Whenever I face my fears, my life gets better.
I have explored the depths of fear for years. In writing and, more importantly, in life.
When you quit a legal career you have spent a decade building in order to move to another continent to live with the love of your life (whom you have never lived with before) and start your own business (when you have never been self-employed), fear becomes a good acquaintance.
Fear’s tell-tale signs in my body — a quickened pulse, more shallow breaths, and increased tension — have become familiar sensations. Day after day, I have forced myself to face my fears. Done what makes me uncomfortable. Asked myself to be brave in the face of what I’d rather avoid.
I like fear as little as the next person. Lately, though, I’m finding myself liking it a bit more and more each day. After all, fear has so much to teach us. Whenever I face my fears (as opposed to avoiding them), my life gets better.
After exploring fear for such a long time, I have narrowed down a simple process for overcoming it.
While I don’t always manage to implement it, I feel much more confident in my ability to deal with fear thanks to the following steps:
1. Understand What Fear is Really About
It’s difficult to treat something when you don’t know what it is. That’s the case with fear. I believe we need a better theory of what fear truly is.
The biggest misunderstanding I see in popular culture is that fear is only about safety. To give just one example, in the popular book The Fear Cure, Dr. Lissa Rankin differentiates between “true fear” (fear that kicks in when life and limb is threatened) and “false fear” (which exists only in your imagination).
While this distinction between different types of fear is reasonable — after all, everyone should be afraid when faced with a lion, right? —, it also subtly denigrates most of my fears.
Generally speaking, I feel pretty safe physically. This personal feeling is backed by data. For instance, according to research, serious interpersonal violence has decreased remarkably in my home continent in the last few hundred years. Which means that most of my fears have little to do with physical safety.
Of course, some of my remaining fears only exist in my vivid imagination or in my nightmares (like encountering spiders as big as the ones shown in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). These rightly qualify as “false fears.”
However, that doesn’t mean we should adopt the “true fear” and “false fear” framework. Here’s why:
Many more fears impact your body than you think
What do you think is more painful, breaking your leg or getting rejected? As I have written before:
“…to your brain, it’s all the same. When scientists researched what happens when people recall a recent rejection, they found that this experience activates the same areas in our brain as physical pain. The bad news … doesn’t stop here. Humans can recall rejections more vividly than pain. Unlike with physical pain, when we remember a rejection, we experience the same feelings over and over and over again. It’s like the ultimate Groundhog’s Day from hell.”
So yes, many fears — that appear to have nothing to do with your physical safety — actually impact your physical wellbeing. And, if we think about our evolutionary history, this fear of rejection perfect makes sense.
After all, if I were a cave woman, I could survive a broken leg with the help of my tribe. However, if I got kicked out of my tribe for whichever reason, I wouldn’t last long on my own (with or without a broken leg).
Of course, nowadays, I could be the world’s most unloveable grump and still survive a broken leg thanks to all the systems we have built. So — if I could somehow stop my brain from recalling rejections in a way that activates the same areas as physical pain—would that make my fear of rejection “false”?
I don’t think so.
Even fears that don’t impact your physical safety are valid
Many fears that don’t threatened our physical safety might actually materialize. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to call them “false fears.”
For instance, my husband is very cautious when it comes to some risks. At times, his risk-aversion has stoked my fear. A few months ago, I feared I would never be able to get back to some of the activities I used to do before the pandemic without endlessly having to argue with my husband about it.
If fear was really only about physical safety, I couldn’t be afraid of being prevented from doing potentially risky things. What I am afraid of is getting stuck in boredom and isolation (or in endless debates with my beloved husband), and that has little to do with being physically safe.
While differentiating between “fear of physical danger” and “fear of everything else” can initially be useful to become more fear-literate, the example I just gave you suggest that we should eventually move beyond these categories altogether.
After all, if you should ever find yourself face to face with a lion, you probably have better things to do than worry about what category of fear this encounter falls into.
So, let’s talk about a new conception of fear.
If fear is not about safety in a purely physical sense, what then is it about?
Recently, coach and Polyvagal Theory expert Steve Mattus offered an explanation to me that shook my world. He suggested that we feel safe when we get our needs met, and afraid when there’s a (real or imagine) possibility that our needs won’t be getting met.
This makes more sense to me than thinking about fear as something that only relates to physical safety. For instance, it explains my “dying of boredom”-fear perfectly:
I have a need for community (even an introvert can only go without that for so long) and variety — and I’m afraid because I imagine a scenario where I’m not getting those needs met.
2. Identity and Strive to Meet Your Needs
Interestingly, this understanding of fear also tells us how to move beyond fear: identifying and finding a way to get our needs met.
When it came to my fear of staying stuck in lockdown mode forever due to my husband’s preferences, all it took was a few conversations with him to feel more confident that I would get my social needs met.
Of course, it’s not always so simple.
For instance, a while ago I had to set a bunch of boundaries with a few different people. Doing this was hard for me.
However, once I discovered what needs I wanted to get met in each of these situations— acceptance, external validation, etc. — it got a bit easier. Why? Suddenly, my conversation with one person (let’s call them Eli) wasn’t about whether I was okay as a human being. I stopped subconsciously over-inflating the importance of a single conversation. After all, if it should turn out that Eli couldn’t accept me once I set a boundary, maybe Bob, Ted, or Andrea could.
This gave me assurance that somehow, in some way, I would be getting my needs met. And just like that, my fear became much more manageable.
Here’s how you can use this to diminish your fear
- Think of a fear you have. What need(s) are you afraid you might not be able to meet? For instance, let’s say you want to ask someone out for a date. Your fear is that they reject you, which could make you feel unloved and unattractive. So, your needs are about feeling loved and attractive.
- How else could you could meet your need? In the example I just gave, there are two aspects: being loved and feeling attractive. Realize that they don’t need to be met by the same person. Perhaps you can feel loved by getting a hug from a parent (or your dog). And you can feel attractive when a friend compliments you on your new haircut.
- Make an effort to meet your need in a way that has nothing to do with your fear. Hug your parent (or dog). Show off your new haircut to your enthusiastic friend. Then, once you know you have gotten your needs met, do the thing that you fear and ask the person you’re interested in out for a date.
3. Courage Breeds More Courage, So Practice Small Acts of Bravery
One thing I’ve realized through exploring fear is that courage is like a muscle. The more you use it, the braver you get.
To quantify this, let’s rank fear on a scale of 1 (no fear) to 10 (you suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a hungry, real-life T. rex).
When I do something that makes me mildly afraid (say, a 3 or a 4 on the fear scale), it’s easier to do something that makes me a more afraid (for instance, a 5) afterward. That’s because the first experience has reassured me that I can do scary things and be okay.
The more I practice small acts of bravery (at least once a week, ideally most days), the more my comfort zone expands. And that’s great because something that used to rank as a 5 might suddenly drop to a 4 on my fear scale!
To put this into practice, do one small thing that makes you a little bit afraid as soon as possible.
4. Don’t Overdo It
While it can be transformative to face your fear, it’s also important to take care of yourself. In my case, I notice that I sometimes just need to take a time-out, instead of stretching myself beyond what feels comfortable.
The key is to find the right balance between being in your comfort zone and facing your fears. Too little stretching outside our comfort zones and we get stiff (metaphorically speaking), too much stretching and we might burn ourselves out.
I know I’m in the Goldilocks zone when I experience challenge and excitement (from leaning into my fears) as well as comfort and relaxation (from not overdoing it).
So, I encourage you to find out what your Goldilocks zone looks like and aim to stay there!
Closing Thoughts On Fear
After exploring fear for so long, I feel like I’m understanding it more intimately now.
It’s been a wild ride and it’s not over for me (or you, for that matter). Fear is fundamental to the human experience, as much as we’d prefer otherwise. To be human is to be afraid, at least some of the time.
We can think of fear as a scary dragon, guarding our most exquisite treasures. You can’t have your treasure chest, filled with gold, without coming face-to-face with that dragon.
Or, as the late Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it:
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us beautiful and courageous.”
Maybe we don’t have to fear our fears.
Maybe they can help us figure out what we want and need.
Maybe they can even help us fill our lives with beauty and courage.
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