What is fear? Why should we confront it? And what do we get out of it? Just a few thoughts that led to the founding of this entire website.
We all know that old friend: Fear.
He shows up unexpectedly, at your darkest hours. You know he’s there right away with the sudden arrival of sweaty palms. Sometimes a sweaty brow. A single bead conspicuously rolling down the side of your face. You suddenly realize you can feel your heart pounding. “This is ridiculous,” you think. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” There isn’t. Nobody is attacking you, shooting at you or threatening the lives of your loved ones.
And yet the fear is real. How does this happen?
There are a few things that scare all of us and that we confront daily.
Yes, of course, there are the usual suspects of death, public speaking, heights, flying spiders and telling people what we really feel (well, for most people in the world; less so for Americans). Maybe we should be more afraid of those things; after all, they’re not unlikely occurrences in everyday life.
But there are other things we’re more afraid of that arise every day.
Our everyday fears
The fears in everyday life come from many sources, but for many, they come from a fear of being judged (adversely).
Here are some of our own fears, and the accompanying inner voices:
- Talking in a foreign language that we don’t know as well as English. Or even talking in a foreign accent. Or just talking while looking foreign.
(Inner voice: They’ll realise I’m not from here. Not like them. They won’t talk back to me. They’ll treat me badly.)
- Telling someone what we do for a living, regardless of what it is.
(Inner voice: They’ll realise I’m a fraud, which I am. A failure. Not as good as the others they know. I’ll be a laughing stock.)
- Speaking in front of a new audience.
(Inner voice: I’m wasting their time. They’ll be bored or annoyed by what I’m saying. They won’t laugh at my jokes. They’ll think I’m stupid.)
- The third or fourth week of trying something new. Not the first – it’s OK to be bad then.
(Inner voice: they’ll realise I’m not getting better quickly enough. I’m not good at this. I thought I was trying, but this is proof I didn’t take it seriously enough. I’m not good at anything and this is why I always fail.)
Wow. That inner voice is an asshole. I’m writing these down for a couple of reasons: 1. it makes us realize how ridiculous the inner voice is and that we should slap some sense into it, and 2. because I know that almost all of us have these voices within us.
I recall vividly the first time I had to give a presentation at work. I felt what I had heard people say many times – my heart was in my throat. And it wasn’t the last time I’d feel it there. I’m sure you can relate.
Where does fear come from?
Fear comes from our reptilian brain, less poetically known as our amygdala. It’s known as the reptilian brain because it’s something we share with most larger species, and which we’ve shared for hundreds of millions of years.
The reptilian brain has been tested and honed to help us run away, duck or to gain temporary strength to fight off anything that we think may be a threat.
Bruce Schneier, a trust and security expert, gave a neat explanation for how ancient and well-refined the amygdala is in contrast to the rest of our brains:
The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That’s what brains did for several hundred million years – and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.
Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain’s most stunning innovations, and we wouldn’t have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development.Wired, 22 Marcy 2007, “Why the Human Brain is a Poor Judge of Risk”
Sometimes, fear is justified.
As children and teenagers, we took all kinds of foolish risks, like climbing up furniture far bigger than us or driving cars too fast and while not in the right mental state. (Some of us grew out of these.)
Then one incident happens — a fall, an accident (or hearing about an accident) and we become ‘spooked’ by the very idea, even far before the risk is real.
Malcolm Gladwell paraphrased this learning process well in his book Blink, where he described an experiment involving a rigged game of cards in which the players were connected to stress response measurement devices. The players drew from two decks, one red and one blue. They’d win or lose money based on what card they drew.
The thing is, in Gladwell’s experiment, the red deck was rigged. About fifty cards in, people figured this out. But way before they had enough information — about ten cards in — they showed stress indicators whenever they drew cards from the red deck. Their palms would sweat and they’d start avoiding the red deck. Their subconscious knew way before their conscious brains did.
Often though, the fear is unjustified. Fear can come from poor associations that our logical brains can’t overcome, no matter how hard we try. For example, says Gardiner Morse in the Harvard Business Review, in the article Decisions and Desire:
MRI studies have shown that the amygdala becomes more active when whites see black faces than when they see white faces; similarly, in blacks, the amygdala reacts more to white faces than black ones. Taken alone, this finding says nothing about people’s conscious attitudes.
But research by Harvard social ethicist Mahzarin Banaji and colleagues shows that even people who consciously believe they have no racial bias often do have negative unconscious feelings toward “outgroups”—people not like themselves.
So what are we to do? Is it possible to rewire the amygdala? If so, how do we do it… and why?
Why confront our fears?
The first reason is that confronting our fears unleashes who we could be.
There is a saying, often misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, that says “Do one thing every day that scares you.” An interesting directive, but it doesn’t give us much information. Her real quotation is less brief but more insightful:
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”Eleanor Roosevelt
Think of the last few times you confronted your fears, how you felt. You had a feeling, temporary as it was, of “I made it. Wow.” Followed by a second thought… “I wonder what else I could do?”
The second reason is that confronting our fears will create a vivid memory.
An interweb-famous example of someone who confronted their fears is Michelle Poler, who decided to take charge of her fears (from the mundane, like dying her hair blonde, to the daunting, like public speaking), every day for 100 days. She created a website dedicated to the project. Every day became memorable, as you can tell from the photos.
There’s an emerging body of research that claims that learning via the amygdala may be the most reliable, resilient way to learn – so-called “emotional-based learning.” From an article by James Sullivan:
In emotional-based learning, sensory stimuli, such as the feeling of the sun or the scent of fresh air, make contact with the basolateral complexes of the amygdalae, touching at the nuclei in between, forging our experiences.
We take in new information by determining its relationship to previous experiences, and ones you will encounter in the future — your experience keeps you from having to consciously rethink the same decision processes. These memories become imprinted in the brain’s synapses, almost like a series of photo negatives.
While many of our memories may deteriorate due to dementia, what is perhaps most intriguing about the amygdala is that these synapses stay intact despite whatever other damage the brain may undergo, making it very different from our other cognitive abilities, such as maintaining focus to read a book, something that may gradually dwindle with age.Brain World Magazine, “Unlocking the Reptilian Brain” (my emphasis)
A similar effect of creating new memories happens when we make a life commitment, e.g. to a new diet or to exercise. For many of us, we’re immediately confronted with the fear of being judged for the commitment, and with the fear of not being able to commit.
Every time we have to say “I’m vegetarian now” or “I’m doing Whole30” or “I have to get up at 5:30 am” we find ourselves having an inner conversation with ourselves. Am I excluding myself from the pleasure of food? Of company? Should I stop? Am I weak?
But people get such pleasure from following through with the commitments that they can’t stop talking about it. Hence the old joke: Q: How do you know if someone’s vegetarian/doing whole30/works out? A: They tell you.
Because these things are hard, and take conscious effort, and so create vivid memories.
I liked the way my brother put it one day. We were hiking, and hot, and came upon a stream. Everyone jumped in. My brother, like me, doesn’t really like cold water, but jumped in regardless. He said: “I don’t remember the times when I didn’t jump in the water, but I always remember the times when I did.”
How to overcome fear
How do we get rid of our fear? A number of ways, and that’s the subject of the entire exploration of Discover Discomfort. If there’s something else you’ve done, we’d love to hear about it.
Firstly, state the fears out loud. The first way in which we can confront our fears.
Dr. Matthew Lieberman, a psychology professor at UCLA, showed in this study published in the Journal of Psychological Science that the act of labelling an emotion reduces activity in the amygdala and reinforces activity elsewhere in the brain, allowing us to deal with a feeling more thoughtfully.
Write the fears down, then read them aloud. Even think of reading them to someone. Hear the words, and identify with them. Something I’ve been learning is the power of tweaking the words until they resonate on a deep emotional level: creating a sense of disgust, or anxiety, or pain – sometimes resulting in tears.
As Lao Tzu said – “Know thyself; know thine enemy.”
Secondly, realize and decide that your only obstacle is yourself. I liked the way Chad Fowler put it, quoted in one of Tim Ferriss’ books:
“For a long time, I’ve known that the key to getting down the path of being remarkable in anything is to simply act with the intention of being remarkable.”
Basically, tell yourself:
- I’m going to do this and going to crush it.
- Now, what would someone who’s going to crush it do?
Thirdly, take yourself out of our comfort zones. Go to a place where you’re forced to confront your fears.
For one thing, moving to another country forces us to speak in a foreign language constantly. It normalizes it and amplifies the reward when people seem shocked we know even a few words of a foreign language.
You don’t have to leave a country to be outside your comfort zone, though. You can be in the same country, like in a state with a different culture. You can even be in the same city, just wandering to a new part of it and trying to participate.
For example, Melbourne’s West, South and North seem (at least to a local) almost completely different. Leave Hong Kong Island and go north to the New Territories and be prepared for culture shock.
Or even just take a class in something you find difficult and embarrassing, like dancing for me, and go at least ten times (it’s not so scary the first time when you’re expected to be a newbie).
Dr Noam Sphancer, PhD wrote in Psychology Today:
Thus with anxiety, the only way out is through. If you’re anxious about spiders, you will have to handle spiders. If you’re scared of the elevator, you will have to ride the elevator repeatedly.
If you dread talking in class, you will need to start talking in class. This is not easy to do, since confronting your fear will produce a lot of initial anxiety. You will have to stay in the feared situation and stay with the heightened fear response until it begins to subside, which it will, because it must by design.Psychology Today, “The Only Way Out is Through“, 20 Sep 2010
Dr Sphancer mentions the above reasons for conquering fear, but I think the most interesting one is that it helps one conquer the ‘fear of fear’. “It turns out that many (perhaps all) anxiety problems are at their core a ‘fear of fear.’ Most people who fear crowds, elevators, or planes know that these objects are not dangerous… What they fear are the sensations of fear itself.“
Seems reasonable. Fear is scary.
Finally, take the fear to its logical end-point and think of the worst-case scenario. This is what Susan Jeffers suggested in her classic “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”.
There’s usually some gremlin in our head with this ridiculous proposition that the worst-case scenario of a dance class (for example) is you standing in the middle of the class while everyone points at you and laughs.
From personal experience, this rarely happens. But I still seem to be able to imagine it vividly.
When leaving our jobs (and random other offers that came our way) to go travelling, we thought of the end-point if everything went belly-up. Our outcome would be being able to say: “We just spent a year doing awesome things, spending about $50K, writing some books and courses along the way, and that would be our resume.” If we can swallow that as a worst-case scenario, then we have no excuses.
What do you fear? What are some ways in which you’ve overcome it? Let us know in the comments or in an email. I mention this because this is a real fear people face if they have served or lived in conflict zones.  “Every cute quotation you think is legitimate is, in fact, misattributed” – Albert Einstein