Fear in evolutionary context

Fear keeps us from achieving our dreams. Fear keeps us in jobs and relationships well past their best-before dates. Fear keeps us from taking up causes we know are right, and from taking a stand when we see wrong done. Fear keeps us locked into small little prisons of our own creation.

Living with fear can be a horrible thing. Fear can paralyze a smart, well intentioned person. Fear keeps us from committing to our goals and making tough decisions. Fear keeps us up at night, and affects our ability to be on our best game. Fear can rule and ruin our lives.

But what is it? I’m no neuroscientist, nor am I a philosopher or religious scholar. But I’ve read widely on the subject of all three, and have an intimate knowledge of my own fear. Here’s what I’ve discovered: fear is an old emotion – one of our oldest. It’s been fundamental to our survival as a species. But it’s horribly outdated, and can cause more harm than good.

We can’t control fear; it’s an autonomous response. We have the ability though, to listen to its warning and choose to heed or ignore it. Here’s an example:

I have a horrid fear of failure. My natural reaction is to run from situations that might cause my safe little reality to collapse. But in my job, I deal with the potential for drastic failure every day. So how do I juggle my fear and my reality? Simple really. I’ve listened to my fear, and have made the conscious decision that it is, bluntly put, full of shit.

At even the smallest risk, my fear says “fail at this and you’ll lose your business, have to sell your house, will get divorced and lose your kids, and end up living on the street.” Experience has taught me though, that failure, even spectacularly large failure, hasn’t caused any of the above to come true. I’ve crashed and burned many a time, and am all the better for it. Each failure has been a step forward, because I’ve learned lessons success wouldn’t have taught.

In modern industrialized life, ancient fear kicks in to protect you when no loss of life or limb is imminent. Realizing this can free you to examine your fear, and decide on it’s appropriateness relative to your actual situation. Another example:

Asking one’s boss for a raise can be a terrifying experience. Often, our fear screams “don’t ask for a raise because you may lose your job, be forced to sell the house, your family will leave you, and you’ll be a bum on the street”.

Reality though, is much milder. Usually, the worst case is that your boss will say “no, not at this time”. You’re still ahead in two ways: your likelihood of getting a raise has just gone up, and you’ve taken a step to break fear’s reinforcement loop.

The more one does this, the weaker fear’s grasp on one’s actions becomes. Fear never goes away, but it becomes easier and more comfortable to live with it. I’ve been practicing this for years, yet I still find myself locked in panic and anxiety on occasion. Those experiences are becoming less regular though, despite my greater exposure to the things that would once have caused me to run and hide.

There’s a trick I’ve learned to short circuit my fear response. It goes like this: *just do it*. Nothing makes fear stronger than giving up a desire because fear prevented you from moving towards it. Just do it. Move forward. And fear’s grip on you becomes a little less tenuous.

Start small. Succeed or fail, it doesn’t matter (do I sound like Yoda?). Each outcome, if observed in the cold hard light of fact, likely proves your fear wrong. Each success and each failure, however small, is a step towards separating yourself from fear’s grasp.

With practice, you can learn to use fear as a tool. Listen to it, heed it when it’s right, ignore it when it’s not, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving your dreams.

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