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Why We Fear Fear (and What It Costs Us)

Plus: How some men and women deal with fear differently.

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

In many situations, it is rational and prudent to fear another person. For example, if someone physically threatens you, the best response is to get away from that person as soon as possible. However, few of our interpersonal dealings involve such dire threats. It's more likely that you would fear those who may cause you to lose your job, relationships, self-esteem, or something else of high emotional value. It's important to examine your inner reactions to the people in your life in order to understand them, and yourself, that much better.

How do we learn to fear others in the first place?

The emotion of fear is hard-wired into all creatures. As young children, your fears may have occupied much of your emotional life, perhaps because you were so vulnerable and unable to protect yourself. You probably outgrew those fears, partly by acquiring greater physical size and a wider range of abilities and experiences. In the worst scenarios—such as a bear invading your campground—you learned enough from others' stories to figure out how to get out alive.

In a 2015 article, University of Massachusetts-Boston economist Julie Nelson argues that the experience of fear has become highly gendered, a problem that she applies to theory and practice in the field of economics. Men learn to fear fear because they associate such emotions with a dangerous lack of control over the self and world. In her words, “Since bodies are far more vulnerable, mortal, and messy than the pure Cartesian cogito, contemplation of the feminine-associated aspects of human life may create anxiety” (p. 134). To avoid this, men gravitate away from the emotional world of fear and anxiety toward a more analytical and objective one in which logic rules over feelings.

The danger of fearing fear, Nelson suggests, is that in their economic thinking, men prefer not to seem “risk averse.” It’s permissible, in this societal context, for women to base their decisions on the fear of negative outcomes, but men who do so may be perceived as weak or unmanly. When economic markets develop around men’s desire not to look risk averse, those markets become more likely to crash and burn, as happened in the late 2000’s. If anything, the fear of fear worsens panic when things eventually start to go wrong, she writes:

“Fear, kept unexamined and dammed up for too long, may then be manifested in excess when a crisis finally arrives—e.g., in financial panic or in support of totalitarian means for restoring order.” (p. 137)

How does this affect your daily life? Fear may be a “logical emotion” in some cases, but what about when it’s not? Are there times when your fears are blown out of proportion, especially with regard to particular people? If so, who are those people and why do you fear them?

Here are some of the negative consequences of fearing fear:

Fear of authority. Many people fear their bosses. Obviously, an employer or supervisor controls your own economic stability. In the contemporary workplace, however, there are controls against a capricious boss acting out in a moment of anger by firing a qualified employee. Due process and consistency with union statutes protect workers against this, as does the belief that many employers have in the value of supervisors and supervisees cooperating in a collegial way to maximize productivity. It’s possible that some supervisor truly deserve to be feared, if they act in unpredictable and punitive ways. But people may also project their childhood fears of harm or criticism onto bosses who do not act in fear-provoking ways.

Increased anxiety. Following from Nelson’s analysis, gender dynamics may also affect the relationships that men and women have in the workplace. By stifling their fears to avoid looking weak, men may actually be creating more anxiety for themselves. They don’t want to admit that they’re afraid of getting fired, allowing that undercurrent of worry to fester for weeks, months, or years. Because of fear, they may even avoid supervisory evaluations, which would help them function as more adaptive employees.

Decline in productivity. According to this analysis, women trying to look more “competent” (and male-like) may attempt to cover up their emotional reactions as well. From the organization’s point of view, these circumstances hinder employees' ability to relax and be productive.

Relationship setbacks. Spouses and romantic partners may come to fear each other’s reactions, especially if there is a history of uncontrolled anger in the home. In relationships not marked by violence, though, partners may grow more trusting over the years and learn to overcome their irrational fears. Even when something goes wrong (as you drop and break yet another dinner plate), you no longer become afraid of how your partner will respond. The people you are less close to on a daily basis are probably more likely to stimulate your fears: What will your in-laws do, for example, if you fail to send a thank-you letter for a birthday present, or you send one that isn’t to their liking? You may not fear physical harm in these cases, but disapproval.

Misinterpreted gestures. If you have deep-seated anxieties about how well you fit in with the family as a whole, you may interpret what might be a neutral glance from that in-law as a glare filled with criticism. The fear this engenders only makes things worse. You may behave in an unnatural and overly guarded way that in turn creates actual grounds for negative feelings and poor communication.

Separate your own insecurities from the actual threats that the people in your life present to you. Not only will you feel better, but your relationships with those people will benefit, as well.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Nelson, J. A. (2015). Fearing fear: Gender and economic discourse. Mind & Society, 14(1), 129-139. doi:10.1007/s11299-014-0148-6

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