Part One: Understanding Fear
It’s the final day of a memorable week in paradise, and today you’ve promised a friend you’d take the “cliff dive.” There you stand: at the edge of a cliff overlooking a lagoon shimmering 50 feet below you. You’re going to dive.
A small voice in your head reasons with you: “Are you skilled enough to jump from this height? What about those tall, exotic beverages you consumed last night – could they be clouding your judgment? Could you begin with a 10 foot jump into the pool, and maybe work your way up to 50 feet?”
Let’s call this voice of reason “fear.”
We know that fear is a hard-wired survival mechanism, installed as original equipment back when the world had a lot more hungry saber-toothed beasts lurking around every boulder.
Today, this instinct can crop up at the most inopportune times: Like when we’re about ready to launch the next phase of an important project, for example.
Where exactly, are those scary beasts fear is predicting?
In many cases, fear is a friend and protector. It can offer us common sense in times of danger. Fear can be a natural warning encouraging us to stay within our comfort zone – or within our current level of knowledge and skill.
Is this always good for us? Some say that we are, in essence, the sum total of the choices we make in life. And the choices we make are often influenced by our fears.
Sometimes, what we fear could determine who we become.
Fear can become a magnifying force in our lives – or cause the world to close in around us.
Take a quick mental survey: has fear ever stopped you from being the person you wanted to be or living your life the way you wanted to live it?
Horace Fletcher wrote, “Fear is an acid which is pumped into one’s atmosphere. It causes mental, moral and spiritual asphyxiation, and sometimes death: death to energy and all growth.”
And if that wasn’t scary enough, Lloyd Douglas added, “If a man harbors any sort of fear, it percolates through all his thinking and damages his personality.”
Whoa, these guys sound serious.
And then I think about those times I’ve procrastinated, put something off because I feared an uncertain outcome. Maybe old Horace and Lloyd were on to something; there are few things more enervating to my energy levels, my growth, and heck, even my personality than when I dabble in that kind of procrastination.
So, how do we deal with this kind of growth -stopping fear? I’ve got one more vintage quote for you, this one from Marie Curie: “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.“
The Tip of the Iceberg: The Three Levels of Fear
In her great little book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, psychologist Susan Jeffers breaks fear down into three levels.
Level one fears are generalized, external situations; a fear of those things that just “happen” to us like aging, natural disasters, loss of financial security, accidents, illness, dying, etc. Level one fears are also those requiring action on our part, like making decisions, asserting oneself, making new friends, or public speaking.
We deal most often with fear at this basic, surface level. If we’re not aware of the levels of fear, much of our time and most of our lives could be spent fighting or attempting to escape these generalized fears at level one.
Dr. Jeffers identifies the second layer of fear as those issues that involve our inner state of mind rather than external situations. Fears of rejection, success, failure, or of being vulnerable. She explains; “Level two fears reflect your sense of self and explains why generalized fear takes place. If you are afraid of being rejected, this will affect almost every area of your life . . . rejection is rejection, wherever it is found.”
Attempting to deal with our fears at level one or even level two can be frustrating. Often we deal with these fears much like we do our health, only addressing the symptoms of a much deeper cause.
Imagine the levels of fear as an iceberg in the middle of the ocean. We may be focusing a lot of our energies on the generalized fears at the tip of the iceberg – those fears we can easily see jutting all too clearly above the surface of our lives, while below the water lays the true cause.
Dr. Jeffers suggests that powerful, active living may require focusing on the biggest fear of all, level three. This fear lies below the surface, and we rarely tap into it
This fear lies deep beneath all other fears in our lives, the fear that I can’t handle it. As Dr. Jeffers writes, “At the bottom of every one of your fears is simply the fear that you can’t handle whatever life may bring you.”
Thus, level one fears translate to: I can’t handle aging. I can’t handle illness. And level two fears become: I can t handle being rejected. I can’t handle the responsibility of success. I can’t handle failure. Dr. Jeffers asks, “If you knew you could handle anything that came your way, what would you possibly have to fear? The answer is nothing. All you have to do to diminish your fear is to develop more trust in your ability to handle whatever comes your way.”
This sounds logical, doesn’t it?
So how do we go about developing more trust in our ability to “handle things” rather than fear and avoid them?
Maybe the next question is this: where did we get the idea we couldn’t handle things in the first place?
Up next: Part Two, Perception is Projection