As a trilingual, I’ve long been fascinated about how different languages shape our psyche in distinct ways. One thing I’ve noticed about English, for example, is its emphasis on fear. If something isn’t going right, we say “I’m afraid…” even though the actual emotion might not be at the level of “fear.” What may be equated to regret or apology in other languages is often pinned to fear in English.
And then there are all the phrases about overcoming your fears.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you”—that most famous and the most American of anti-fear rhetoric. What she meant was to go bravely beyond your self-imposed limits, but what if there is something to be said for fear—and for not chasing it away by brute force of will?
Fear has been very useful to human evolution because it helped us avoid getting eaten by predators and evading elemental danger. But in addition to helping us survive, fear is also directly related to an important human trait: compassion.
Research by Abigail Marsh, a psychologist at Georgetown University and the author of The Fear Factor, shows that psychopaths (people who lack a sense of moral right and wrong, and show no empathy for other beings) lack an amygdala response to fearful stimuli. In short, they don’t experience fear—and by not knowing fear, they also don’t understand others’ fear or suffering.
What’s even more interesting is this: on the opposite end of the compassion spectrum, altruists’ brains are unusually responsive to fearful stimuli. The amygdala of people who are most willing to help others and behave with empathy lights up more against what they view as undesirable or dangerous situations—and they feel fear more intensely, too. (This makes sense since compassion, or the ability to help others in the community, is also an evolutionary advantage.)
Learning this was a moment of vindication for me. Many people have told me that I seem fearless—and on the outside, I do look the part. I absolutely love traveling alone. I’ve gone hiking solo in Norway and the French Alps. I’m a great public speaker. I do things like quitting a job and moving to another country.
But on the inside, I’m often plagued by what may most accurately be described as dread. I have just returned from a conference where my excitement was balanced equally by my dread at keeping track of all the activities, making new connections, and looking like I have it all together. This week I said to two different groups of people that I’m actually an introvert—both times, my new friends laughed heartily as if this were another one of my jokes (I joke a lot). But in all honesty, joking takes a lot of my mental and emotional energies! I was exhausted from pushing ahead of my dread.
Knowing that fear exists for a reason helps me understand that this isn’t something to be ashamed of—to constantly try to best. It helps me see that my fear originates from the same place as my hyper-empathy—a sometime-weakness, but most-of-the-time-strength. It makes me appreciate my fear, honor it, and listen to it a bit more sincerely.
Of course, you can—and should—continue to grow beyond your boundaries. But instead of asking, “Should I just get over this fear and do it?” you should be asking, “Is this what I want to do? Is this true to me?” Because not all of your fears are unfounded. You certainly don’t ever have to do something you don’t feel like doing, just to prove a point. You don’t have to prove to anyone that you’re bigger than your fears—because you obviously are, already.
Do you feel fear often? Or would you say that you’re generally not as afraid or responsive?