Remember when you were a child and people would ask you what you wanted to become when you grow up? I would say “an astronaut.” My sister, on the other hand, always replied “a princess.” We didn’t think once about how realistic these answers were. The world was full of possibilities and we could become whatever we desired.
As acclaimed author Marianne Williamson says, “Children are happy because they don’t have a file in their minds called ‘All The Things That Could Go Wrong.'”
Transitioning from a child to a teenager, we start to become more self-conscious. Peer pressure, bad parenting, bullying and comparisons with others start planting the seeds of self-doubt. Are we good enough? Do we have what it takes to live up to everyone’s expectations? Our once carefree approach to life becomes tainted with fear. The fear slowly starts growing and taking control of our lives, until we are comfortably numb in the shackles of the familiar where we find safe harbor.
Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.
– Andre Gide
Fear in some ways is a defense mechanism against pain. The Pleasure-Pain Principle is a great example of how each decision we make in life is based on how much pleasure we will get vs. the pain we have to endure. Now more than ever, in the era of instant gratification, we seek the “easy path” more and more.
So what is it that is actually holding us back? What are we afraid of and what can we do to combat the fear?
1. We fear the unknown
Many people try to maintain their peace of mind by holding onto the illusion of control. To a certain extent, when you stay in the same town your whole life, have had the same 9-5 job for ten years and marry your high-school sweetheart, you minimize uncertainty.
I am not judging this lifestyle or whether it brings happiness, but I am nevertheless pointing out that there is a sense of comfort in the known. It feels more predictable and manageable. And indeed when the majority of our surroundings are familiar, we don’t struggle as much to deal with them. But life is fundamentally fluid and uncertain. Things can change from one day to another. In familiar territory or not, we cannot take anything for granted.
So how do we combat the fear of the unknown?
By acting, and trusting in ourselves. Ask yourself this: “What’s the worst that can happen?” Go ahead and do that thing you are afraid of. Go traveling alone. Quit your job. Ask that girl out. Regardless of the outcome, I promise, you will manage. Whatever life throws at you, you will bounce back.
But you have to start by training your muscle of resiliency. And the only way to do this is by taking the leap. Start small. Once a week, do one thing that frightens you. Then look back at it… was it that bad? What did you learn? What did you get in return? As time passes you will start becoming more courageous, trusting in your capabilities and not letting the fear of the unknown define your actions.
You’ve got this.
2. We fear loneliness
We all have the need to belong. Even as Aristotle said, “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.”
From a psychological perspective, belonging can also take the form of conformism to social norms. For example, if you have been brought up in an environment where everyone in your family has gone to university and obtained a degree, choosing to not go down that path might create the fear of not “fitting in” anymore. What you have to remember though is that the path to fulfilment is one of authenticity and the cost of that is sometimes standing alone. At the end though, it is worth it.
As Brené Brown says in her new book Braving the Wilderness: “True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism. But true belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity. It’s a personal commitment that we carry in our hearts.”
3. We fear failure
One of they main reasons we often choose to stay in our comfort zone and don’t pursue our dreams is the fear of failure. When something is very dear to us and close to our hearts, the feeling of “loss” is much greater.
Say for example you are working on a project that you are not emotionally invested in; if it doesn’t work out, this might bruise your ego but the overall impact will be manageable. On the other hand, if you are working on something that entails being vulnerable and exposing a “true part of yourself,” just like an artist does with a poem or song, failing will feel like a part of you has been rejected. This hurts so much more.
What can we do to counter this? I like to believe that failure does not exist, and it’s our perception of it that does the damage. If something doesn’t work out as planned, what if you approached it not as a failure but as a lesson learned? Next time something you love dearly “fails,” ask yourself: What can I learn from this? What am I grateful for? Once you have realized that in fact this experience has made you wiser and stronger, the negative connotation is no longer there. When curiosity and gratitude are the dominant emotions, there is no room for fear.
Finally, ask yourself this: is it not better to be authentic and “fail” than “succeed” in something you don’t really believe in?