Fear has been an integral part of the human emotional experience and psyche since the dawn of time. Every human being alive intimately understands the sensation of fear because it is literally wired into our DNA, and all of us have almost certainly felt it at one point or another. It is the emotion that makes your heart skip a beat when your mind registers a threat to your physical integrity. Fear can make your stomach churn, make you sweat profusely, and make your voice quiver unnecessarily as your heart beats faster than required. Fear can also temporarily paralyze a person and strip the brightest and most capable people of all confidence and verve. One of America’s greatest presidents – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – thoroughly understood how debilitating fear could be and this prompted him to famously tell the American public during one of his speeches that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Right… if fear is so bad, why has the process of evolution allowed it to linger ever so strongly in our human minds? Why haven’t those of us who feel fear (pretty much all of us) been ruthlessly eradicated by the unforgiving process of natural selection?
With some deep contemplation, one can start to see that fear is actually a protective mechanism primarily designed to keep members of the animal kingdom alive to ensure successful transmission of their genetic traits. Thousands of years ago fear mainly took the form of venomous reptiles, large flesh eating cats, temperamental weather, active volcanos and so on. Our ancestors very quickly learned to fear these things because direct encounters with them absent careful preparation often ended in serious injury or a violent death. The intense fear our ancestors must have felt of these dangers forced them to become more resourceful and respectful of the natural elements that existed in their immediate environment. We learned to think strategically and hunt for food in groups so that we could alert one another to the dangers that lay ahead on a given hunting path, allowing for either a swift retreat or a deft change in strategy to preserve human life. Bitter cold weather forced us to convert animal hide into clothing to keep us from freezing to death. Torrential downpours and heavy sandstorms made us seek shelter in caves and thatch huts. Slowly but surely, fear came to be identified in our human minds as a precursor to intense pain. Each time we were confronted with fear, our instinctual human aversion towards pain forced us to get smarter and more creative in an effort to avoid or minimize pain at all cost. When we look at fear in this new light, it doesn’t seem so bad at all. Actually, fear now seems more like a powerful incentive designed to challenge our natural human laziness and thus facilitate our survival and development as a species. Without fear, we’d all do dumb things like literally try to play with fire or intentionally go swimming in shark infested waters for fun. No doubt… a complete absence of the emotion of fear would surely guarantee our ultimate extinction. So yes, fear is actually good… but only up to a point.
Like plenty of other things in life, the advantages that come with a healthy level of fear can be significantly distorted if carried to the extreme. In times past, it was (and probably still is) a good idea to be a bit afraid of fire. This fear reduced the chances of anyone accidentally setting themselves on fire because they knew of its destructive power and developed a healthy respect for it. On the other hand, if you were too afraid of fire you would have frozen to death while others in your tribe huddled around the campfire to keep warm. In our modern times, it is probably good to have a healthy fear of overspending your wages because that will prevent you from wasting money on too many luxury items that aren’t necessary for your survival. On the other side of the coin, you could be too pernurious and deny yourself the highest quality nutrition and health care with the well meaning intention of saving money. The trouble with that line of thought is that the reduction in the quality of your diet and general self care may leave you vulnerable to contracting an infection which would probably end up hurting your productivity. The subsequent loss of money caused by your inability to create value (due to the viral infection or whatever sickness you contracted) may be more than the amount saved in the first place. A classic case of penny wise, pound foolish.
At this point, you’re probably thinking “make up your mind Chuba, is fear good or bad?” The answer is that it is neither. You and I must empty our minds of the judgemental mindset which hurries to label everything as good or evil. Rather, we should strive to see things for what they really are regardless of how much we dislike the ultimate reality. The truth is that the basic reason for the existence of fear is to aid our self preservation. The problem is that most of us (myself included) struggle to channel any fear encountered in the present moment in productive ways that results in building better versions of ourselves. The weird thing about our modern forms of fear is that we still feel them so strongly despite the fact that we as humans now enjoy the highest amount of control over our environment that we have ever had throughout the history of our world. Naturally, one would think that the more powerful we become, the less fear we would experience as a result but that hasn’t necessarily proved to be the case. Compared to our ancestors, we don’t really have too much to be afraid of. It’s not like any of us in the developed world are going to get eaten by a lion, ripped apart by a tiger, or mauled by a bear as we all make our way to our respective jobs each morning. Yet many of us still live under a perpetual cloud of crippling fear. It is almost as if the emotion of fear has stubbornly refused to go away in spite of the more stable and comfortable living conditions we all enjoy in the developed world.
In our modern time fear has morphed into a different form that is more subtle but just as stifling to the development of human potential. These modern forms of fear indirectly stifle our progress on the path to self actualization and the full realization of individual potential. In times past, fear in the form of an encounter with an angry lion would very concretely cut short your chances of developing your potential because you’d most likely die. Now though, the hindrances that we encounter from our various forms of modern fear are more amorphous and subtle. These new forms of fear “mind fuck” us into thinking we are less powerful than we actually are which in turn subconsciously reduces the effort we put forth, and the confidence with which we act. Our fearful mindsets convince us that we aren’t good enough so we subconsciously don’t try as hard. As a result of mediocre effort, we get mediocre results. The mediocre results convince us of our ineptitude and on and on. Just like that, many of us get stuck in a vicious cycle which manifests as a dark and negative self fulfilling prophecy. In this subtle way, our modern fears steal years and decades from us. Years and resources we could have devoted to learning more about ourselves are wasted worrying about what the neighbors think or buying things we don’t need to impress people we can’t stand. The list below summarizes some of the most commonly held fears by all of us in our modern world, and suggested strategies with which to overcome them.
Modern Fear #1: Loneliness
Modern Fear #2: Loss of employment
Modern Fear #3: Deteriorating Health
Modern Fear #4: Money/Finances
We humans are primarily social creatures and as a result, most of us don’t like to be alone for very long periods of time. This is part of the reason why prisons keep inmates on lockdown for as much 23 hours each day as punishment for their misdeeds. Loneliness is particularly painful for the extroverts amongst us who gain energy from interacting with other people, but even we the introverts of society need people… just in much smaller doses than extroverts do. This general need for human contact that most of us humans share is good because it means we can make each other laugh, share responsibilities, and help nurse one another back to health in the event of a sickness. If this need for human contact is carried too far however, it can manifest as extreme neediness or a sycophantic need to put the wishes and needs of others above your own much too often. The fear of being alone can trick us into ignoring our primal inclinations and quest for mastery because we are too busy trying to please others. The irony is that while this might work for a while, the excessive need to please others will actually end up repelling rather than attracting people in the long run.
The Solution to Modern Fear #1: The solution to the fear of loneliness is to get more in touch with yourself and to become more comfortable in your own skin. Yes you might pick your nose when no one else is looking or might swear as often as a pirate does but there is still something special about you in spite of your less than flattering qualities. Learn to love and cultivate that special part of yourself. This might mean directing a lot of your time and attention towards sharpening your writing skills if you are an author, or getting better with the saxophone if that is your musical weapon of choice. These parts of you will become extremely loyal best friends who will always serve as a place of solace when the world is ignoring or annoying you… provided you remain loyal to them in return. You will find that cultivating this part of yourself first and foremost will make you very attractive to others who will be curious to understand what makes you tick.
Getting fired from a job is a very real fear that most adults in the modern world face. The shame and anger that such an event can arouse are not pleasant emotions to endure. The fear of losing a job is especially difficult to ignore because in addition to the shame and anger it may induce, there is a very real threat of not having enough money to feed yourself and your family without the steady income that said job provides. These collective fears cause a lot of us to put up with impossible working environments under the leadership of tyrannical and egocentric bosses who couldn’t care less about the feelings or needs of others. So we keep going to the same job day after day month after month and year after year until one day we wake up and realize that our best and most creative years have been stolen from us. Not by some annoying tyrannical boss, but by our own fear. Worse still, the fear we feel for losing a job may prompt some of us to subconsciously take actions that will lead to the very layoff or dismissal that we are so deeply afraid of.
The Solution to Modern Fear #2: The solution to the fear of losing a job is to develop as many skills as possible because doing that will make you more marketable. The more rare and valuable skills you develop (whether on your own or at the job), the more control you will have over your employment situation. The dynamics of your employment change significantly when you become sufficiently skilled. Rather than having to beg and grovel for a promotion with the associated paltry increase in pay, people willingly come to you with the intent of paying you whatever you want for your services. You can now name your price and the conditions under which you will work. If people try to mess with you by playing silly political games, you now have the power to simply walk away and still have your pick of well paying projects to work on. The increased freedom and decreased dependence leads to a swell in confidence which makes you more desirable. You can check out this article if you are trying to learn how to acquire badass levels of skill in your chosen field(s).
As we get older, we all inevitably experience either the death or loss of vitality of a few people close to us due to serious illness. These types of experiences bring us uncomfortably close to our own mortality as we suddenly realize that the same fate could befall us. Facing your mortality as a person leads to a great deal of fear as we ask ourselves certain rhetorical questions in our heads like “yikes… am I going to be the next one to get cancer?” or “I wonder how many ticks my heart has left before it gives out”. These kinds of brushes with death can make us feel powerless. “We’re all going to die anyway, so why should I work on my health” is the attitude that naturally develops from these feelings of helplessness unless we actively do something about it.
The Solution to Modern Fear #3: Like in almost all fear based situations, you have two choices… you can either fall prey to your fear of ill health, or you can use it as fuel for further improvement. Perhaps the illness that afflicted the person close to you is a warning sign for you to improve your own health. Instead of being petrified of a downturn in your health, you could use that same energy to do some research to figure out easier ways to get fruits and vegetables into your diet. Perhaps you could join a gym and attend fitness classes with cohort that will keep you accountable because you don’t want to have to explain to any of them why you intentionally skipped a workout class. Perhaps you could take the opportunity to look into meditation and deep breathing exercises which will make you more centered and calm in your dealings with the world. These would all be positive ways of responding to your fear rather than going to the local bar to drink and smoke excessively in an attempt to quell your fear of ill health.
Money at its core is a medium of exchange that is meant to serve but many of us end up serving it for some illogical reason. Many of us live from paycheck to paycheck struggling to pay off a mountain of debt that could have been altogether avoided by smarter decision making. People fall into money problems for many reasons but the most common one I personally see is living beyond one’s means. I am very well versed in this financial pitfall because I went through it in my 20s. We humans are social creatures and are prone to feeling like we need to keep up with the living standards and conditions of our peers. Desire is by nature competitive in us which is why people will buy that 80 inch plasma TV not because it is actually a necessity, but because they noticed one just like it at neighbor John Smith’s house during the Steeler game last weekend and his giant TV inspired some jealousy. After that, an 80 inch TV just had to be had so one was immediately ordered almost regardless of how much it cost. The problem with these impulse buys is that they will eventually lead to financial ruin if done too often. Every rational adult knows this but many of us still make poor money choices which in turn leads to the anxiety caused by the fear of eventually not having any money.
The Solution to Modern Fear #4: One of the proverbs that I learned in my teens effectively summarizes what I believe is the best philosophy for dealing with money. It reads something like “cut your coat according to your size”. The idea being that you don’t use someone else’s measurements to buy your own clothes, so why would you let someone else’s taste in cars or worldly possessions dictate how you spend money. After all, you aren’t them and they aren’t you. They could have a legacy trust fund for all you know and trying to keep up with whomever’s cash burn rate could easily leave you bankrupt. Dealing with money appropriately comes down to being brutally honest with oneself. If you are still paying off your college loans or paying for a mortgage on a $100K salary in the San Francisco bay area, then buying that Mercedes Benz c63 AMG is probably not a good idea just yet regardless of whether or not the neighbor just pulled up in her brand new BMW M4. When you begin to make smarter decisions about your money you will find that you will start to accumulate more of it that can be saved or put into sensible investments. This in turn will give you more confidence because your better money management habits mean that you know how to survive for extended periods of time even if you choose to take a break from trading time for money at a job. All this doesn’t mean you should never take a nice vacation or buy nice clothes for yourself… you should, but only if you can comfortably afford it. And by afford it, I mean that in spite of the expense of the vacation or new rolex, you still have enough money to comfortably last you for 6+ months without the need for another check from your current employer.
In Summary, the trick to transcending your fears is to understand that fear is merely a suggestion that your amazing mind provides in an attempt to help you avoid pain and/or death for as long as possible. It is telling you of potential dangers that loom on the horizon (whether real or imagined) and it is your job to use that fear as a call to action to do something that preempts or transcends the possible ill effects of your fear. Remember that there is no shame in feeling fear… it is a very natural human emotion. Just don’t allow yourself to wallow in self pity and/or run away if you feel afraid of something in the moment. We must train ourselves to embrace our fears and use them as tools for further development. The fact is that fear can either steal your life from you if you let him, or he can ultimately accelerate your development if you can make very good friends with him. With this new way of thinking and being, I hope we’ll all start to see fear as a very good friend indeed… albeit a very misunderstood one.
Oyolu B.C. Ph.D.
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