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Is it just me or has fear gotten a bad rap over the years? Fear is something we avoid at all costs; we use words like “fearless” when it comes to the pursuit of our goals.
Let’s take a moment to truly examine that tendency.
I have come to really dislike the word “fearless” because it assumes fear is an all-encompassing negative emotion. In contrast, fear is a very powerful and necessary emotion. Fear lives within us to keep us safe. Fear is a biological function that is necessary for our survival!
If we were to actually eliminate fear, it would do us a disservice. A total absence of fear means we would lean too far forward when looking over the Grand Canyon, or we wouldn’t think twice about jumping off the roof instead of using a ladder when hanging the holiday lights. You would jump headfirst into the next big idea that pops in your head without a second thought.
We need fear. So when did fear become such a bad thing for people?
Related: Many People Are Burdened by Fear. Here’s How I Embrace It.
The two types of fear
First, let’s talk about the two different types of fear: survival fear and perception fear. Survival fears are of things like death, getting hurt, or not being able to take care of your basic needs — think nourishment, hydration, shelter, breath (no, losing your cell phone does not fit into this category!) Survival fear is a much-needed part of our brain because it’s what keeps us safe. It’s what allowed us to avoid saber-toothed tigers while living in our caves all those years ago.
Perception fears are different in that they are not life threatening. However, they manifest the exact same way as our survival fears. Our palms get sweaty, we feel our heart beat quicken and a shortness of breath, and suddenly our mouth is as dry as the Sahara desert.
When we push outside our comfort zone, our brain senses unfamiliarity, throwing out a loud, jarring alarm. In that fight-or-flight state, we often assume it is our intuition sending us a signal to avoid the risk. So instead, we decide to hunker down and stay in our comfort zone.
Since our brain cannot distinguish between survival and perception fears, it is up to us to separate the two. That begins with awareness and intention.
The three seeds of self doubt
Self-doubt comes from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves — stories that are filled with false truths, that take root and become our negative bedrock beliefs.
What are these stories? Well, cognitive behavior therapists like Aaron Beck categorize our limiting beliefs into three main categories:
I am unlovable.
I am helpless.
I am worthless.
Take some time to jot down a few of your biggest fears. Whether it is a fear that you’ll never find “the one” and settle down, or that you’ll never get to quit that dead end job and go after your dream career, I guarantee you they will all fall into one of these three categories. It really is amazing how there are only three stories at the heart of our fears.
Related: 5 Ways to Overcome Self-Doubt as an Entrepreneur
Once you’ve given thought to your fears and you have your list, it is time to flip them into facts. We want to find the objective truth — not what our threat system is telling us, but what is actually real. My favorite way to break down our fears is to use a version of the scientific method.
Turning your fears into facts
In my second book, On Purpose, I include a blueprint that will take you step by step in flipping your fears into facts. Here’s a glimpse into what that looks like:
Observe: What is it you are feeling afraid of doing? Remember, we all have fear as humans, so do not feel shame in accepting that you are scared. Write it out, paying attention to the feelings that come up as you write.
Hypothesis: Is this a survival fear or a perception fear? This is an important part of the puzzle. Is your health and safety actually in jeopardy? Or are you more afraid of what people will think?
Experiment: What are the worst-case scenarios? Allow your deepest darkest fears to come out and see the light of day. Our minds love to run wild through the hallways, so let’s allow it for a moment. Write down all the terrible, horrible things that could happen…every “what if” that has ever crossed your mind.
Analyze: Is this really the worst that can happen? Are there ways you can minimize the potential impact? If your worst fear is realized, is this something you can recover from?
Observe: What can you control versus not control? Remember, we can only really control our own behaviors and reactions. We have no control over what other people say, how they will react, what they do, or what they post on the internet. We can either sit around worrying about what other people will think/do, or we can take action. Taking action means focusing on the things we can control.
Results: What is the objective truth? What is real and true about your fear? How does knowing the truth help you move forward?
Don’t be fearless, be brave
Since we now know that fear is at times a necessary emotion for our survival, instead of being fearless, I invite you to be brave. Brave people still have the fear present, but instead of seeing fear as the enemy, they focus on how they can use the fear to push forward. In my eyes, brave people are the ones who have overcome the things they were once afraid of.
Related: Entrepreneurs Don’t Have to Be Fearless, Just Brave
As for failure, many of us have been taught to fear failure. But how I see it, it is failure, not progress, that is the truest sign of growth. I’m going to let you in on a little secret: if you aren’t failing from time to time, you are failing. Failing means you are pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone instead of playing it safe.
We cannot make things like failure and fear go away with words like “fearless.” But we can find a way to use fear to move us forward. Remember, we have a choice in the words we tell ourselves, so choose your words wisely.