Thoughts on Fear

Perry Marshall's July newsletter was a brilliant meditation on fear, and how it can paralyze us and keep us small.

I've had some experience with this.

I once spent 5 hours hugging a tree outside girl's bunk B21 at camp because I was so terrified to ask Cindy to the square dance (and her friends had already told me that she wanted to go with me).

I always played in the orchestra in school musicals, despite my burning desire to appear on stage, because of the fear that I might not get the lead role.

And that's just the stuff so old that I don't mind sharing it here.

But you see how that kind of fear can infect every aspect of a person's life. Keep their career small. Keep their social life timid. Keep the potentiality of their life force caged and cramped.

How Not to Conquer Fear

Most of the self-help advice I come across in the entrepreneurial space urges us to become bold and powerful. To claim our power. To throw off the shackles of fear.

To focus on the positive. To set motivating goals. To visualize success. To model successful people. To repeat affirmations. To "fake it 'til you make it."

The trouble with these approaches, at least for me, is that they don't get at the root of the fear.

Instead, they're like constantly pruning the limbs and branches, while the underground roots grow and grow and grow.

"Don't hang out with negative people" is a common bit of advice:

"You're an entrepreneur, a mover and shaker, a treasure-seeker. The little people in your life are always going to try to drag you down. Don't listen to them. Be bold. Surround yourself with fellow treasure-seekers."

Like all half-truths, it's, well, half-true.

True because your environment is the most powerful force shaping your thoughts and behaviors. If you live in a beehive, you'll end up buzzing and waggling your butt.

But false because it misses the point that you carry a whole steering committee of fear and negativity around with you wherever you go.

That steering committee isn't going to shut up just because you plug your ears and go "La la la" every time it seconds a motion.

It isn't going to retire just because you start injecting daily doses of Tony Robbins into your headstream.

It's going to go even deeper underground. Where it will sabotage your every attempt at greatness and joy with even greater effectiveness. Because the voice you don't notice is the one with the greatest influence.

Going to the Source of the Fear

>The first thing to realize is that the fear is not your enemy. It's not something to hate, resent, or distance yourself from.

Instead, it was a rational response to some situation that you weren't able to handle at the time. 

As Gavin de Becker points out in his book The Gift of Fear, there is real survival value in fear.

He's referring to physical survival, but when we're young, we can't tell the difference between real death and ego death.

Getting yelled at, or blamed, or manipulated, or physically or sexually abused, or neglected, or dismissed, or misheard – these all, to a greater or lesser extent, feel like complete negations of ourselves. 

Our young selves cry out for help, and what emerges is a set of strategies that will keep us from feeling hurt like that again.

Things like:

  1. Be hard and don't care about others so they can't hurt you
  2. Cut yourself down first so others don't have the opportunity
  3. Stay small and nobody will notice you
  4. Stay in control of everything at all times so nothing bad can happen
  5. Act like a victim so people feel sorry for you and don't hurt you

And the thing is, these coping mechanisms were the absolute best we could do at the time. Modern shamans refer to these mechanisms as "soul loss," thinking of them literally as a splitting off of a piece of our soul, out of conscious awareness, to a place where it could no longer be hurt by the outside world. 

Safe from the world, and no longer accessible to ourselves. 

Replaced by voices inside our heads that instruct us to keep engaging in a child's strategy for safety.

Those voices that no longer serve our higher purposes, but keep plugging away based on an old self-preservation program that was written by our infant- or toddler-self.

Ignoring the Fear Voices

The last thing we want to do is pay conscious attention to the fear voices. The voices themselves are cunning, and do everything they can to keep us oblivious to them. They know they are more effective that way.

So instead of facing the fear programming inside, we typically lash outward at the world.

We see danger everywhere we look. (The entire TV news industry is simply an externalized form of that impulse on a large scale.)

We blame circumstances, or other people, or the economy, or our upbringing, for what's wrong. Collectively we look for scapegoats – immigrants, politicians, religious and ethnic groups. 

And of course none of this works. We can feel better for a minute when we make ourselves the victim, or superior to someone else, but we soon need another strong hit to drown out the voices telling us that we're nothing, that what's wrong with us is unfixable and terminal and proof of our total unworthiness.

Embracing the Fear Voices

Paradoxically, the fear voices that have been our ruin for so long are also the source of our salvation. 

The voices actually create the same internal experience as the events they are trying to protect us from. When we learn to stay with, then tolerate, then accept the feelings, we've just inoculated ourselves against the very thing we thought we feared.

As my coach Christian Mickelsen points out, the only thing we really fear is how an event is going to make us feel. And with the fear voices, we already feel that way, all the time!

But staying with them, not trying to push them away with positive thinking or can-do affirmations, and just letting them wash over us – is the first step in healing. 

The feelings that we've been fearing for so long don't kill us, it turns out.

Instead, they give us a chance to reassess. To turn off the old security system that is terrorizing us from the inside, and install something that makes more sense for who we are today.

The Cave You Are Afraid to Enter

Joseph Campbell taught, "Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center." 

We tend to think of the bad stuff that's happened to us as "unfair" or "unfortunate." But it's really a template for the arc of our life – this is the ultimate underlying mission, to heal this wound, to correct this misperception, to come into relationship with Truth.

And when we do this for ourselves, we do it for the whole world. There's a great liberation in facing our fears and living life at the edge.

As Janis Joplin sang, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

When we lose the need to protect ourselves from failure, from criticism, from unfairness, from helplessness; when we can live without the need to be right, or in control; when we can be ourselves, open and undefended – then we're free.

The Ultimate Entrepreneurial Freedom

That's the freedom that we're really after, as entrepreneurs and human beings. 

The other kinds of freedom that we talk about all the time – freedom from a job, freedom to travel, freedom to set our own hours – are just proxies, just metaphors for that all-encompassing human freedom to be ourselves.

Without the constant courtroom drama of prosecutor and witness and defense attorney and judge and jury.

The real gift of our wounds is this opportunity to transcend them, the opportunity that lies before us in every moment. 

Wherever we encounter the pain and the fear, there is the cave that beckons us, again and again, to lie down and not be afraid.

Your thoughts welcome – please share your comments below.

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  1. #1 • Peter Bregman said on August 19 2010:

    Love this Howie! It's real and raw and so true. I think it also helps to look back after we've been slapped hard by failure and appreciate the fact that we survived it. And though it's painful, we can survive it again. Perhaps that helps us learn from it. Thanks for writing about this Howie.

  2. #2 • Brian Bagnall said on August 30 2010:

    Awesome post Howie!
    "When we lose the need to protect ourselves from failure, from criticism, from unfairness, from helplessness; when we can live without the need to be right, or in control; when we can be ourselves, open and undefended – then we're free."
    That quote is priceless and I've added it to my list of all-time favorite quotes (and it's a short list).  When I got to that paragraph, I literally pondered on it for a good 20 minutes… and realized that what you said in that one paragraph is one of the "secrets of life" if you will.  One of the secrets that allows us to reach our full potential.
    Great job!