On Fear and Courage

Fear and Courage: what could you achieve if you knew you were not going to fail?
Fear and Courage
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I want you to stop and imagine that one thing that you’d do if only time, money and other constraints did not exist to hold you back. Visualise what it would be like if only you were able to achieve your goal. Now, money and time aside, what else is it holding you back?

Of course, sometimes there are legitimate reasons that we can’t do everything we want to – genuine commitments to family, our health, or perhaps what we want to do could be illegal or immoral! However, looking at something like starting your own business, learning a new skill or taking some time out to travel, and I’m willing to bet that one of the remaining answers is that you’re afraid.

There are several types of fear that can hold us back from achieving our goals. One is the fear that we’re not good enough – remember Dweck’s idea of the fixed and growth mindsets? The fixed mindset will tell you that if you have to try hard to achieve your goal, then you can’t have been very good/intelligent in the first place and that maybe it’s not worth trying because other people seem to be able to do the same thing with very little effort. Remember that all you see of other people is what they choose to show you and that adopting a growth mindset means being aware that things do take time, effort, and hard work.

Just because you might not be “good enough” to do something now doesn’t mean you can’t become good enough later

Another thing that can hold us back is the fear of failure. Imagine it; you’ve tried hard, worked towards your goal, only you’ve fallen down at the first hurdle and things haven’t worked out. How do you feel? Take a moment to think about it. Typical feelings might be embarrassment, shame, foolishness – the thought that people might say “I told you so” or judge you for being silly enough as to try achieving your dreams.

Firstly, if you’re surrounded by the kind of people who would patronise and mock you for not succeeding the first time, you might need to re-evaluate who you spend your time with. Secondly, remember all those successful people who failed the first time around – for more examples, Henry Ford’s early businesses failed and left his broke five times before he founded the Ford Motor Company, and the famous dancer Fred Astaire was reportedly written off after an early audition with the notes “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little”.

We often think that we have failed if something doesn’t work out the first time

The truth is that it might take three, four or ten times before we get it right, as long as you keep your goal in mind but also try to learn and adapt from your mistakes. If things don’t seem to be working out, perhaps there are things you could improve or change. For example, if you’re trying to start a business and you can’t seem to get clients, is there somebody you could ask?

It’s also worth asking yourself again – “what’s the worst that could happen?” If you really did fail, what would you do next? Often we imagine a worst-case scenario that’s so far removed from what would really happen that we scare ourselves into never acting in the first place. If you were to try starting a business and it didn’t work out, would you really end up on the streets, or would you find another job to keep you going until you worked out your next move? Think about your skills, your social resources (e.g. friends who might let you live with them temporarily), any savings or investments you have, and try to give yourself a more realistic idea of what you’re really afraid of.

Yes, sometimes the risk you want to take might be so great that you can’t take it. I would never advocate risking your family’s home, going into debt or putting your health in jeopardy; it is up to you to decide which risks are worth taking and which are not. 

The status quo can feel warm and comfortable, even if it is making us unhappy

Sometimes, even the feeling of unhappiness itself can seem desirable, because it’s what we know – it feels safe. The painful truth is that people often stay in situations that are not good for them because of this feeling – an awful (but stable) job, a destructive relationship, a bad diet, a life spent in front of the TV.

Happiness can involve so many changes that it can seem scary, and because the unknown often scares us, we find excuses to stay in our safe situations. The key thing is to be able to recognize when fear is holding you back and evaluating whether it’s founded or not. Cheri Huber, Zen teacher and founder of Living Compassion, states simply:

Every time we choose safety, we reinforce fear.

Cheri Huber

Are you letting fear win? Of course, fear has an important role to play at times. Evolutionary psychologists believe that fear and worry evolved as a type of survival mechanism. We are far more likely to pay attention to a tiger running towards us than to a nice flower in the corner of our eyes because our lives depend on escaping the threat before we focus on the pleasant thing. Research has shown that we are far more affected by negative, unsettling images than pleasant or neutral ones (Ito et al., 1998), and this is the same for negative words or actions – which is why we might forget all the nice things our friends say to us when they’re overshadowed by that one nasty comment which we replay in our head for weeks.

This negativity bias may have been useful when we were escaping predators, but it isn’t always much good for us in the modern age – where, often, our greatest worry is more about not being liked than being devoured by a wild cat.

Of course, there are times when seeing the negative side of a situation is useful

If you run into every situation thinking that nothing could possibly go wrong, you might be in for a nasty shock. It can be important to anticipate possible downfalls and prepare sensibly for them, as long as you’re able to tell the difference between being organized and ruminating too much over what could go wrong. In other words, it’s buying travel insurance and bringing along a couple of plasters on holiday, rather than taking every vaccination known to man, refusing to eat anything, and walking around in a laboratory suit just in case you pick up a cold.

Generally, humans are not very good at accurately predicting danger. Dr Graham Davey writes in Psychology Today about people’s fear of ebola, to give an example. Despite the statistical risks of catching Ebola outside West Africa being very, very low, people tend to panic – partly because of sensationalist, overly emotional news items (see also Johnston & Davey, 1997, a study about those watching anxious news items catastrophizing their own worries).

Paul Slovic, author of Perception of Risk, further explains that we tend to be captivated by unusual events – such as earthquakes, plane crashes and terrorist attacks – and when we see the same story over and over again on the news, our brains are fooled into thinking these are everyday occurrences, far more likely to happen that they are in reality. For example, after 9/11, over a million people changed their travel plans to avoid flying and to drive instead – despite driving being statistically more dangerous than flying. But our brains don’t make decisions based on statistics; they make them based on emotion and on primal fears that would have helped our ancestors to survive, which is also why more people fear snakes and spiders than cars.

There are so many positive experiences that we might be able to have if we step away from the distrusting, fearful state of mind fed to us by the media – for example, you could meet new friends or the love of your life through Internet dating or friendship meeting groups (e.g. meetup.com). Or you could travel the world for free by staying at people’s houses through Couchsurfing.com.

The great thing about this way of meeting people is the ability to deliberately meet people with similar interests to you, or people who seem like they’d be positive influences in your life. However, if you let a handful of stories about people being attacked or murdered stop you and instead limit where you meet people to work and the local pub, you might actually catch a much more narrow (and negative) selection of humanity, meaning you could miss out on a lot of opportunities and great relationships.

Our media often paints a picture of a very dangerous world, where we cannot trust each other. This is a sad state of affairs, especially as there is a belief that the reason that the Danish are some of the happiest people on earth is down to the great levels of trust they have in each other (see Denmark’s official website). If we can learn to be more trusting of our fellow human beings, while of course exercising a sensible level of defensive pessimism, we can open ourselves up to more experience and opportunities.

If you do have a dream or ambition that you feel is a little crazy, I think it’s important to look at it, to accept it rather than being shy or embarrassed about it, and to look at practical ways of bringing it to reality.

A good mantra is Have the courage to live an extraordinary life

It does take courage to choose happiness, especially if you have people in your life who might, whether unconsciously or not, want to reinforce your unhappiness. There are friends who like to have a partner in misery and can feel threatened when you start to grow and change. There are people so insecure that they need power and control over another person. Remember, you are living your own life, not a friend’s, not your family members, and in the end, it is you who must live with the choices you have made. So it does take courage to make choices every day that will lead you towards a happier, more positive life.

Another fear that might be holding you back is a slightly more unexpected one – the fear of success. Imagine, again, that everything has worked out in the way you wanted it to and that you’ve achieved your goals. What else has happened?

We can sometimes hold ourselves back from success because success and happiness are unknown, and the unknown is scary. You might even fear that your friends won’t want to know you if you’re successful, feel that your family might judge you for taking a risk or that your relationship with a partner might be affected. Are you worried, perhaps, that people will see you as arrogant or self-centered if you pursue your goals? That, if you succeed, people might become jealous of you and no longer be able to talk to you comfortably?

Abraham Maslow coined the term “Jonah complex” to refer to the fear of greatness. He identified this fear as one of the main things holding people back from self-actualising (becoming their best), and suggested that the painful process of shifting from an unchallenging, predictable and comfortable life and plunging into the unknown terrified most people.

I can wholeheartedly say that I am living a wonderful life, however I continue to make choices each day which align closely with who I want to be and where I want to be.

Jennifer Lopez

This is because I believe that in order to be at peace with your life, you need to strive each day in your endeavors and create opportunities to feel gratitude for the good things and acknowledge lessons in the challenges. I so strongly desire to keep my full and happy life that I remain mindful every day not to slip into previous habits of negative self-talk and procrastination and ‘settling’ for people walking over me. I know that I need constant targets and rewards that lead me closer to my short term goals, which in turn leads me closer to achieving my longer-term goals. The success formula for me is to strive to create the reality of what I want daily and to seize new opportunities for growth and happiness.

For me, it’s almost like there are two people at work on this project which is life: the conscious me that has become mindful of the choices to make and the thoughts needed to maintain the life that I have created, and the unconscious me that is wired into old habits, beliefs and the avoidance of pain.

When you are working towards the life that you want, it’s important to make sure that the goals you’re setting yourself are in tune with who you are and what is important to you personally. You don’t have to figure everything out right now, and the reality is, that you can’t suddenly change everything overnight, however you can make progress on a daily basis and gradually learn which steps are in the right direction for you personally.

If you are honest with yourself, you know that you can make choices right from today that are better for your health, your relationships, your finances etc. You can begin to change a little, understand what that means for you, and at the same time start to design some short term goals while you figure out how big you want to dream. You can even ‘gift’ yourself time each day just to dream as a reward for some of the positive choices you made towards your greater wellbeing.

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Have a nice day♡

Thanks to:

  • Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential. Constable & Robinson.
  • See Carol Dweck talk about Mindsets here: http://www.theschooloflife.com/library/videos/2013/carol-dweck-on-being-perfect/
  • Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizations. Journal of personality and social psychology75(4), 887.
  • Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology88(1), 85-91.
  • Maslow, A. (1968). Toward a new psychology of being. Van Nostrand Reinhold, Princeton, NJ.
  • Slovic, P. E. (2000). The perception of risk. Earthscan Publications.
  • Pic: https://www.flickr.com/photos/theabbott/27488260042/