“You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you. . . . Fear is a friend of exceptional people.” In the advice of legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato, fear isn’t something we should shun or ignore. It’s a tool. And like all tools, we only need to understand how to use it.
A view that Steven Pressfield reinforces in his tremendous book on creativity and overcoming its archenemy, the Resistance. In his words,
“Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”
We’re constantly talking about conquering our fears. As though an enemy that must be overcome.
Think about that for a minute. We have an internal voice that we’ve developed through millennia of evolution for the express purpose of keeping us safe. And we want to suppress that? And treat it like an enemy? Is this really the best use of this tool?
What if, instead, we chose to understand fear? And let it become a contributor, instead of merely an obstacle.
Fear is Irrational.
“You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into,” wrote Ben Goldacre in Bad Science, building off the limitations of rational arguments that Jonathan Swift put forth nearly 300 years ago.
It’s easy to see the futility in pitting rational arguments against irrationality. Most people that are afraid of flying fully understand the safety benefit of planes over automobiles.
And who else has made a bad situation worse by offering the well-meaning yet poorly thought-out advice of “just calm down” to someone who’s upset?
Paradoxically, it makes sense. Yet it might be the worst thing we can possibly say to someone upset.
Because we can’t overcome irrational positions with reason. And we can’t solve emotional problems with intelligence.
Fear is an irrational thought. It’s instinctively emotional, based on evolutionary necessity. Those who were quick to react to fear often lived much longer than their unfortunate neighbors who had to consider the meaning behind the approaching tiger.
So with the millennia of evolutionary programming behind it, how do we expect to manage this emotional reaction?
By treating it just as we would any other one.
Irrationality Needs to be Heard.
“Your ultimate goal as a parent is not to win any one particular fight or another, but rather to win your child’s love and respect for a lifetime.” – Harvey Karp, The Happiest Toddler on the Block
There is no better definition of an emotional outburst than that offered by an upset two-year-old.
Every parent knows the terror that a frustrated toddler can create within seconds. As your previously content child flips the switch from happy to angry, they transform into the definition of irrationality and leave a wake of destruction in their path.
In Harvey Karp’s instrumental guide to successfully navigating these stressful moments, he suggests that the real thing our children need isn’t a solution, but to simply be heard. They want us to acknowledge their feelings. They want to see that we understand. In his words,
“Remember, there’s a huge difference between angry feelings and angry actions. Yes, you have to discourage misbehavior, but it’s superimportant that your child know that you understand how she feels, and you care, even if you disagree.”
In these situations, we’re not altogether different from these little bundles of terror. When we’re upset, we don’t always need a solution. Many times, we just need someone to listen. And understand. And validate our concerns.
When people feel heard, they feel valued. And at the end of the day, everyone wants to feel valued. As Bryant H. McGill put it,
“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”
Fear is no different. It wants the same thing that we all do. Which is to be seen, heard, considered, and valued.
Understanding Starts with Listening.
“Fear is meant to feel uncomfortable. That’s how it gets attention.” – Kristen Ulmer, The Art of Fear
For years, I treated fear as that tantrum-throwing toddler. I’d suppress that internal voice, never truly listening to it.
Imagine having a well-meaning employee whose every suggestion was either suppressed or ignored. How long would it be before they became unruly and stopped working for the good of the company?
That was my relationship with fear.
Every time the voice of fear rose up in me, I’d suppress it. I’d ignore it. And in doing so, it would scream all the louder and overwhelm everything else.
I refused to acknowledge that voice. And just as refusing to acknowledge the concerns of another doesn’t lead to understanding, this behavior kept me from seeing the message behind fear’s words.
Which is all fear really wants. It’s looking out for our best interest. It wants to keep us healthy and alive and in the best position to live our lives.
If someone offered you a pill that would make you not fear for the safety of your kids, you’d likely tell them where they can go shove that pill.
Fear is helpful. But only if we listen to it.
The great philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes argued for the necessity of balancing both hope and fear in order to avoid both paralysis and complacency. In The Passions of the Soul he wrote,
“When hope is so strong that it altogether drives out fear, its nature changes and it becomes complacency or confidence. And when we are certain that what we desire will come to pass, even though we go on wanting it to come to pass, we nonetheless cease to be agitated by the passion of desire which caused us to look forward to the outcome with anxiety.”
Or in the words of Pema Chodrin, “If you don’t know the nature of fear, then you can never be fearless.”
Let Fear Make You Stronger
“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear, projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs. It’s the same thing, fear, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” – Cus D’Amato
Following a 2014 TED conference in which Neil Gaiman read a ghost story and discussed why these tales so powerfully affect us, he discussed the importance of fear in all aspects of literature,
“In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.”
And just as triumphing over a dull evil wouldn’t be inspiring, our own triumphs and accomplishments lose meaning if there’s no fear behind them. Fear offers the resistance that makes an accomplishment worthwhile. It forces us to push harder and confront our own limitations in order to be a better version of ourselves.
Without fear, we’d have no resistance. And without resistance, there’d be no growth.
So take a moment. Recognize fear for what it is. A voice that’s trying to help. And treat it with the respect and consideration that it deserves.
Because that’s all it really wants. And once you understand it, it’ll make you stronger.