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3 Questions That Will Reveal Your "Core Fear"

Finding your "core fear" with this simple but elegant exercise can cut through the confusion and offer real answers.

Key points

  • One core fear is at the root of all your anxiety. Finding that fear, therefore, becomes a significant key to resolving suffering.
  • The "Digging for Gold" process uses three questions to find your core fear.
  • Our core fears tend to relate to the loss of love, identity, meaning, purpose/expression, or life itself.
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According to the Deconstructing Anxiety model, the “core fear” is the single thought construct responsible for all our struggles. It is the essential interpretation one makes in childhood for how life can be threatening and becomes the lens through which we view reality whenever we are not wholly fulfilled.

Finding one’s core fear, therefore, offers a key to unlock the very source of suffering. Without understanding the core fear, we cannot hope to take corrective action.

"Digging for Gold": The Three Questions

In the Deconstructing Anxiety model, there is an exercise for finding the core fear called “Digging for Gold." Here’s how it works:

Begin by picking a problem — any problem, big or small. It doesn’t matter which one. All problems, as we will demonstrate, lead to the same core fear.

As you conceive of the problem, write it in a single short phrase at the top left of the page. On the same line at the top right of the page, write down one of these three questions in response to the problem:

  1. Why is that upsetting to you?
  2. What are you afraid will happen next?
  3. What are you afraid you will miss or lose?

Each of these is a different form of the question, “What is the fear underneath this problem?” The answer will bring you one level “deeper,” one step closer, to your core fear. Choose whichever of the three questions is most helpful for getting an answer. If you feel stuck with one of the questions, try another.

Having written down your problem and asked one of the questions, you’ll write the answer on the second line of the left of the page, underneath the first. Again, make sure your answer is written in a short phrase without extraneous detail. Make sure as well that it describes a new problem that is one layer “deeper” than the first and of which you can ask another of the questions. You are looking for an answer that gets underneath the problem above it, discovering the fear that is driving that problem.

Write whichever of the three questions is most helpful on the second line on the right side, answering with a third-level problem on the left side underneath the one before. Continue this process until you get to the core, the true root of the problem, and then summarize your core fear in, again, a short, succinct phrase.*

Technique Tips

Here are some helpful technique tips:

If one of the questions isn’t yielding a ready answer, try a different one. If you feel stuck, it can be helpful to think about how others might answer the question (your answer will still come from your core fear).

It can also be helpful to visualize the process as if you were watching a movie. Begin the movie with your original problem and follow each step of what you are afraid will happen next. Make sure you watch the movie of your fear come true rather than a movie in which you are looking for happier solutions. Our goal at this point is to uncover our core fear, so we don’t want to use old strategies for escaping or resolving it before we fully contact the fear. Watching your fear play out as if on a movie screen can make the process feel safer (providing detachment) and give more clarity. You simply watch what happens next on the movie screen.

If you anticipate that you might become uncomfortable (which is very unlikely), it can help to remember that you’ve already been living with the fear. Acknowledging it doesn’t make it more real. By performing the exercise, you are merely discovering what has been going on behind the scenes all the while. This can actually be quite satisfying, instilling hope that you are on the trail of finding real answers.

How to Know When You’ve Arrived at the Core Fear

You will know you have arrived at the core fear when asking any of the three questions brings up the same answer over and over ... you have already arrived at the deepest level and there is nowhere further to go.

It’s helpful to know there are five essential core fears, universal themes of loss that we all choose from when landing upon the one core fear at the foundation of all others.

The five core fears are:

  1. Abandonment, or loss of love
  2. Loss of identity
  3. Loss of meaning
  4. Loss of purpose, or of the chance to express oneself
  5. Loss of life, or fear of death, including fear of sickness or pain

Therefore, another way to assess whether you have arrived at the core fear is whether your answer relates to one of these five categories. While it may seem as though you have more than one (and, in fact, each of us has some of all five), there is one that is most fundamental, giving rise to the others. Try to make a direct connection to this one, the most fundamental core fear. The answer you get will explain the thought system at the very core of your personality, that which is behind every interpretation and decision you make when less than wholly fulfilled.

Be prepared to discover significant connections about why your life took the course it did, profound “Aha!” moments, as the puzzle pieces come together making sense out of the major, minor, and everyday choices you have made. This can bring a momentous, sometimes life-changing awareness of that which defines your personality, who you “are.” It is often accompanied by powerful emotions, as well as the beginning realization that we are free to choose a different way of being.

The more often you perform this exercise, the more powerful an agent of change it can become in your life. As you go through it with a variety of different circumstances, your confidence that there is always and only one core fear underneath all problems will grow. This gives enormous reassurance that you know the problem and can work on a real solution. It cuts through all the confusion and “lostness” we suffer when confronted with a situation that sends us reeling once again, our usual equilibrium shown to be a thin disguise over basic insecurity. Seeing the core fear clearly builds mastery so that in any circumstance, we can more quickly and thoroughly understand our reaction. It also makes it possible, as other exercises in the Deconstructing Anxiety program demonstrate, to discover more helpful solutions.

*Some may recognize a similarity to David Burns’ “Vertical Arrow” technique or Albert Ellis’ “Inferential Chaining” process. This is not surprising, since the effort in all of these is to achieve a more clear analysis of the true problem. However, the goal of “Digging for Gold” is dramatically different than in these other approaches: to discover the one core fear at the ultimate foundation of one’s thinking that gives rise to all problems a person struggles with.


Pressman, T. (2019). Deconstructing Anxiety: The Journey from Fear to Fulfillment. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

More from Todd E. Pressman Ph.D.
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