Taking Action in the Face of Fear, Part Two
In part one of this series, we discussed the three levels of fear and asked the question: how do we go about developing more trust in our ability to “handle things,” rather than fear and avoid them? Now, in part two, we explore the question: where did we get the idea we couldn’t handle some things in the first place?
One warm summer day when I was about eight, I was playing with friends in the hills behind our home. Large tractors were carving up hillsides for new homes, and leaving mountains of fresh soil in their wake.
My friends and I were rolling down these mountains of soft soil, screaming with abandon. While sliding down one particularly steep mound, I spotted at the bottom a family of snakes: a large mother snake and her little baby snakes. Mommy was protecting her babies from this quickly approaching, rather obnoxious attacker from above.
And I couldn’t stop.
I slid head first into this writhing family of snakes. Fortunately, I was able to jump as quickly as I rolled, so I was spared mother snake’s wrath.
Sometimes I think our brains have a million-gigabyte hard drive, with lots of room for random photos and film clips from our past. In fact, my brain’s internal camera snapped a few photos of that snake-encounter moment for memory’s sake. And why stop at photos? Why not film the whole event—in slow motion?
At that moment the movie producer in my mind filmed an impression of snakes: “Snakes will harm you.” And that perception, as general and untrue as it may be, was projected without further question or discussion into my subconscious, and into the future.
And today, when I see a snake on TV, despite what my common sense may be telling me, I instinctively return to that “movie in my mind,” feeling that I am being threatened. My first instinct is to turn my head away—afraid that image of the coiling serpent will visit me later in my dreams. Perception is projection.
Let’s look at my fear of snakes logically: Maybe I’m not really afraid of all snakes—maybe there are plenty of really pleasant, sweet-natured serpents out there. Based on our discussion from part one of this series, maybe I’m just afraid I can’t handle being in the same room with a snake. I know people who have snakes as pets. One person’s everyday occurrence can be another’s greatest fear.
Movies in our Minds
Let’s take a closer look at these “movies in our minds.”
When a photograph is taken, an image is frozen in time. However, the pictures our mind takes for us often freeze the meaning – our premature perception of whatever was happening at that time, no matter how false that perception was. Psychologists call this a premature cognitive commitment. These premature perceptions can not only create problems in our personal lives, but also imagine the problems for entire societies or cultures when many people share the same premature cognitive commitments. From these perceptions spring many of the myths and beliefs that vary dramatically from culture to culture. Perhaps the most dangerous and destructive aspect of these perceptions is that we sometimes without question accept them as “true” and “right,” not only for us, but for everyone else as well. In many cases, it may be our premature cognitive commitments, the little films in our minds that we hold onto, never thinking twice about the harmful pre-judgments we may be reinforcing – not only about others, but about ourselves as well.
So let’s say you have a fear of speaking in front of a group, and if we accept that Dr. Jeffers’ model of the three levels of fear is accurate, this fear is based solely upon the perception that we can’t handle the possible rejection or gales of laughter from the audience. Some of the docs who appear on “Oprah” would suggest we’d need to hire a professional to help us revisit our childhood and unravel every spool of mind-movies until we find the reel that caused us to fear public speaking.
Or it could be that figuring out where our perceptions originated isn’t always helpful. What may be enough is recognizing that many of our fears are premature decisions based on information that we could reconsider.
Now what? We may logically accept everything up to this point, but it doesn’t help matters in that moment when contemplating standing in front of a crowd of strangers. If many of our fears are just perceptions, why do they sometimes appear to be paralyzing real?
So, let’s attempt to rip apart the final piece of the fear puzzle: how our faulty perceptions can end up creating our worst fears—and what we can do about it.
Creating our Fears
Here’s another instructive little mind-movie from my past: I can still recall the dark little basement hovel I was living in at the time.
I remember the day I first felt like a “real writer.” I had been hired by an agency as a copywriter. My first project went without a hitch. The client and my boss loved it. Along came the second project, and the new client said, “We loved your last project, we want ours to be even better.” I had two months. I outlined my initial ideas and set it aside.
Over the next few weeks, every time I sat down to work on the new project, I found my mind was blank. “At last I’m an official writer,” I thought. “I have writer’s block!” Curiously, this case of “writer’s block” only seemed to be in effect for the project. I wrote long letters to all my friends and page after page in my journal. I wrote short stories and articles. But when I sat down to work on the project, white paper stared back at me. I felt physically incapable of working on this project. The deadline was nearing – I was down to a week, and I hadn’t started.
One day, I suddenly realized where my procrastination was coming from. I was afraid to write the project. Why? I was afraid I couldn’t handle it.
But where had that ridiculous idea come from? I had already completed a similar project successfully. How was this one different? It really wasn’t. But the client had an expectation based on my previous performance and I was afraid I couldn’t live up to that high expectation. I was afraid I would disappoint them, let them down: they would see what I wrote for them and say, “Gee, this is O.K., but it’s not nearly as good as your last one.”
As I was over-analyzing all of this in my head, at the last moment, my boss intervened, leveling all sorts of creative threats to encourage me to work through my “writer’s block.” I worked around the clock and finished the project. Amazingly, the client loved it.
Now, what would have happened if I had allowed my irrational fears to stop me from doing the project? In fact, everything I had feared would have become reality: The client would have been disappointed, I would have let them down—and guaranteed: the client would have definitely not liked my work. My fear of “not being able to handle it” would have been reinforced by my actions, creating the very circumstances I had feared. My perceptions would have been projected into a reality of my own creation.
This experience showed me the true nature of fear: We often end up creating in our lives that which we fear the most. Our perceptions become fact, they become true for us, whether they were originally based on reality or not.
Once we create a perception, if left unchecked, we begin focusing only on those actions that create the circumstances we expect.
The Fear of Least Resistance
In this way, we often end up choosing the “fear of least resistance,” the lesser of two fears. With my writing, I’d become more afraid of losing my job than I was of not doing “perfect” work, so I’d complete the project at the last minute. Even when my fears didn’t keep me from doing something, they kept me from doing it as well as I might have otherwise. So we may often replace one fear for another.
This is the all-too-common condition John Milburn wrote about:
We do things either because we enjoy them or because we are afraid not to do them. The fear of not doing something has no relation to physical or moral courage. It is inspired by the perception that we are not adequately prepared to face the future and the events it may bring. Fear is like a fire: if controlled it will help you, if uncontrolled, it will rise up and destroy you.
In his book Inner Skiing, Timothy Gallwey discusses fear’s two manifestations when he writes: “One heightens our perceptions and gives us added energy to perform beyond our normal capacities, whereas the other distorts our perceptions, tending to paralyze us and decrease our competence.”
We’ll continue our exploration into taking action in the face of fear in the final part in this series, Lightning and Thunder.