Halloween may be over, but it’s still a scary world out there. Every day we are confronted by what seems to be an assault on our peace of mind. Whether it’s your strange neighbor next door, traffic gridlock going to work or the threat of nuclear war; it appears that wherever we look it’s another reminder that we should be afraid, very afraid. But, what is fear; and is it holding you back from doing things you want or need to do?

Psychology Today defines fear as: “a vital response to physical and emotional danger—if we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But often we fear situations that are far from life-or-death, and thus hang back for no good reason. Traumas or bad experiences can trigger a fear response within us that is hard to quell. Yet exposing ourselves to our personal demons is the best way to move past them.”

Spheres of Fear: Private, Interpersonal and Public Fears

Because fear is such a wide-ranging topic for discussion, let’s start by categorizing. We each have our own “Private Fears” that hide just below the surface of our personality. Fear of: heights, water, closed in spaces, etc. For all intents and purposes, these are fears that we can control by avoiding certain situations, so let categorize these as “Situational Fears.” I am not talking about irrational fears (i.e. phobias) that get in the way of normally going about our daily lives. I am referring to common fears that many of us have.

Let’s layer on top of that what I call “Contextual Fears;” which I define as an overlap of Private and Interpersonal fear. Such as fear of: confrontation, rejection, and change. These are fears that we recognize in context with at least one other person. While we may try to exert control over these fears by avoidance, we may do so at our own peril. These are fears that can be “character building” if seen in the right perspective.  For example: We may want to avoid a long-overdue confrontation with a co-worker; but that confrontation may actually help our understanding of the person and the situation, and ultimately be to our benefit. It’s our own personal perspective on these circumstances that make them scary. Those perspectives generally come from past experience, which we then project onto a potential future experience. In other words; just because your sibling berated you when you questioned them, doesn’t mean your boss will.

The category I call “Cultural Fears” are usually centered on groups of “others” and encompass circumstances like: terrorist attacks, mass shootings, and government corruption. Cultural Fears are greatly enhanced by the media and involve circumstances over which we have little or no control.[1]

While fear has a basic survival function in everyone’s lives, are we living life to the fullest if we are continuously fearful? And when it comes to success is fear getting our way?

Fear of failure

We have all put off important work or school projects when we know that doing so is to our own detriment. Procrastination can lead to poor performance, anxiety, and ultimately failure. We may be abetting our own failure by procrastinating. According to Guy Winch, Ph.D: “People who have a fear of failure are motivated to avoid failing not because they cannot manage the basic emotions of disappointment, anger, and frustration that accompany such experiences but because failing also makes them feel deep shame.”[2] Shame is a topic I will address in a later article; but from my own experience, the best way to deal with shame is to share your feelings with someone you really trust.

On many occasions I have held on tight to an old saying: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” In fact, we can turn failure on it’s flipside and make it work for us. What is perceived as failure for one individual may act as an impetus for success for another. Many successful people (including Thomas Edison) viewed his string of failed experiments as stepping stones to triumph.

Think back to the last time you did something that was really difficult, and you were afraid of failing: a test, an interview, an athletic endeavor. When you finished, you felt great, because you pushed past your fear. Even if you did fail, you tried, and for many that’s what counts. And there is always the next time. Because if you fail and never try again, where does that leave you? Just the experience of trying and failing is something that we should all be proud of; especially if we learned something. There are droves of people that sit on their couch watching TV and life passes them by. For me, failing is kind of like a badge of honor; because I refuse to sit on the sidelines of life and not try to be my very best. I guess the bottom line is that life is about taking risks and doing something; and those who face down their fears and come out on the other side are always winners.

[1] https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2017/10/11/americas-top-fears-2017/

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201306/10-signs-you-might-have-fear-failure