Fear doesn’t work the way we think it does. I’ll teach you something cool about fear that you can start putting to use right away.
When something scares you, you usually just have an aversion to the notion of that thing. Just the thought of making certain phone calls, confronting certain people, or making certain commitments makes the butterflies bubble up.
This is the point where we usually back down, and distract ourselves from the thought of it by checking email or doing some cleaning or organizing that suddenly seems important.
Quitting my last job to go traveling was something I was afraid of for a long time before I did it. It was a very small company, my boss had been good to me, and I knew it was going to be a blow that came out of nowhere. The thought of it made me nervous, and I decided to put it off till the next day, ten or twelve times.
Most fears keep us at arm’s length like that: we back down at just the idea of doing something nerve-wracking. The fear has done its job — to keep us from going there — and so we don’t look any closer at what it is we’re really afraid of about that idea.
If you do look closely at almost any fear, it’s always a specific moment you’re fearing. A moment with awful feelings in it — awkwardness, pain, shame, guilt, horror, angst. Life unfolds only in moments, so what else could the problem be except some of the moments that you might run into?
Ultimately that’s all you are ever fearing: moments that you believe will force you to experience feelings you really don’t want to experience. If you really break it down there’s nothing else that drives us but the appeal of feelings we want to experience and the fear of feelings we don’t want to experience.
Whatever the feeling is, it’s a feeling you’ve already experienced at some point in your life. You couldn’t be afraid of it if you hadn’t.
The longer we live, the more nasty experiences we have, and the more fears we carry around. But we forget that it’s really acute experiences we’re trying to avoid, and instead we let entire categories of actions and notions get dismissed from our lives, because they represent those experiences.
The cat who was afraid of grass for all the wrong reasons
We had a cat who was afraid of the front lawn. She would creep up to it, sniff it a bit, then tear across it like she was being chased. I watched her do this a few times before learning that my dad had once turned on the sprinkler hose while she was lying beside it. After that, to her the lawn was a bad place, because it represented the threat of a terrible experience she didn’t want to have again.
She got over it, probably after accidentally having a few good experiences around the lawn. Animals are probably better at forgetting this stuff. Humans cling to fears because our thinking is so hopelessly lost in symbols and categories. We hold onto this idea that we can fence off the painful areas of life if we’re careful enough.
They aren’t all big things. There were so many foods I didn’t eat for years just because my first run-in with them was bad one. I didn’t eat onions for a second time until I was an adult, just because I ate a piece of raw white onion when I was little.
I didn’t recognize that there are a million different ways an onion-eating experience could actually go down — after all, who eats large chunks of raw, white onion? — but I had already cordoned off “onion” as a no-go zone for me, because I refused to ever subject myself to the burning, acidic experience of my first close encounter with an onion.
Onions in all forms became fearsome symbols of that lone, unbearable experience, and so I steered my whole life clear of them. This is the distance at which we normally detect and respond to our fears — from far enough away that we don’t really understand what it is we’re fearing. I was fearing the return of a single, awful moment I had when I was a kid.
One day more than a decade later, I bit the bullet and tried something with onion on it, because it was either that or eat nothing. And I had a different experience. It wasn’t bad. “Onion” came to symbolize a much better experience.
What you fear can’t really happen
What I’ve come to realize is that all my fears of the future are actually fears of the past.
Each of us has a whole bank of awful moments in our memories, each of which are so painful that we can’t accept that we could experience the same pain again.
If the thought of something you want to do rouses fear in you, think: what is the experience — the feeling — I’m actually fearing here? You don’t have to psychoanalyze yourself and try to figure out the childhood memory it comes from, but it doesn’t take much thought to identify the precise experience you can’t bear to risk happening.
By obeying our fears from arm’s length, we end up cordoning off enormous areas of possibility. Life is inescapably risky and painful, not to mention 100% fatal. So don’t think you can dodge pain or awkwardness by backing down from something a bit scary.
The real bad stuff isn’t going to be something you had the foresight to worry about anyway. From Baz Luhrmann’s famous speech: “The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”
Now, of course there are all sorts of unpleasant scenarios that can happen. But there is no way you can cordon off enough of life to eliminate the risk of pain, and that’s what our fears are trying to do.
And I can tell you, as somebody who’s been a lifelong master cordon-offer, building all those walls will guarantee you way more pain than almost anything else. There’s no better way to limit your skills, experience, personal power, income and prospects. How do you think people get stuck in jobs and relationships they know are killing them?
What you fear, whatever horrible scenario you think you’re avoiding — it isn’t going to happen anyway. Similar outcomes may happen, but it will never unfold quite like you expected, because that would make you a genuine psychic.
The difficult phone conversation you’ve been putting off: there is no way it will go down exactly like you expect it will. It will take a different line, a different tone, either slightly or entirely. But your fear, as it is, will not come true.
Whenever you notice you have some unnerving scenario brewing in your mind, remember one inalienable fact — no matter what scenario you’re picturing:
This is not the way it’s actually going to go down.
It can’t be, because you can’t predict the future. All situations are far more complex than you can possibly calculate, and fear has a way of completely screwing with your higher faculties. Whatever horrible moments you’re afraid of, they cannot match the way the situation is actually going to go down.
Fear of the future is fear of the past. You can’t fear the future because you don’t know the future. You’re just deathly afraid that certain parts of the past will happen again.
Next time you travel to somewhere new, either a new city, a new neighborhood, or even a new building, try to picture what it will be like — what it will look like, what it will feel like to be there. No matter what kind of information you have about it, your imagined impression will be wrong. Because you’re building it only with what’s already in your head. What it’s actually built of, what it actually looks and feels like, is not there in your head so you just can’t get it right.
This is what fearsome thoughts are made of: stuff that’s already in your head — experiences you’ve already had, and categorically not experiences you’re yet to have. You can’t know the moment you’re afraid of, because it doesn’t exist yet. So your fear cannot come true.
Whatever happens, the form it will take will be different. It might be bad, it might be good. It might open a door for you that you never knew was there.
But I think we typically over-fear by default. Time and time again in my life I have been surprised at how easy and rewarding most of these scary propositions end up being when I go ahead with them anyway. When they really hurt me is when I keep them at arm’s length, untackled, where they stalk me and mock me.
Those dreaded conversations, when I finally take them on, never turn out quite like I thought. I’ve rehearsed long tangents of tricky conversations that never happened. I’ve even flow-charted intimidating phone calls in my head — if he says A I’ll say B, if he says C, I’ll say D.
This is almost always useless. He never says A, or C. That’s because whatever I’ve predicted, that’s not the way it’s going to go down. Because I’m just chicken, not psychic.
I can guess at what’s going to happen, and of course I’m apt to guess that something terrible will happen, just so that I can convince myself it’s a dangerous action to take and I can feel justified in relieving myself from the responsibility of doing it. It lets me off the hook for the moment, and I gain another roaming spectre in my life and another long-lasting no-go zone. Well done.
Fear is fun
When you feel fear, take that as a reminder to bring curiosity to the moment. Something new is on the other side of it. If you act in spite of the fear, something exciting is going to go down. Nine times out of ten you’ll end up gaining some situational benefit, and ten times out of ten, you’ll feel stronger immediately.
And maybe there is a passing unpleasant feeling that will come with it. It’s probably a good trade-off anyway. Some of the best prizes in my life have come just on the other side of something I was afraid of, and they didn’t end up being difficult or painful at all. They were so close to me the whole time, and I would never have known what they were offering.
Even if the situation does unravel into a debacle of some kind, if you can remember to keep that sense of curiosity alive throughout it, if you can drop the insane hope that you can control things by fearing them, if you can keep your sense of humor close by, it can actually be amusing to watch everything fall apart.
Think of what a powerful notion that is: fear is fun.
Have fun today.