Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


When It's Helpful to Think About the Worst-Case Scenario

Conquering the four horsemen of fear

Key points

  • We fear the worst-case scenario happening, which paralyzes us from moving forward.
  • By deconstructing our fears in a safe environment, we can reduce their power over us.
  • Fear inoculation is a modern practice based on ancient philosophy to help us face our fears and move forward.

The four horsemen of fear—fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of uncertainty, and fear of success—are the four most common limiting beliefs that hold us back from flourishing. They hide behind self-sabotaging behaviors like procrastination, perfectionism, and complacency.

So we understand what holds us back from flourishing, but what can we do about it?

One strategy I use is called fear inoculation.

Here’s how it works…

What Is Fear Inoculation?

We inoculate ourselves from viruses using vaccines that have a deconstructed version of the virus inside them. This gives our bodies the ability to “practice” overcoming the virus if we ever encounter the real thing.

We can use this same strategy to inoculate ourselves against the four horsemen by deconstructing our fear and “practicing” ways to overcome it in case we ever encounter the real thing, aka if our fear comes true.

If you’re a cognitive and behavioral therapy buff, you know modern psychology is rooted in ancient philosophies like stoicism. One Stoic exercise is called premeditatio malorum—Latin for “premeditation of evils.” Fear inoculation is a modern equivalent of this ancient practice.

Try this simple exercise to inoculate yourself against the four horsemen of fear:

Assume your worst fears come true.

Now, with that assumption in place, how will you deal with it?

Here’s how this can look for each of the horsemen.

Fear of Failure

Assume you fail.

Now, how will you learn from your experience?

What do you need to do differently next time? In hindsight, what mistakes were avoidable and how will you ensure they don’t happen again?

Where did you take risks when you shouldn’t have or avoided risks when you could have taken them?

What resources did you not take advantage of that could’ve helped you succeed?

Dig into what specifically contributed to your failure.

Learn from it now, in the safety of this thought experiment, so you can avoid the avoidable by deconstructing and reverse-engineering what can lead to failure in the real world.

The better you understand what could lead to failure, the better you’ll be equipped to avoid (or recover from) it.

Fear of Ridicule

Assume you get backlash from your friends, family, or followers.

What’s your strategy?

Will you apologize or make amends (if necessary)?

How will you help the issue blow over?

Are the people criticizing you actually people whose opinions are worth caring about?

You’ll never be able to please everyone.

Are you focusing on pleasing the right people? In business, this may mean clarifying your niche and messaging. In your personal life, it may mean focusing on pleasing yourself and valuing your own opinion, wants, and needs over what your old high school friends—whom you haven’t talked to in 15 years—might say about you.

If you need an extra nudge to overcome this fear, check out Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech—it’s super helpful for putting things into perspective anytime you start to let what other people “might” say keep you from putting yourself and your ideas out into the world.

Fear of Uncertainty

Assume that rather than risk making the wrong decision, you made none and stagnated.

How will you recover now?

What information did you need but didn’t get?

We can never know all the variables, so what was the minimum amount of information you needed to make a viable decision?

How can you get this information?

Life (and business) is a game of iteration—making incremental improvements based on what we learn works and what doesn’t.

Pursue progress, not perfection.

Fear of Success

Assume you succeed. Congratulations!

What’s on the other side of success? Paint a vivid picture of what life post-success looks like. The more concrete, the better you’ll be able to inoculate yourself.

Do you become complacent and lose all motivation to better yourself?

Does the world hang on your every word because they view you as a thought leader, so you’re terrified of how much weight your words carry?

If all you’ve ever known is the grind and climbing your way to the top, does it mean the top is just a plateau and life will never get better?

How will you continue to grow and challenge yourself?

How will you ensure you don’t let success go to your head?

Until you scale your first mountain, you can’t see anything beyond it. But once you reach the peak, your perspective changes. You realize you’re at the beginning of the mountain range. Success isn’t something to be feared, because your first success opens your eyes to opportunities you couldn’t imagine before.

If you can scale the first mountain, you can scale the next.

Wrap Up

Ultimately, we fear the unknown:

  • Will I fail?
  • Will other people judge me?
  • Will I make the wrong decision?
  • Will I become a different person after success?

By making the unknown known—or at least knowable—through fear inoculation, we rob the four horsemen of fear of their power over us.

When we feel prepared to deal with our fears coming true, we no longer need to avoid them through self-sabotaging behaviors.

So the next time one of the horsemen starts to rear its ugly head, practice fear inoculation.

Vaccines have helped us survive.

Fear inoculation can help us flourish.

More from Corey Wilks Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today