The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself

The number one reason why people fail to act at living better and happier lives is fear. Fear prevents us from making the necessary decisions that would enable us to become our better selves. This fear comes in several forms: 1) fear of the inherent pain that comes from deciding to change; 2) fear of failure; and 3) fear of being seen in the wrong light by ourselves or others – in other words: vulnerability. This discussion will describe in greater detail each type of fear, how it ruins our opportunity for growth, and how we can learn to overcome those fears and create our best life.

Change of any sort requires energy and often involves pain. When a caterpillar struggles mightily to escape the chrysalis where it is held, expending large amounts of energy and battling through immense pain as it seeks to become its better self, a butterfly. Transforming who we are today into who we wish to become is an equally painful struggle. The alcoholic who wishes to become sober must first undergo the horribly painful process of detoxification and will continue to face the pain of temptation throughout the duration of their sobriety. The overweight individual who wishes to build a healthier body will struggle as they move their heavy body off the couch and out the door for a walk around the neighborhood and they will constantly face the pain of temptation from their favorite junk foods as they perhaps reluctantly choose a healthier alternative.

Each of these given examples and more involve inherent pain as we move from present-state towards desired state. The critical point of this process is when we make a genuine decision to face the pain and enact a change. Up to this point the individual may contemplate a change but abstain from fully committing due to fear. They know the process will be challenging and painful and they let that fear stop them from acting. Some people never get past the contemplation stage because they are crippled by fear. In order to overcome fear, we must make a decision to change. This decision is change after careful consideration of what change we wish to make, why we want to make it, and what it will entail. Understanding what it will entail prepares us for the difficult path ahead. It is during this phase where we take stock of exactly what sort of pain we will endure.

To see that pain and decide to act in-spite of it we must consider the pain we face should we decide not to act. In the case of our caterpillar, should they choose to forego the pain of becoming a butterfly and fighting through the chrysalis, the cost of not acting is death. If the alcoholic decides not to endure the pain of becoming sober, the pain they will continue to face is a life in shambles with little or no friends, a loss of potential, an inability to live a truly joyous life unencumbered by chemical stimulation, and very likely organ failure and an early death. Finally, in the case of our overweight example: though the pain of acting to move will involve hunger cravings, aching muscles, and very likely judgement; the pain of not acting involves a continued void of self-esteem, the inability to enjoy certain activities with friends and family, and as with our alcoholic – a high probability of an early death.

Like a pot of boiling water, once the threshold of a certain temperature and pressure combination is met, the reaction is all but inevitable and unstoppable. Our greatest chance at reaching this boiling point and deciding to act is by understanding the scenario and being more afraid of not acting, and the pain we will endure by staying the same, than we are of acting and the pain we will endure in changing. Legendary boxing trainer, Cus D’Amato, who coached among others the legendary Mike Tyson, famously said: “the hero and the coward both feel the same thing but the heron uses his fear and projects it onto his opponent while the coward runs. It’s the same thing – fear – but its what you do with it that matters.” Be more afraid of staying the same than you are of changing. This may only happen if you have an honest understanding of what you want and why.

The second type of fear is the fear of failure. We live in a society that praises perfection and excellence. This type of fear is exceedingly prevalent in society where perfection is the highest of ideals and winning is the greatest form of glory and achievement. Most people let their fear of failure prevent them from acting or attempting anything in the first place. We have to remember that without failure, progress is impossible. Thomas Edison did not successfully invent the lightbulb on his first attempt. Legend has it that he in fact failed over 10,000 times but spoke of this not as 10,000 failures but 10,000 learning opportunities, saying: “I haven’t failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.” If he had let his fear of failure stop him he would never have even attempted this invention which is now found in almost all of our homes, and if he had feared failing a second time and so on, we would be left in the dark.

Dr. Brene Brown warns us of the dangers of perfectionism saying “when failure is not an option, we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.” I would add that when failure is not an option, we can forget about happiness and growth. Behind every success story: whether it be Steve Jobs building Apple in his garage, or the legendary greatness of basketball legend Michael Jordan, there are stories of failed strategies, bad decisions, and missed shots. If he was too afraid of missing a shot, Michael Jordan would never have even attempted what would become so many memorable game-winners. If Steve Jobs was afraid of failing we would never have Apple. If you haven’t yet failed, then you haven’t tried hard enough. The only true failure is when we fail to make a decision to grow or improve at all. Without such failure we will never learn. Do not fear failure but embrace it. Every time you fail is an opportunity to become better next time. If you want to wait until you are 100% ready and prepared you will never act. If you wait for perfect conditions – they will never come. The only way to succeed is to overcome your fear of failure, not by ignoring it, but by re-framing your thoughts on failure and looking at failure as a necessary part of the process.

The third type of failure we will discuss is perhaps the most crippling of all, which is our fear of vulnerability. Vulnerability is defined by Brene Brown as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Vulnerability equates closely with courage as it takes courage to be vulnerable. Courage means the desire to be seen. Being vulnerable requires courage because it is a willingness and desire to be seen and to overcome the fear associated with the uncertainty, risk, and exposure of what happens when we are seen. Vulnerability is a stripping away of the masks we wear and showing our true face, or a removal of our armor and allowing ourself the potential to be hurt. Vulnerability is scare for this very reason that it allows us to be heart.

A specific example that comes to mind for me is my decision to be vulnerable again after a bad breakup. For a long time I was determined to never fall in love again because I was done being hurt, so I knew that if I was never completely vulnerable again then I could never be hurt. Thank goodness I found someone who made me feel safe being vulnerable otherwise I was destined for a lonely and unhappy existence.

Vulnerability stops us from acting because we afraid not specifically of failure but of being seen by others as a failure if we make an attempt and fail. Vulnerability prevents progress because if we choose not to make an attempt, we can still logic our way into believing that we didn’t fail because technically we didn’t even try. This type of rationale will lead to an unfulfilling life where we have missed the opportunity to grow into our best and happiest self. Do not fear vulnerability. Look at vulnerability as the ultimate test of bravery and the greatest and final obstacle to clear before you become your best self.

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself,” Franklin Roosevelt. Change is painful, failure is scary, and opening yourself up to ridicule and embarrassment is a daunting idea. As painful and scary as the decision to act can be, the scariest idea is a scenario where we live our whole lives frozen in inaction because of fear, and thus never even dare greatly enough to attempt a better version of ourselves.

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