In my profession, I spend a lot of time talking with people about overcoming performance problems. Most of the time, the reason for the performance challenge is not lack of skill or job knowledge. I find the most prevalent cause is fear, although the person I am talking with usually doesn’t realize it. For example, avoidant behavior is a form of fear; as is aggression, rage, dominance and certain other sources of anger. Manipulation and passive aggression are derived from fear. Anxiety, bigotry and jealousy (envy) in all its forms are fear. Shame, guilt, embarrassment and humiliation are also forms of fear. Let me explain.
While we have many labels for fear, Dr. Karl Albrecht’s research suggests there are only five basic fears, from which all our other fears emanate. These are:
1. Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just calling it "fear of death." The idea of no longer “being” arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.
2. Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body's boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. For example, anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.
3. Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In a physical form, it is sometimes known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships, such as the fear of commitment or buyer’s remorse.
4. Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. Rejection is an example. The "silent treatment," when imposed by a group, can have a devastating psychological effect on a targeted person.
5. Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one's constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness. Fear of public speaking, fear of failure or fear of “looking bad” are prime examples. Just watch how much effort people put into their public image on social media platforms to see this in action.
Feeling fear is not necessarily a bad thing. Fear has proven to be an excellent companion for human survival, and is perhaps why the emotion of fear persists so abundantly in the human gene pool. Dr. Albrecht states that "Fear, like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding of our psychobiological status."
However, whether we are aware of this or not, fear can cause great amounts of pain, suffering and dysfunction in our lives. Fear may prevent us from growing, letting go of tragedy or destructive behavior, or prevent us from creating happier and more fulfilling lives for ourselves. I have a client who, after twenty-five years building a successful career in banking, decided he didn’t want to do it any longer. In fact, he hated it. Every day was a depressing drudgery. He knew what he wanted to do but fear prevented him from acting. He said, "but what if this happens?" or "I'm scared that I will do all that work and then this and this will happen." We can all experience extreme anxiety over what ‘might’ happen. Loss of financial security, loss of status, fear of what others might think, are common blockers to success and happiness. This avoidant behavior is basically the fearing of fear itself.
Have you ever declined an invitation to a party because you were afraid you wouldn’t know anyone there? Would you avoid or delay asking your boss for a raise or telling her that she is wrong about something? These instant reflexes are our reactions to the memories of fear.
We may not experience the full effect of the fear, but this reflex reaction has the same effect of causing us to evade and avoid, and in that way the fear controls us.
So, how can we keep fear from controlling our lives? Here are some simple ideas:
1. Stay in the moment. No matter how experienced I get, my ability to predict the future has not improved. Yet I worry about the future as if I know what it will be. If I stay in the moment, and when I feel anxious, look around to assess whether or not I am having a problem in this very moment - right now, I usually find I am not. Therefore, I must continue to redirect my mind back to the moment. This takes a lot of practice given my learned habit of feeling anxious about the future. So far, all of the worst-case scenarios I ever worried about have not come true.
2. Let others in. A great man once told me “if you want to help someone, tell them the truth.” You can also help yourself by telling others the truth about what is going on with you, or even asking for help. Find someone you trust and who has your best interest at heart, and then honestly share your fears with that person. Simply getting the fear out in the open and out of your own mind helps it to become more right-sized and manageable. Then be willing to accept honest input from those same people. Get over your fear of ego-death by having the courage to let your guard down with the right people. You will find that a problem shared is a burden halved. You will also gain much deeper and abiding friendships and relationships with others.
3. Schedule your worry time. I know, this sounds crazy but it works. Let’s say I have a project due at work and I am walking around feeling a general anxiety about the looming due date. I am spending adequate time working on the project, but when I am not working on it, I am worrying about it. This prevents me from feeling any peace of mind or being able to focus on other things such as my wife, kids, exercising, etc. If I schedule my worry time, then I know I’ve accounted for it on the schedule and whenever I start to worry, I remind myself that now is not the time I am supposed to worry about that, so I will wait until the scheduled time. This really works, but only if you actually schedule the time. I suggest starting with a solid 15 minutes of worry time – 30 minutes if you are really worried.
Understanding the nature of fear is a great advantage in reducing its control over our lives. However, like anything, it takes daily practice. Keep practicing and then teach others. Make it safe for others to confide in you honestly. A life with little to no fear is possible, but requires work. May you have the honesty and courage to confess (and schedule) your fear.