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Fear of Fear Itself - Is Excessive Fear Holding You Back?

Fear is one of the most primal and ubiquitous of human emotions – it can fuel caution, anger, attachment, sadness and happiness; it can drive us to action, or keep us away and inactive. But how do we know if we are fearful enough, or perhaps allowing fear to hold us back too much?

Successful performers on stage and screen often proclaim that they have a great deal of stage fright, and that fear fuels their drive to do better. Persons in highly dangerous occupations also often say that it is fear that keeps them alive; that compels them to perform as safely as possible. Fear of failure can energize conscientious workers and students to strive for perfection and study hard in order to achieve more. But what if fear also keeps a great employee from reaching for their management potential? What if fear keeps us in dead-end relationships, or repeating old patterns of not attaining the educational or career success that could really be ours?

Please note that this article does not address abusive situations, unethical or illegal actions – if you or anyone you know is in an abusive situation or contemplating unethical or illegal actions, please call your local crisis hotline, or emergency referral source for assistance.

How Much Fear Is too Much?

For illustrative purposes, let's discuss hypothetical cavemen – running from saber-toothed tigers, hiding in caves, and exploring the brave new world.

Sometimes we can be too risk-averse – and not trying almost always means not succeeding.

  • For our hypothetical cavemen – they felt “safe” when hiding in a cave, however, if they never ventured out of the cave, they never found food or water and eventually starved.

When there are goals we want to attain – leaving an unhealthy relationship, trying out living independently, going for that college degree or high school diploma, etc. - we need to decide if we can reasonably risk what might be at stake, or if we are simply giving in to fear itself. 

An Exercise to Try

  1. Make a list of what the worst case scenario might be – might not pass a test, might feel a little bit of failure, might lose the cost of a class…
  2. Ask yourself if these are acceptable risks, given the potential rewards.

If we allow our fears to hold us back from everything in life, we can never grow, can never find achievable new changes, and most likely will never achieve the things we hope to achieve.

  • Ask yourself, is the regret of not having tried worth not accepting the risk?

When the sum of our lives is stagnation and subsistence because fear is the ruler of all, then perhaps one might consider that they have too much fear.

If the cavemen wanted to live, they had to face their fear of leaving the cave, at least for long enough to find food and water.

How Little Fear Is Not Enough?

Sometimes we don't fear enough – and sometimes people pay the price.

The cavemen who decided they did not ever need to hide in a cave... they became snacks for predators and lost it all.

Reckless behaviors and impulsive decisions may be signals that a person doesn't quite have enough fear. Constantly reaching for unattainable goals, losing family, friends, and anything resembling a desirable level of stability may indicate too little fear or at least too little consideration of potential outcomes.

  1. If a person is repeatedly losing things that he or she claims are the most important things – jobs, home, family - then a lack of fear might be considered to be a contributing factor.
  2. Taking a step back and examining one's values – prioritizing needs and goals, then evaluating plans in light of those priorities - may help curb activities wherein fear does not feed inhibition.

How Much Is Just Enough?

The cavemen who hid when hiding was prudent and who ventured forth to find resources when needed carried an appropriate amount of fear.

It may not always be the emotion of “fear” but rather a weighing of hopes, risks and rewards which spurs us to action or inhibits our desires.

  1. Fear that immobilizes us and prevents us from ever reaching for our stars might be “too much.”
  2. A lack of fear, a constant risking and losing of everything we hope to hold, might indicate a need to take a step back and take stock of needs, goals, and priorities.

Finding Balance

Consulting with professional counselors, support groups, or even finding examples of others who faced a similar fear might help.

Finding balance is different for everyone, but with a little self-examination and perspective, figuring out fear – and avoiding too much or too little – can help you achieve the balance you desire.

From Victim Advocacy with survivors of abuse and violence, case management with senior citizens and their families, counseling with at-risk youth and their families, to therapy with adults fighting addiction - bereavement, depression, relationship issues, parenting issues, divorce, blended families, disability, career changes, life changes, my professional experience has encountered it all (so to speak). Fitness, health, coping with chronic illness, aging parents, raising children, job loss, job stress,.... and the list goes on!

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