I talk a lot about fear. Fear is fascinating to me because of its power. We normally think of a person experiencing fear when they are facing something dangerous, but that’s the power of fear. You don’t have to be in any real danger for your nervous system to act as if you are.
Your mind is more powerful than fear. Everything you fear is worse in your imagination than reality. We have a tendency to focus on what is lacking and what can go wrong. Humans are naturally more pessimistic than optimistic. This is the result of “Loss Aversion Bias,” a natural cognitive bias that serves a great purpose in keeping us safe and alive, but is can also result in debilitating fear, anxiety, and trepidation.
What are you REALLY afraid of?
All of your fears come back to vulnerability. You don’t fear pain. You don’t fear dying. You fear that which you can’t control. This is why people fear public speaking more than death. The speaker is completely vulnerable and lacks control of the audience’s reactions. Perhaps they’ll think you’re brilliant. Perhaps they’ll think you’re a fool. Normally you wouldn’t care what they think, but you have opened yourself up to their judgment. The abuse of this vulnerability is what you really fear.
Your physical fears are based on this concept. Regardless of how tough you are, your worst fears about dying are related to facing something inevitable that will not end quickly. It’s not the burning, the drowning, the spiders, the snakes, or the heights that scares you. It’s facing something that exposes your human vulnerability in a way that demonstrates how powerless you really are.
You’re not afraid of public speaking. You’re not afraid of death. You’re not afraid of talking to strangers or asking someone out. What you’re really afraid of is being vulnerable.
You fear this because your vulnerabilities remind you of how worthless you are in the grand scheme of things. Logically, you understand that rejection is meaningless, humiliation is temporary, people’s opinions don’t matter, and that you have to die. Viscerally, you fear that your existence is worth so little that the judgments of others do matter. You worry that your life is so fragile that it can be extinguished by the opinions of others.
The only way to free yourself from fear is to accept that you are weak. Only by acknowledging this can you become strong. Once you accept that you do care what others think and that your life can end at any time, you recognize your fears for what they really are. Fears are nothing more than a way for you to reinforce your false wall of security.
You’re afraid that your wall of personal security isn’t as high or strong as you believe. Rather than test its structure so that you can systematically discover its weaknesses and fortify them, you avoid putting the wall to the test.
You know the odds of dying in a plane crash. Instead of exposing your personal security wall to test this fact, you avoid flying. Instead of learning to flourish in your vulnerability, you hide behind the wall and hope that it protects you when the world judges you.
Your wall isn’t perfect. You will be tested. Unless you are prepared, you will fail.
Embrace the weakness of being human
Do not hide. Embrace your weakness.
Recognize that your personal wall is—at best—useless and—at worst—debilitating. Your fear of being vulnerable, worthless, and powerless cannot be completely eliminated. It can only be mitigated and managed. This process cannot begin until you acknowledge your frailty. Only once you admit that you have deficiencies can you rectify them.
It is impossible to eliminate fear completely, but it can be reduced to manageable levels. There are only two paths to this destination: preparation and familiarity.
Preparation is the path to power
I was once evaluated by a sports psychologist and what he found is that I am less anxious during a boxing match than before it. My explanation was similar to ones he had been given by athletes with the same result. I over-prepare so I leave as little to uncertainty as possible. Yes, there are doubts, but they are outweighed by my preparation.
Fear is a sign that something needs to be prepared for. It’s like an exam. If you’ve studied and you know the material, you are going to have much less anxiety than if you haven’t. Preparation means different things for different events but the idea is the same: honing the requisite skills for task you face. The better prepared you are, less fear you will experience.
Know thy enemy
Familiarity is the other fear reduction agent. If you do something enough times–surviving and learning from the mistakes you make along the way–then you stop feeling anxious about performing it.
Continuing with the exam analogy, this is why the most valuable practice tests are copies of the professor’s old exams. They allow you to become familiar with his style of testing without incurring the penalty of making a mistake. It’s why simulators are wonderful training. This is why sparring is so valuable for boxing.
The two feed each other.
Your familiarity increases with your preparedness and vice versa. You feel most prepared when you are most familiar with the upcoming event. This reduces the uncertainty. That is the part we fear; being forced to overcome a problem in real time that we’ve never faced before.
This is the message of fear: there is uncertainty on the horizon, and you must prepare for it, lest you face harm to body, mind, reputation, or spirit. Heed that signal, and you will master your fears.
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I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.More Stoic Street Smarts Newsletters!