Why Fear is a Liar.
Fear. One of our most important instincts. All of us are alive today because our ancestors were really good at predicting and reacting to threat. The ability to detect threat in our environments has served us well over the millennia, enabling us to pass on our genes. This is our prime directive, to make copies of our DNA and survive long enough for our children to do the same. Human babies require a huge amount of protection and education to survive long enough to replicate and fear helps us do this successfully. The problem with fear in our modern age is it gets it wrong. Our brains now detect threat where it does not exist in reality and this makes us feel bad. Anxious, stressed, worried and hyper-vigilant. I think fear motivates a sizeable proportion of our choices and behaviour. A perceived threat to our ego or psychological safety activates the same survival mechanism . To often fear is false evidence appearing real.
I love the question “What would you do if you were not afraid?” Be really honest with yourself when reflecting on this question. Would you quit your job and pursue your passion for painting? Would you tell your partner how you truly feel about them and allow yourself to be vulnerable? Would you care less about what you thought other people were thinking about you and voice your beliefs and opinions, even if they might not be popular? Fear can stop us pursing what is meaningful and important to us, as much as it pretends to be keeping us safe from harm. Fear can become a miscued emotion triggering at the prospect of threat to our self-esteem, like a poorly calibrated car alarm. Our brains react to perceived psychological threat in the same way as to physical threat. Our fight:flight system gets jammed on, our bodies flood with stress chemicals and we then try to avoid the threat. We understandably avoid what scares us.
But what if the threat is actually something we really want but it is scary? It is perhaps scary because we aren’t certain about the outcome, we can’t guarantee success and we may therefore fail or make a mistake. It seems safer to stay with the Devil we know, the certainty of what we can predict and understand. Staying within known parameters, our survival brains think that we can minimise anxiety and fear. On the face of it, that seems like a really sensible idea. Problem is, we don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow and we don’t know what other people are thinking. We are trying to control two things we can’t know – the future and other people’s thoughts.
In the last few years, I have consciously chosen to do things that have scared me witless. I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I went cage diving with sharks, I went on ABC radio, I crawled in tunnels in Vietnam, I gave my child an adrenalin pen when she had an anaphylactic reaction, I abseiled down a massive building, I put a Huntsman spider outside, I renovated my kitchen, I re-evaluated friendships and I walked away from business contracts. Many of these things may not be scary for you at all, but they were for me. These things were easy compared to choices I see my clients make every day. Like taking on graded exposure treatment plans for anxiety that entail facing terror daily in the hope that their brains will learn that what they are most fearful of is really not that dangerous.
I have a beautiful friend who has been secretly painting. She is genuinely talented and her art is fabulous. She recently held her first joint exhibition and was terrified. So terrified that she kept dropping the prices of her pieces. At the opening of the exhibition, I was shocked to see how cheaply she had priced her hard work and talent. I questioned her about his and begged her to increase the prices to reflect her worth. I learned that she again dropped prices on some of her large pieces as they had not sold. A mutual friend has offered to display her art in his winery and my friend balked at this offer, especially at his directive that she needed to triple her pricing and price the large piece markedly higher to “anchor” the collection at the right value point. “But it makes me so nervous, Sam!” she exclaimed, “what if no one likes it or buys it?”. Ah, but what if they do, my friend? The only way to find out is to do what scares you because fear is a liar.