Fear is such a powerful emotion. It has the ability to keep us safe, but for many of us, it keeps us paralyzed, and keeps us living to our fullest extent.
When our fears get out of control, we can shut down. They can paralyze us. But we’re here to live our lives well, and if we don’t deal with our fears and keep them in their proper place, then they can keep us from finding the joy in life that is the birthright of all of us.
I have a movie recommendation for you. It’s from 1991, Defending Your Life, starring Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep. The main premise of the movie is about fear. It takes place in the afterlife — where we go when we do — and the characters Daniel and Julie have to defend the lives they lived on Earth. Specifically, they are tasked with determining whether they faced their fears while they were alive, and if they did, they may move on, but if they didn’t, they must return to Earth to try again.
The movie is funny, but it also has a great truth: In life, we are faced with fears. The question is, how do we handle them? As I see it, we have two choices: We can face our fears and move on, or we can let them run rampant, destroying any chance we have for a contented and fulfilled life.
That’s what fear does. It takes away from our lives, while robbing us of the joy of living. Maybe right now, we are not living the life we want to live because of fear of failure, loss, or the judgment of others. We make so many choices in life because of our fears, but if we learn to honor them and deal with them appropriately, we can find that life is a beautiful adventure, and we can face it with fearlessness.
But in order to control our fears, we need to approach them rationally. It’s not necessary to live life with reckless abandon; instead, we can sit with the realization that if we take a certain action, we may experience a result that we don’t want to happen.
When I was growing up, a relative of mine was really into dirt-biking, and he had three sons who attempted to make it in that world. Two of his sons competed and did well, but as they reached adulthood, they found that they carried a lot of physical pain from the injuries they had experienced pursuing their sport. Sadly, his third son also tried to make it in dirt-bike racing, but one day while practicing, he came down from a high jump on the track and injured himself so badly that he died.
With all of our endeavors, we have to ask ourselves if the risk of an activity is worth its reward. Most of the risk we face is not physical, like my relatives faced, but it is emotional. We risk a different kind of hurt, and one that can be nearly as devastating.
There can be so many different fears. The fear of flying is a common example. Once, I was on a plane, and a woman in the back was having chest pains. Officials believed she was having a heart attack, but it turned out that she was having a very dire emotional reaction to her fear. I don’t know what came of this woman, but I do know that many people can never even think of flying because of the debilitating effects of their fear. If you really study flying, the chances of dying in a plane are miniscule — but don’t we all know someone who will never fly because of their fears? This has an impact on their lives and the people around them.
Likewise, if we spend a lot of time keeping up with world events by watching the news, we can be overcome by our fear. We are inundated with fears, and if we’re not careful, these can overwhelm us and truly take over our lives.
I suspect you’ve heard of the condition called agoraphobia — a fear of being in certain situations where escape feels impossible. Some people think of it as a fear of crowds, but it’s a little more complex than that. People who have agoraphobia may be fearful in a crowded market, or they may feel panicked on a freeway while surrounded by cars. Instead of facing their fears, they stay closer to home, until finally they are stuck at home — some never to leave home again because of their fear. About 1 percent of our population lives this way — stuck at home, for perhaps the rest of their lives.
The movie I mentioned, Defending Your Life, depicts the great variety of fear that humans face, and some of them come back over and over and over again because they never succeed in beating out what it is they dread. Fears are powerful. Fears control us. Fears take away from our joy and happiness in life.
Maybe you don’t know someone who has agoraphobia. Let’s face it; those people don’t get out much. But don’t you know someone who is making decisions that keep them stuck in life because they are fearful of embracing change? Perhaps they’re at a job that they hate, but they’re afraid to quit because of the consequences? Or maybe they’re fearful of pursuing their life’s passion because they’re afraid of what others might think?
There are many ways that fears control us, yet they don’t have to, if we just do a few things. One of the things we can do to begin to overcome our fears is to face them. We can look our fears straight in the eye, no matter what they are, and say, “I’m not going to let you control my life.”
Many years ago, I developed a fear of driving on high overpasses because I thought I might crash and die. But I knew that I wasn’t afraid of death. This allowed me the courage to look directly at that fear and say, “OK. If I die on an overpass, so be it.” I realized I could handle the result of possibly having an accident, crashing, and dying from a high overpass, so I decided to go ahead and stop avoiding those situations. Guess what? The fear went away.
We look at the fear and we say, “I may not want that to happen, but I can do that,” and then can go away. I know how hard that is to do, but it can work if we allow ourselves to try it.
Some fears are quite a bit more complex than a fear of heights. What if our fear is that my teenager will start using drugs and die? Or that the person I love will fall in love with someone else and leave me? Maybe I fear that I’ll end up unable to care myself and stuck in a nursing home, or that I’ll lose my job and everything I own and end up homeless. Our fears can be very scary. Mostly, they never come true, but having them can keep us from living.
We have a choice. We can be afraid, or we can face our fear and say, “I can do it. I definitely may not prefer this to happen, but if it happens, I’ll be OK.” We can assure ourselves that we can handle the consequences.
If we tell ourselves that something can’t be allowed to happen, then we are gripped and paralyzed by fear. But if we say, “I would prefer that this outcome not happen, but I can live with it if it does, and I will get by,” then that fear has lost its grip and its power over us.
Mind you, I’m not suggesting that we think about fear all day long. Rather, when fears kick in, we can just tell ourselves that we can do it, or that we know others who have gone through this and come out the other end and are doing fine.
What will happen is that fear will have nothing to hang on to, and it won’t have any way to feed, and the fear will lose its power and will have to go away. This doesn’t mean that we don’t prepare; it means that we prepare wisely and without the fog of fear standing in the way of our reason.
Another thing we can do is quit feeding our fears, whether externally or internally.
An external fear is one that we are fed by outside influences, like the 24-hour news cycle or worrisome acquaintances who are always imagining worst-case scenarios.
We must ask ourselves, what are we watching on our news or on our apps? What kinds of conversations are we having? If we are consuming nearly nonstop content that feeds our fear, or if we are continually imagining and discussing the worst possible outcomes from any situation, our fear grows more and more powerful.
We need to limit ourselves and stop accepting fear from others. Instead we can anticipate beautiful adventures and positive outcomes, and then watch them come our way.
As I mentioned, fear can also be fed internally, by our own negative mental picturs of possible outcomes. We need to remind ourselves that negative self-talk is not helpful. The solution to this kind of thinking is to be fully present in the moment and to give our attention to the beautiful things in our life. It can take time to break these fears, but when we spend time with them, we do well. In time, we can become fearless.
In the movie I mentioned, Julia is someone who spends time fearlessly. Daniel, on the other hand, is full of fears, and he has experiences tragedies and losses in life because he gives in to his fear.
We can have such beautiful lives, but we must focus on having fearless lives. The rewards we receive are beyond measure.
You Can Change Your Thinking
I know many people who think that they can’t change their mindset, and so they are stuck thinking the way they always have. They are quick to label themselves with words that supposedly define them: I’m a pessimist, they might say, or even worse … I’m unlucky.
I always wonder why people feel so married to negative outcomes that they would want to identify with them so completely.
The people I know who own the label “pessimist” like to explain that if they imagine the worst possible outcome, they can never be hurt by what happens, from a breakup to a job loss to a financial catastrophe. When the crisis is averted, these people can acknowledge that they dodged a bullet — for now. But any time now, the bad outcome could present itself, so they’d better not let down their guard.
Similarly, the people I know who consider themselves unlucky are always willing to recount the wrongs they have experienced and the bad results that stack up like firewood outside of their door. I don’t know anyone who is entirely like the biblical character Job, who is depicted as accruing loss after loss, of everything, because of a cruel game being played by divine forces. Don’t most of us get the occasional win amid the losses?
Of course we do. But if we are in the habit of constantly tallying losses because we feel that our worst fears have been recognized, it’s hard to see the gains, or at least it’s hard to see them in their glory.
If you are in the habit of looking on the negative side of any situation and of predicting dire outcomes, here is a challenge for you: Just for a short time, why not flip the script?
If you are in the habit of making only dire predictions, this could be a real challenge for you, but why not give it a try, just to see how ineffective and time-wasting it can be? (I’m winking here, if you can’t tell.) Here’s what to do.
- Choose any risk in your life. Take your pick; all of our lives are full of risks, or what someone with a sunny outlook might call “chances” or even “opportunities.” You might think about the smallest possible thing, like your drive to work, or you might think of something with a higher risk-reward ratio, like asking someone out for a date.
- Make a list, mental or on paper, of the five best possible outcomes of that situation. Be authentic — even hopeful in the process. What are the ideal outcomes of driving to work? You could get there unscathed. Or, even better, you could get there while missing out on traffic and make great time. Or, better than that, you could see something beautiful that you’ve never seen before on your route, like some lovely flowers along the way. List five things.
- Ignore that other list, the one you make routinely without acknowledging that you’re doing so (example: That person won’t want to go on a date. They’ll probably say something mean to me. Maybe I’ll get pepper-sprayed …). For the purposes of this activity, you are not allowed to make that list for the risk you’ve chosen.
- Shortly after making your list of possible bright outcomes, do the thing. Take the risk, such as it is.
- Assess your results. How did it go? If you made an authentic list of possible bright outcomes, did any occur? Or did some occur that were not on your list? Often, we find that we experience blessings and benefits we never thought possible if we only open the door to them — and if we only look around to try to see them.
Maybe that activity worked great for you. Do you know that you can do that every day, with everything you do?
It’s possible that activity worked terribly for you, and something awful really did happen. In this case, I’m wondering — would giving in to fear have helped to produce a more positive outcome? I don’t believe it would have. As a bonus, you got to dream a little, and positive expectation is infinitely superior to dread.
I wish you well as you continue on your path to happiness, and I would remind you that happiness and fear tend not to travel the same roads. I welcome you over here with me on the side with sunny expectations and the brightest hopes, because joy is a journey, and you’ll know its road when you see it.