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Is It Time to Face Your Biggest Fears?

How To Become Fearless Without Eliminating Fear - Part 1

Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock
Source: Ljupco Smokovski/Shutterstock

Fear is one of the most powerful forces in your life. It affects the decisions you make, the actions you take, and the outcomes you achieve. Who you are and what you do has at one point or another been influenced by fear. Being successful relies to a large extent on knowing how to leverage fear.

Fear is critical for survival. It is a hardwired, primitive emotion that involves several parts of the brain (not just the amygdala) and creates a complex experience marked by a distinct pattern of mental and physiological activity.

Fear is an internal – mostly automatic (but not entirely) – alarm system, which exists to warn against threats to survival. Survival, in the past, meant staying alive. It meant not getting killed by a predator, a disease, a rival, or a natural disaster. And threats included anything that could literally cause death or serious harm. Fear is what kept our ancestors out of harm’s way.

But as the world increased in complexity and demand, the meaning of both survival and threat has changed significantly. What does survival mean nowadays and what poses the biggest threat to it?

Survival in the Modern World

According to author Karl Albrecht, all fears, regardless of how big or small, fall into five categories: fear of extinction, fear of mutilation, fear of losing autonomy, fear of separation, and fear of ego-death.

Consequently, the role of fear is to promote survival in these five domains. To protect from anything that threatens to destroy not only our lives, but also our physical and psychological well-being, our autonomy, and our connection to others.

So, what are we trying to protect in the context of our complex social, cultural, political, and technological world?

  • Biological survival: The need to stay alive remains the highest priority. Without being alive, everything else is futile. The sound of the fear alarm is the loudest when your life is at risk.
  • Physical health and ability: Being healthy and strong is not only a requisite for biological survival, but it is also necessary in order to meet the demands of daily life. This is why millions of people get the flu shot every year and why there is a hand sanitizer in every purse.
  • Autonomy: We want to be able to make our own decisions, and live our lives the way we choose. We don’t like being restrained physically or metaphorically. This is what makes being trapped, whether in an elevator or in a horrible job, so scary, and why fear of imprisonment is a good deterrent for breaking the law.
  • Social survival: We want to belong and to stay connected. To be accepted and respected by our peers. We try to steer clear of criticism and rejection from people we like or even total strangers. Being alone and feeling unwanted and irrelevant can be frightening. This is one reason why people stay in bad relationships or join gangs.
  • Self-worth: Given how long we have to live with ourselves, we must protect our self-worth at all costs. A shattered self-esteem is a big problem in any context. The fear of feeling worthless and inadequate can be very limiting, as it stops you from thinking big, expressing yourself, and taking risks. This is why the impact of losing a job or getting a rejection letter can last for days or even weeks.

What Are We Scared Of?

We have eliminated many of the threats that put our ancestors’ survival at risk. But fear remains. What keeps people scared in these times?

Researchers at Chapman University surveyed 1,500 people about the kinds of things they are really afraid of. The fears that made it to the top 5 list included: government corruption, cyber-terrorism, tracking of personal information by government and corporations, terrorist attacks, and bio-warfare.

These are definitely scary events with devastating and long-lasting consequences. But are these the fears that keep you up at night? Are these the fears that are holding you back from achieving your goals? Is preventing government corruption or bio-terrorism your highest priority?

How about things like losing your job, not having enough money to provide for your family, getting sick without healthcare, being bullied at school or harassed at work, or failing to live in line with your values? These fears may not be as explosive as terrorist attacks, but they can certainly make your day-to-day life miserable.

Survival needs and what threatens them have changed over the millennia. Nonetheless, the role of fear remains the same. To warn and protect. Fear can be uncomfortable, even paralyzing at times. According to the psychiatric literature, there are over 100 documented phobias, a disorder characterized by persistent and irrational fear of objects or situations. You may already know of agoraphobia, claustrophobia and social phobia. The good news is that for the large majority of people fear is not pathological. But it can be equally crippling.

The truth is you cannot eliminate fear, nor should you try. But you can still be fearless.

Being fearless is not the same as eliminating fear. Being fearless means knowing how to leverage fear. And the first step to leveraging fear is to identify what scares you.

What are your biggest fears? Dare to share below!

(Part 1 of this 3-part series is about the fears that keep people up at night. Part 2 presents important facts about how fear operates. Part 3 is about how to leverage fear.)