millionaires (I’ve heard it said that the average millionaire has been bankrupt at least once). Or been booed off a stage. In fact, Jim Carrey (you might know him as one of the highest paid comedic actors of cinema) was booed off the stage at Yuk Yuk’s as a young man. A lot.
  • Deliberately create the small-scale version of the thing you’re scared of. And then a slightly bigger scale.

Fear can put us into an awkward position and stop us from being able to think and come up with ideas. I recommend reading this to help you come up with ideas in the face of fear. Inspired Money Maker – Guaranteed Not to Fail.

We’re a lot tougher than we think are. In fact, take what’s the worst thing you can handle and multiply it by 50-100% and you’d still be able to handle it. Don’t believe me? Find some people who’ve been through that stuff and see just how normal they were and are now. Don’t think you could handle the loss of a limb? There are millions out there who can and do handle it. Except in a few cases, there’s little that differentiates you or I from them. Some of them even go on to accomplish great things, like Terry Fox.

Here’s a personal example. About two years ago, I put an entry into a nation-wide stand-up comedy competition. I won. Great! Except I’d never done stand-up comedy before and it was going to be televised. Everyone else who got into the contest got there by entering smaller contests at clubs all across Canada and winning and the least experienced guy there had a year of stand-up comedy experience. I had one amateur night the week before the contest.

The night of the contest came and I got up on that stage and did my jokes. No one laughed. Not a single person. Not even a chuckle or a smile. Well, that’s not true, the two friends I’d brought along were laughing like hell. At me.

I totally and utterly bombed in front of a camera and maybe 25 or so people, including people from all across the entertainment industry. So, what happened? I was in a bit of a depressed funk for a few weeks, but I eventually realized that I was ok! This may not sound like a big realization, but I figured out that I’d done something that scares the hell out of most people. Most people wouldn’t even consider doing it because of the risk of no one laughing and being humiliated, and that worst case actually happened to me. And I was fundamentally ok! I was fine! No scars or people pointing and laughing at me on the street. I had handled totally and utterly bombing! In fact I wanted to get a tape of my performance, but I wasn’t able to get the money together in the time required, but I really wish I had it. In fact, I think I bombed on the same stage that Jim Carrey was booed off of so many times as a young comedian.

I doubt anybody there remembered me even five minutes after I got off stage (other people think about you a lot less than you think they do. Think about it, how much do you think about other people?) Since then, I haven’t had a problem speaking in front of groups. I want to improve, of course, but I’ve gotten over the main fear of public speaking, and just interacting with people in general.

This post is heavily inspired by Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, which is a PD classic and highly recommended.

  2 Responses to “The Root of All Fears”

  1. […] a complete fool of yourself? Its not the complete fool part that scares you, its the idea that you wouldn’t be able to handle the negative criticism if someone saw you.  If you had to do something strange like strut around tall and high and yell like Tarzan, but I […]

  2. […] thread inspired a blog post: Mind-Manual » The Root of All Fears Taking risks like that is actually referring to taking emotional risks, rather than just […]

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