Fear plays a huge role in shaping who we become. It affects the decisions we make, the actions we take, and the outcomes we achieve. Where we live, who we live with, what we do for a living, who are friends are, how big our house, our salary, or our family is, has at one point or another been influenced by fear. Fear signals threat and as a result it leads to avoidance. Avoidance, in turn translates into evading challenges and missing opportunities for learning and growth. Eventually, it could lead to social isolation, professional stagnation, spiritual lethargy, and chronic dissatisfaction with life.
But the fear I am referring to in this context is not the biological, amygdala-based, stimulus-response fear that we experience when we see a snake or a spider. Nor is it the pathological fear associated with clinical phobias that unfortunately a considerable proportion of people suffer from.
The fear I refer to is the type that becomes an obstacle to growth and achievement. And that type of fear is not a single entity. It has many faces. One of the most important achievements in the neuroscience of emotions is the discovery of emotional granularity. Emotional granularity, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett, the term originator and author of How Emotions Are Made, refers to our ability to experience and describe our emotions with high precision. An example of emotional granularity is instead of thinking or saying “I’m feeling good” to say “I’m feeling pleased with my performance.” Emotional granularity is an important aspect of emotion regulation, one of the most important and rarely taught life skills.
When we apply emotional granularity to “fear” we get to face some of the common everyday fears that keep us stuck and prevent us from making progress and reaching our goals. And being more precise about the kind of fear we experience increases our awareness and our ability to leverage it successfully.
Here are some of these common everyday fears:
1. Fear of failure. The satisfaction that comes with pursuing a goal can be easily outweighed by the fear of failing. Preoccupied with the aftermath of failing, which according to research, includes experiencing shame, disappointing others, and being bereft of a desired future, people with fear of failing may choose to play it safe. In fact, so safe, that they choose easy goals, set lower standards, avoid challenges, and focus on cutting losses instead of making gains.
2. Fear of success. Fear of failure can undermine success. But so can fear of success. With success comes enormous responsibility. Success makes you more visible and as a result more vulnerable. The expectations for continued success are higher, which means sustained and ceaseless effort is required. No time to rest, no forgiveness for failures, no room for weaknesses. And because success is a process, not a state, the pressure to maintain your title of “most successful ________ (you can fill in your own blank here)” is constant.
3. Fear of public speaking. Fear of public speaking is often listed among the most common fears (not the biggest fear, as commonly misquoted). Speaking in public is something we do daily, since speaking is our main mode of communication. But public speaking, in the traditional sense of someone on a stage delivering an oration, is rather rare. Between these two extremes, there are many more instances of having to deliver a speech or a presentation in front of an audience, whether speaking involves a class project, a professional conference, or a business meeting. And in those instances, fear of speaking in public can be debilitating. Choosing the safety of public silence instead of conquering the fear of public speaking may translate into fewer opportunities to demonstrate our abilities, lower chances of promoting our ideas, and less likelihood to be seen as a leader.
4. Fear of rejection. This is the fear of being turned down when what we want is to be included, whether that means being included in the admissions list of an academic institution that we would really like to attend, in the payroll of a company that we would really like to work for, or in the dinner plans of someone we would really want to date. Rejection, research shows, is painful. To avoid the painful consequences of rejection, we may never even make the request, for fear of hearing “no,” when we really want to hear “yes.” Instead, we may resort to justification, rationalization, and procrastination. Needless to say, making ultra safe choices can be a significant barrier to growth.
5. Fear of making the wrong decision. This fear is the root of analysis paralysis. Ruminating, collecting data, analyzing the facts, collecting more data, asking others for advice, making charts, lists, and flowcharts, and hoping for some divine intervention that will make the problem go away are some of the characteristics of this fear. Eternal vacillating can have minimal consequences when the choice is what to pick on the menu at a restaurant, but can be daunting when more important life decisions have to be made. We imagine the consequences of a “wrong” decision to be devastating and irreversible. And what doesn’t allow breaking the endless loop is when we insist on asking ourselves: am I making the “right” decision, instead of asking: am I making a “good” decision.
6. Fear of other people’s opinion. We care a good deal what other people think, as we should. Caring about other people’s opinions is what maintains the social contract within a cohesive group intact. Knowing and respecting social norms is what makes communities stronger, safer, and more stable. But, excessively worrying about what other people think of our opinions, our choices, and our personalities, is an impediment to growth and progress. Fear of what others think has the potential to keep people stuck in careers they don’t like, in relationships they don’t enjoy, and in life circumstances that don’t fulfill them.
7. Fear of responsibility. While some responsibilities are unavoidable, some are optional and come with a price. A promotion means more responsibilities toward the people you supervise as well as the people you report to. Running your own business means more responsibility to your employees and your customers as well as maintaining ongoing responsibilities to your family and household. Being involved in community activities means more time away from your own schedule and more responsibility toward those whom you serve. And more responsibility means more work, more headaches, more problems to solve, more scrutiny, and at the same time less freedom, less down time, less play. But with less responsibility, comes less recognition, less fortitude, and as a result, less advancement.
8. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Worry about giving the wrong answer, making a wrong prediction, or believing something that is not supported by evidence are some instances of this fear. While being wrong could simply be a result of not having the facts straight, not being fully present in that moment, or making an off-the mark assumption, when this fear kicks in, being wrong becomes something bigger. It becomes a metric for self-evaluation. It threatens to expose our weaknesses. It is proof that we are not as smart as we think, not astute enough to have the right answers, not empathic enough to respond to other people’s needs. Saying the wrong thing is perceived as embarrassing, humiliating, and disempowering, and could lead to crippling self-doubt. This is the kind of fear that prevents parents from having tough conversations with their children, students from engaging in class participation, employees from speaking up at a meeting, or any one of us from talking to other people at a party.
9. Fear of being exposed as an impostor.This fear, commonly referred to as the impostor syndrome, is the deep doubt of the merit of one’s accomplishments. We build an entire platform, business, or career on foundations that we think are shaky, despite our body of work. We are unsure we deserve the accolades we’ve earned and that we will soon be exposed as frauds. We take on a leadership position, for example, worrying that people will quickly realize that we have no idea how to lead. We write a book, worrying that people will realize how little we actually know about the subject matter. We give a talk, sweating that the audience will leave the room murmuring under their breath “who does she think she is?” By failing to acknowledge that our accomplishments are related to our efforts and not to our deception skills, this fear can keep us stuck, stressed, and small.
10. Fear of commitment. The world is full of options. There are many jobs to take, many cities to live in, many soul mates to choose from. Making a commitment means foreclosing on all the other prospects, which may be better, bigger, and brighter. To some people, the thought of locking themselves into one option is terrifying. They perceive it as losing their freedom, autonomy, and flexibility. In some cases, committing to a choice becomes a threat to one’s identity, as it could lead to being labeled, branded, and pigeonholed in ways that are perceived to be inescapable. Paradoxically, fear of commitment to one option means choosing another option: being perpetually stuck in a present reality haunted by floundering and indecisiveness.
11. Fear of challenge. This fear prevents us from moving to the next level for fear that we will not be able to meet the challenge. The challenge could involve a job promotion, an academic course, a business opportunity, or a new activity. Fear of challenge makes the next level appear too hard to handle. It raises doubts about our ability to persist, it makes us worry that we will no longer derive joy from our involvement, and it increases the likelihood of abandoning our efforts. Moreover, the inability to meet the requirements of the next level, threatens to eliminate the sense of accomplishment we derived from reaching mastery at our current level. Without challenge, however, there is no growth and no progress.
12. Fear of missing out. Unlike the other fears, which in most cases prevent us from taking action by playing it safe, this fear causes us to lose focus, overcommit ourselves, and deplete our resources. While fear of commitment makes it difficult to make a choice, fear of missing out makes it hard to say no to choices. The idea that something important might be lost by refraining from participating, leads us to engage ourselves without much deliberation and to execute without much efficiency.
This list of everyday fears that keep us stuck is not exhaustive as each of us could experience unique fears that affect our desires, our decisions, and our actions. If you can think of another important and granular “fear of…” share it with me so we can keep the list growing and the fears shrinking!
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