What are your fears? Spiders, cockroaches (NYC!), ghosts, tall buildings or flying…Some of us have those kinds of irrational fears. Then there are the “rational” fears that most of us live with, even if we don’t always admit them to ourselves or others.
For a long time, I thought I was fearless. But being high-spirited, feisty and tough isn’t the same thing as fearlessness. It was only when I was forced to face many things that I just felt *averse to*, that I was able to connect that sensation with fear. The things I am most averse to are: feeling out of my element and routine; being outside of my home for extended periods of time; having fall-outs or uncomfortable moments with close friends; being rejected, professionally or socially; and worrying about finances.
And those fears look like they’re separate issues, but I’ve come to realize that they stem mostly from my adolescent experience of moving around a lot, even living for a few years without my family. During that time, I also went through fall-outs with my host families, specifically with the girls I’d been very close to before moving into their homes. So those experiences were fear-learning on a profound level. Basically, I tend to react to each professional/social rejection or friendship difficulty with overwhelming anxiety, as I’d worried at 15 that having this friend turn against me will result in immediate homelessness.
Fear learning isn’t just an excuse for how we behave–it’s real, governed by serotonin in your amygdala. Interestingly, a recent study showed that suppressing the amount of neural serotonin through diet (a process called tryptophan depletion) impairs fear learning. Translation? The very serotonin that’s responsible for you feeling calm and grounded is there to also prevent you from making risky choices that might end badly.
Having a calm, serotonin-rich life is not a bad thing at all, of course, but fear learning can also inhibit you from making smart risks for what you really need to do in life. Georgia O’Keefe said, “I’ve been terrified absolutely every moment of my life–and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” And so what we need to do is get on with life despite our fear instincts.
Here are some things I learned on not letting fear get in the way.
1. Admit your fears.
Even if you don’t have “typical” fears, you might have aversion to things that you know you need to overcome, in order to accomplish your goals. That might be talking to strangers, moving to a different city, etc.
2. Most fears are not rational.
We tend to group certain fears as rational (failure, rejection, aging, confrontation, embarrassment, etc) or irrational (spiders, ghosts, sharks). But the fact is that “rational” fears are not more justified than “irrational” ones. Fear doesn’t equal danger. The actual harm that your fears can effect is significantly lower than you think. It may help to write down what your fears are, and the possible worst case scenario. For example: “I fear going on another disappointing date. The worst thing might happen is that I might feel drained at the end of it and feel like I wasted two hours.” The more specifically you admit what’s bothering you, the more power you have to decide how you’re going to handle it.
3. Be led by potential rewards more than potential harm.
For those who have learned fear, potential harm always looms larger than potential rewards. Focus on being led, rather than being repelled. Ask yourself why it’s worth facing this fear. (If it’s not worth facing–aka actually staring down a cockroach or something–don’t waste your energy!) You have a little to lose and a lot more to gain.
What do you think? Have your fears ever prevented you from living life the way you want?
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What Does It Mean to Be Brave?
How Happy Are You Really? A Self-Check
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