Your Fears Have Kept You Alive...Now, They're Holding You Back

Fear can be a good thing. It’s the reason why our collective species has made it this far. As children we learn to fear things like traffic, hot surfaces, and strangers. This protects us and increases our chances of becoming cautious adults one day. Fear keeps us alive...but it also holds us back.

Consider how our fears originate. Sometimes, our fear is learned through a personal experience. Maybe as a child you fell off your bike and broke a bone. This painful experience could shape the way you perceive bike riding. What is an enjoyable activity for some comes across as a terrifying undertaking for you.

Fears can also be transferred to you from other sources, like stories that people tell or signs that you read. Maybe you heard a story about how terrible flying on an airplane was for someone, and as a result, you have no desire to fly anywhere. Fear is passed down to us through knowledge, either knowledge that we gained from personal experience or from an external source. What happens when this knowledge is no longer valid or when it doesn’t apply to you? That’s when fear starts to hold you back.

In the example above, one bad flying experience for someone else has led you to never try flying. Sure you yourself could also have a bad experience, but isn’t it much more likely that it will be uneventful instead? You are limiting yourself pretty severely by never engaging in air travel - experiencing different places becomes more difficult as does visiting family or going on vacation. This fear didn’t originate from you, and therefore, you are being held back almost without just cause. This may be true, but here’s the unfair part: just because the fear didn’t originate from you, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It’s likely if you possess a fear of flying, that you experience an emotional response just from thinking about it. The fear doesn’t care where you got it from, it wears on you all the same. 

Here’s what we know about our fears:

  • they can hold us back from doing things that we may otherwise benefit from, 

  • they are real for us, regardless of how they originate, and

  • they come from knowledge that we gained at some point, whether we realize it or not.

There is one other thing that we know: knowledge is what creates fear and it is also what dispels it.

As psychiatrists Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab point out in their article What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear, haunted house attractions scare most people, yet they bring in thousands of patrons every year to experience the joys of fright. The people who subject themselves to haunted houses understand that they are going to be scared, but they also understand that it is a controlled environment that is not dangerous. They use this knowledge to relabel their fear as something that is tolerable. What was once a fear becomes something closer to exciting, joyful, or fun. This is the key to overcoming any fear: gaining new knowledge that can be used to relabel the fear.

For example, I may have a fear of starting my own business because I have no idea how to handle the accounting side of the business. I’m afraid that my lack of accounting knowledge will doom my business before it even starts. This fear assumes that I can’t learn how to do accounting for my business, or that I can’t hire an expert to help with the accounting. If this fear is keeping me from launching, I can run an experiment to dispel these assumptions.

For example, I can spend one afternoon calling accounting professionals who provide services to small businesses. In that time, I guarantee I will gain significant knowledge about the services that are available, how much they cost, and whether or not my business is complicated enough to need them. This single afternoon may give me the information I need to move forward with my business.

I encourage you to follow a similar process with the fears that hold you back. Prove to yourself that you don’t need the fear (either because you don’t need it to protect you anymore or because it was never about you in the first place) by running experiments that grant you the knowledge you seek.

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