Look Where Fear Is Really Pointing
In our two-week Adulthood: Tools We Should’ve Learned Years Ago workshop that wrapped up last week, participants got in touch with some of the default roles and roles determined by their former selves. While the workshop was more about the how of human being - the mechanism of it, getting grounded in our true nature, and developing the capacity to transform unworkable situations - the question of why we have these default reactions and ways of being still comes up.
I find that there are two ever-present answers to the why question behind human being: survival and reproduction. As a living creature, we have a biological imperative to survive and reproduce.
Survival equates to minimizing risk: minimize risk and you’re more likely to survive. Reproduction equates to maximizing reward: maximize reward and you’re more likely to pass your genes to a new generation.
The only way our ancestors survived was by minimizing risk and maximizing reward. It’s hard-wired into the chemistry of our DNA.
And there are two clear emotions that guide us to minimize risk and maximize reward: fear and desire. Fear and desire can yell at us loudly, or they can be the subtlest, softest pull or push.
Fear and desire are nearly always there and they’re automatic; they came to us with some of the oldest and most primitive parts of our brains. It’s a really good thing that we feel fear and desire. They are important indicators on our dashboard, and they point us toward well-being. It’s just that we often misinterpret the signals.
In this post I’ll be focusing on fear. In Thursday’s post I’ll be focusing on desire.
Fear leads us to misinterpret sticks for snakes, and fear leads us to be guarded and untrusting with strangers. Fear exists to minimize risk and to keep us safe. Fear will sometimes yell, like when our kids get too close to a street. Fear will sometimes whimper, like when we’re terrified of a violent person or when we’re crippled by anxiety.
Besides giving us a poke to second-guess an action that may be dangerous for us, fear also intends to keep us right where we are. Usually, where we are is safe enough. We know this territory, we know these people, we know what this is like. And that’s good enough for survival. This homeostasis, this balance we’ve found in this moment, this is good enough. Stay right where you are. It might not be great, but it's good enough.
So our inertia, whether it’s occasional or frequent, is fear trying to maintain the status quo because this status quo is sufficient to keep us alive.
But what about when we know that there’s so much more out there? How can we step through the inertia of fear and turn immobility into effective action?
To begin, we can get that fear isn’t actually holding us back. Fear is an emotion, an indicator on our dashboard, that simply points to something. One helpful step with fear is to see what it’s really pointing to.
A participant in the workshop last week shared in our one-on-one conversation that she was feeling stopped in her pursuit of a fulfilling career. She knew what she wanted to do, but she was afraid of hurting the feelings of those around her in her personal life who tend to take things personally and feel bad about themselves. By exploring that fear with just a single question - what’s the problem with them feeling bad about themselves? - she saw that her fear is really driven by a love and compassion for her people.
So her fear wasn’t telling her to stop at all; it was just reminding her to bring compassion, love, and support to the people around her. She saw what her fear was really pointing to, and she saw that she could handle it.
This example applies to many more of us than we might think. Do you ever feel stifled or limited in your self-expression? What if the fear that is limiting our self-expression isn’t intended to limit our expression at all? What if this fear is intended to actually just point our awareness to something else, to remind us to bring something else along with our self-expression?
When we are limited in our self-expression, it may be because we’re afraid of looking bad. It may be that we’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. It may be that we’re afraid to express something that we later reflect was not accurate for us. No matter what, this fear of self-expression isn't trying to keep us quiet, it's simply pointing us toward something else that we value.
Fear of looking bad is a fear of not being accepted or respected: bring that respect yourself. Fear of hurting someone’s feelings: bring compassion and care to your communication and to the people around you. Fear of changing your mind: you are a living being, so bring some compassion and appreciation to your (and others') creative self.
This is an exercise in reframing, but it’s not just an exercise in reframing. Stepping towards what brings up fear, when it's something we really want to do, is also an exercise in trusting ourselves. Fear is an indicator that reminds us to be careful and honor what we value. Trust yourself that you won’t actually do something to destroy your life, and trust yourself that you can live a fulfilling life and be a support for others to do the same. Trust others that they will have compassion and respect for you no matter what. Trust the world and the universe that life is meant to thrive, not simply survive.
Thank you for reading. On Thursday I'll be writing about our other primary driver: desire.
Have a great week! ❤️