Fear: 4 Questions You Should Ask

Fear plays a funny role in our lives. A funny role, but a very big role.

The earliest fear I remember having, maybe at 3 or 4 years old, was this: My family would be out for a walk. I’d fall behind, and as soon as my family was out of view, gypsies would rush out of the trees to steal me away and make me be their own child. (I had heard about gypsies.)

I remember watching The Elephant Man when I was 9 or 10. I hardly slept for a week. It’s an old black and white–true story–about a man with a deformed head who was put in a circus and ridiculed and died alone. I knew there was a good chance that would happen to me.

Around 11 or 12 I used to sit on the stairs crying because I was quite sure–in fact I knew–that I was going to die. Die early. Die early of one of two diseases: Small pox. Or spinal meningitis. And the morning I woke up with a sore neck after falling asleep propped against my headboard, I knew spinal meningitis was the culprit. I was beginning to die.

I’ve been afraid of lots of silly things in my lifetime. Of spiders laying eggs inside my ear. Of accidentally dropping something on a baby (like I actually had a phobia I’d like toss something on a couch only to discover a baby had been lying there). Of hitting somebody with a line drive if I ever batted a baseball as hard as I could. I have had many strange diseases I learned about on WebMD.

Maybe the scariest possibility of all was put in my 7-year-old head courtesy of my older brother: Bill Clinton and Al Gore were going to sneak into our house in the middle of the night and murder me in my sleep. (Bet you can’t guess which political party I grew up in.)

 

And then I grew up, and fears became more sophisticated. I’ll accidentally screw up my taxes and get in trouble. I’ll run out of money and become homeless.

So I say yes to things I don’t actually want, because I’m afraid of what someone will think.

More frequently, I say no to things I do want, because what if I screw them up?

What if people discover that I’m not a very cool person? What if nobody likes my blog post? What if I try making a podcast and nobody listens? What if people make fun of me? What if I accept a promotion only to fall flat on my face? What if I make close friends, and those friends let me down? What if I open up to a loved one, and they realize they don’t like me? What if, what if, what if…

Lots of things could go wrong. I could forget to lock the door to my home before I go to sleep. And when I go check to make sure I locked it, I might see it wrong and still leave it unlocked. Oh man… (#thankyoutherapy)

 

The thing is, I think even though our fears get more sophisticated as we get older, they’re still just exactly what they always were: Just fears.

Fears that you can get past. Fears that probably won’t come true. Fears that, if they do come true, will probably be fine.

Have you ever watched a child learn how to swim? Take their first jump in the pool? They stand there shaking and whimpering. Mom or dad smile and coax them into the pool. “I’ll catch you!” But the child is frozen. “It’s going to be okay. I promise.” But what if you’re wrong, mom? Finally–finally the child decides they want it bad enough to try anyway. They jump. Have you seen what happens to a child’s face in that moment? The terror changes to this incredible feeling of wonder and awe. So many emotions flash across their face: Relief. Excitement. Pride. They did it! They’ve unlocked a whole world of fun and fulfillment. They’re so relieved and excited they can’t help laughing. Giddy. It feels so good.

What’s something you’ve been so, so afraid of, that when you finally did it, you felt a similar relief and pride and excitement? What’s something you really wanted that you couldn’t have for a long, long time, because you were afraid? As Jack Canfield says, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

Sometimes the fear doesn’t just go away once you’ve done your thing. Sometimes when you face your fears, all you feel is capable or healthy.

But I bet that most of your things you’ve done–through the fear–have left you with the incredible realization that it was okay. Even if it didn’t feel okay, you’re all right. Life’s not over. You are strong. You CAN.

 

But fear is still scary.

 

So in case it helps, I have 4 questions I’d like to suggest that you ask yourself about fear. 4 questions to quietly reflect on and answer thoughtfully:

1. What is something you haven’t done/aren’t doing because you’re afraid?

2. On a scale from 1-10, how vague is the outcome you’ve been afraid of?

3. What are the realistic possible outcomes? The good? The bad? If the bad happened, how would you deal with it? (Be very specific.)

4. What one step could you take today to move toward that thing you’ve been too afraid to do?

I don’t think answering these questions will make you unafraid.

But I do think when you answer question 1, you’ll realize that you want to do your thing even though you’re afraid.

And when you answer question 2, you’ll realize you’re mostly just afraid of the dark. You’re afraid because you have no idea what possibilities are lurking on the other side of your fear. As the iconic horror writer H. P. Lovecraft put it, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

And when you answer question 3, you’ll realize that when you switch the lights on and take a more realistic, honest, specific look at what was in the dark, it’s never quite as awful as you thought. In fact, the whole thing might be quite safe.

And when you answer question 4, you’ll be starting your new journey. A journey toward the life you want and dream of. No matter how scared you are.

Because you see fear for what it is: Just fear.

You’ve got this.

And you’re going to be okay.

Ralph Waldo Emerson - world is not so scary when you look

You vs You-with

A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”

There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.

You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.

While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.

Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.

When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.

Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.

If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.

Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.

But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.

There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.

That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.

Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.

“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”

“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”

Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”