How Fear Holds You Back and How to Overcome It
The biggest opponent to loving deeper, leading better, and leaving a legacy is not the lack of knowledge, experience, or will-power. Your biggest opponent is fear.
Fear is the number one robber of all things good in life. The reason you don’t have the life you want, the character you want, the memories you want, the job you want, or the friends you want is fear.
Fear tells you to hold back, play it safe, don’t let people get too close, don’t be too vulnerable, don’t go out on a limb, don’t dream big, don’t believe in anything bigger than yourself, and don’t have hope for a better tomorrow.
Fear also tells you to compare yourself to others and criticize them. After all, you must be accepted by as many people as possible, fear will say, so build yourself up so that you look good even if it means tearing others down.
And fear is usually subtle. No one thinks this stuff out loud, after all. It’s typically deep-seeded from years past and experiences compounded over time.
Think for a moment. Everything in your life right now that you’re unsatisfied with – whether it’s an anger problem, stress, worry, feelings of insignificance, or anything in-between – likely started because you tried to control a situation that felt uncontrollable. For example, we lose our tempers when things around us get beyond our control, and trying to control a situation is simply a way to avoid the fear of chaos. Therefore anger is rooted in fear.
The same is true of anxiety and depression. Anxiety is caused by unthrottled and mismanaged thoughts about situations outside of our control. When we have a painful experience, our minds sometimes try to protect us from that pain in the future by attempting to control potentially harmful situations. Of course, we can never control all potentially harmful situations, and when we realize that control is an illusion, our brains search frantically for another solution to gain control.
At that point, one of two things happens: We either give up control or our brains go haywire with stress, anxiety, and panic.
This is how mental breakdowns happen. This is why people snap under pressure. They’re walking around afraid of the future – consciously or unconsciously – and they’re doing the safe thing by trying to control their environment. But eventually, it will catch up with them.
You may not describe yourself as scared, but I assure you, if you’re avoiding something you see that isn’t working like it should in your life, it’s because you’re either afraid that it can’t be fixed or you’re afraid that you don’t have what it takes to fix it. Neither of those are true, and until you acknowledge that, you’re going to live a life that’s small and boxed in.
Fear is also the number one thing behind all evil in life as well. The Nazis only killed Jews because they were afraid of what the world might look like without a perfect race. Fear drives hate, which is why sometimes we’re surprised when people who seem like they’re otherwise well composed end up saying or doing things that are uncharacteristic of their composure. Why is that? It’s because of fear.
What is fear?
Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion that comes from a belief that something is dangerous or a potential threat.
Basically, when we experience fear, what our minds are doing is weighing probabilities. We look at any given situation, and our minds start processing, the main question being processed is this: Is this situation dangerous? It doesn’t actually matter if a situation is dangerous, only whether or not our minds perceive the possibility of danger. When we do perceive a possibility of danger, our minds trigger processes that produce the emotion we label as fear.
On a chemical level, fear is a complex process that involves multiple parts of the brain and releases multiple chemicals, one of which is adrenaline. On a very basic level, when we take in information throughout our day, our brains consider previously known information and apply that to our current circumstance to determine if a situation is normal or not.
For example, if you suddenly hear a knock on your front door at 2 o’clock in the morning, your thoughts will immediately go to the idea that something is wrong. Why? Because your brain knows that normally, people don’t knock on front doors at 2 o’clock in the morning unless something is wrong. Your brain is taking information from your past and from other sources of information such as TV and radio and other forms of media, and it’s applying it to the current situation.
More than likely, in that situation, your brain will determine that this is not normal and every experience you have with someone knocking on a door at 2 o’clock in the morning is usually bad. Maybe you’ve seen movies where bad news is delivered in the middle of the night, or maybe you have a past experience with a similar situation. Either way, your brain is taking what has been put in it and applying it to what is now being put in it.
This is largely an unconscious process. We can’t forcefully push fear away – not long-term at least. No matter how hard you try or how intensely you focus, the fear you avoid will ultimately find it’s way back in if the right circumstances are present.
Fear isn’t usually some external force pressing in on you that you just have to press back against hard enough to overcome. Instead, most fear is simply a judgment issue.
If you have a fear of public speaking, it’s probably because at one point in your life you spoke in public or you witnessed someone speaking in public, and there was some sort of outcome that you labeled as negative. Maybe everyone laughed at you or maybe your face turned really red and people commented on it. To you, your goal in the moment or of the goal of the person you watched in the moment was to be accepted. After all, that is largely our motivation for almost everything we do. So anything you See that results in negative progress towards that goal will automatically register in your brain as being “bad“.
So you see, most fear is an issue of information and judgment. In the mid-1900s, white people were largely afraid of black people. Were they physically afraid of them? Maybe. But there was a deeper fear at work.
The fear that drove the hatred from whites against blacks in the mid-1900s was solely based on the fear that society would change if black people were included equally. Many white people didn’t want change, so they fought it in order to control it, and anger was the mechanism by which they exercised their control. But it was all rooted in fear.
This is important because almost everything you do in your life is driven by either fear or faith. By faith, I’m not talking about religion. I’m not even really talking about spirituality. Faith is a much broader term, and it is the direct opposite of fear.
For example, in the mid-1900s, white people could have had faith in human nature and in their system of government and trusted that their lives will not be ruined by the full inclusion of black people into society. Having a mindset that’s willing to trust and open to solutions is what starts the process of overcoming fear.
How to Overcome Irrational Fear
The only way to overcome this type of irrational fear is to give your brain accurate information to make better judgment calls. That’s not to say we should avoid fear, but most of the time, fear is rooted in a lack of information.
Like pretty much everything else in life, fear and faith are balancing acts. You have to input the right information in your brain to make a decision with sound judgment. Not enough information, and you’re operating in fear, too much information and you are again operating in fear, this time it’s just the fear of making a wrong choice. But right there in the middle, there is faith – the place where you let go of being certain and walk forward despite fear.
And again, faith is not limited to religion or spirituality.
We put our faith in human nature every day. For example, if you drive down the road on a two-lane road, then you’re putting your faith in the person in the other lane who is speeding in the opposite direction of you only feet away from your vehicle. If that person veers in your direction even slightly, you’re either severely injured or dead. Yet we trust them.
Consider for a moment, though, if you had a bad previous experience with driving. Imagine if the first time you drove a vehicle, the first person that came past you in the opposite lane veered into your lane ever so slightly and rammed the front end of your car.
If that was one of the only memories you had of driving down a two-lane road, then two-lane roads would probably cause you to feel a certain amount of fear. That’s because that’s all you know, and your brain is simply acting on the knowledge you have.
Memories are very strong sources of information for our brains. We all have things that have happened to us throughout our lives that shape the way we see the present and the future. Our brains are very good at processing information, but sometimes we make false connections between a memory and a fact.
In the example above, you might be led to believe that cars are inherently dangerous or that driving down two-lane roads is dangerous. But in reality, another person may go their entire life without having a wreck, and for that person, driving down two-lane roads probably brings about zero fear at all.
So, one person is willing to put their faith in other drivers, and the other is not. They both face the same reality and the same probability of having a wreck. But it’s the way we interpret the information and experiences we have that create fear.
Fear can be very subtle. Some fears are blatantly obvious, but others lie just beneath the surface driving our actions without us ever noticing.
For example, the fear of spiders is very apparent. You see a spider, your brain thinks of every negative experience or piece of information connected to spiders, the adrenaline is released, and your body is now in fight or flight mode. But not all fear is that dramatic.
Some people live their lives surrounded by a safety net of comfortable living. They base every decision they make on the amount of money and comfort to be gained from that decision.
Many people fear not being accepted, respected, and remembered. They fear looking socially inadequate by not driving the right car or having the right clothes. Many people fear not having the right size house. They wouldn’t admit to it, and they probably don’t even know it’s going on, but at some point society, the media, or the family and friends around them convinced them that being accepted was the chief goal of their existence. So they drive on towards this goal they don’t even realize they don’t need.
So what does faith look like as an antidote to fear? In order to get past a fear of spiders, for example, you have to choose to place your faith in something that has the potential to protect you from the fearful ideas in your mind about spiders.
Maybe you’ve spent time around someone who knows a lot about spiders, and they’ve shown you the reality of the nature of spiders, which is that they are actually not out to kill you. This may be contrary to the movies and social media posts you’ve seen about spiders or all of the Halloween decorations that include creepy spiders, but that new information can give your brain something to work with in order to then place your faith in that information going forward. Or maybe you just simply put your faith in your ability to get away from spiders quickly.
Here’s the bottom line:
To combat the fear that lies just beneath the surface that drives us to make irrational and unproductive decisions, we have to offset fear with the faith and trust that we don’t have to control things in order for us to move forward.
In fact, embracing fear as a necessary obstacle to doing anything worthwhile is one of the best things you can do. And your life and legacy as a husband, father, and leader will be marked by courage not because you overcame fear but because you let go of being in control and walked right past fear to do what matters most.