Want to overcome your fears? Try getting to know them.
There really is nothing to fear but fear itself.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. I’m going to look into my crystal ball and predict that there’s something you want to do right now but you’re too scared to do it. It’s not necessarily something really big. Maybe it’s just a conversation you want to have or a business idea you want to try out. Think about it. Maybe it’s something you’ve been putting off for so long that you’ve lost forgotten about it.
Well? How did I do? I’ll take the fact that you’re still reading as confirmation of my psychic powers. Don’t be too impressed though, this is something you can confidently say about every adult walking the face of the Earth. We all want to ask for something, or try something, or say something that some part of us insists isn’t worth the risk.
Things are a bit different for children though, which is why I took the trouble to specify the adults walking the face of the Earth. Children have small, achievable goals which they pursue relentlessly. When they achieve them they’re genuinely elated, and when they fail they move on. They can do this because they’re stupid, so don’t be too nostalgic for those simpler times. They can do this because they haven’t accumulated any fear yet. In the mind of a child, failure is just deferred success. There is always time to try again.
As we get older we stop thinking like this of course. Time shrink and into the space left behind seeps fear. In a way, you could say that fear is a function of time. What would we have to fear if we were going to live forever? If we would never die or grow old. Being a child is the closest we ever get to feeling like this is true, and so it’s the time when we’re most alive.
The great tragedy of human existence is that at the age when we’re at the height of our spiritual potential we’re simultaneously at the nadir of our intellectual abilities. Children are free and fearless enough to achieve anything but they lack the intelligence to do so. Adults have the intellect to actually contribute something to the world but become too fearful to do so.
This is the true cost of growing up. This is the price we pay for being able to eat as much ice-cream as we want and getting to choose our own bedtime. Opportunities pass. They don’t get deferred. Adults get to choose between embracing fear and living with regret.
This might sound a little bleak, but it’s worth remembering that on the other side of one of these choices is the potential for happiness. And even if facing our fears doesn’t lead to the outcome we hoped for, it’s very unlikely it will end in regret. At least not the regret of not knowing. Fear is difficult to overcome, but learning how to do so, or at least how to assess the validity of our fears, is like a cheat code for unlocking our potential.
So maybe it’s time we really look at our fears. Author and podcaster extraordinaire Tim Ferris talks about fear-setting on his blog. Fear setting is the practice of systematically laying out our worst-case scenarios, and figuring out how to mitigate them should they arise. As Tim explains below, once we take the trouble to really think about our fears instead of simply feeling them, we find that most of them disappear entirely.
As soon as I cut through the vague unease and ambiguous anxiety by defining my nightmare, the worst-case scenario, I wasn’t as worried about taking a trip. Suddenly, I started thinking of simple steps I could take to salvage my remaining resources and get back on track if all hell struck at once.
Children have the advantage of not having to think about worst-case scenarios. They don’t worry about their lives crashing down around them or time running out. But most of the time, we needn’t worry about these things as adults either. We do so only because fear has a way of being so horrible that we don’t dare to examine it closely enough to notice.
In this way, regret is actually useful. Regret is a reminder of how it feels to give up, or worse, to not try. It reminds us of the pain that comes with listening to our fears instead of our hearts. So if there’s something you’re afraid to do, do yourself the favour of examining that fear. That way you can be certain that listening to it is worth the price.