In the personal growth world as well as overall popular culture, the idea of being “fearless” is often praised. We hear things like, “you have two choices in any situation: love or fear.” And we’re told that if we don’t choose love, we’ll diminish our power and not lead the abundant lives we deserve. Makes sense in theory, right?
But I’m not buying it. As a therapist, I work with clients who have gone to tremendous lengths to avoid, cover up, or anesthetize fear. (In many cases, this started as a survival mechanism to cope with trauma.) We’re a culture of professional numbers and avoiders. We become so obsessed by the idea of “happiness” that we think feeling other emotions means that we’re somehow failing. But by putting pressure on yourself to be somehow “fearless,” it’s likely that you’re actually hurting rather than helping yourself in the long run. Here’s how:
1. You’re more likely to play it safe by keeping your dreams and aspirations small.
If you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that fear is bad, how will you ever truly step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself, when that likely entails falling down or failing numerous times along the way?
In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr shares that one of her biggest lessons about fear came from Rabbi Alan Lew, who explained to her that Biblical Hebrew uses several different words for fear. The first is “pachad,” which is “projected or imagined fear.” This is the type of fear that happens when we catastrophize, obsess over the worst case scenario, or believe irrational thoughts our minds tell us, like “if you don’t nail this presentation, your career will be destroyed.” The second word for fear is “yirah,” which Rabbi Lew described as “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.”
Learning about this helped me better articulate what I already knew to be true: that fear in some contexts (pachad) needs to be reframed and challenged, and fear in other contexts (yirah) is a natural part of stretching yourself into the uncharted territory of bigger dreams. If I never experience yirah, I know I’m cheating myself out of living up to my potential.
2. You reinforce blanket judgments about “positive” and “negative” emotions.
I understand what people mean when they say “negative emotions” (typically they’re alluding to sadness, fear, anger, guilt, shame, and loneliness), but what is it that really makes them negative? I like to reframe these feelings as “challenging” or “difficult,” because even calling fear a “negative” feeling is making a lot of assumptions -- and as we just discussed in #1, it certainly isn’t always negative.
Practice taking the judgment out of the fear you’re experiencing, and instead, describe what the feeling is like. Do you feel your pulse racing, your face hot? What would happen if you allowed yourself to sit with that feeling and breathe into it, rather than insisting that it needs to go away immediately? How would you respond differently to the feeling?
3. You’ll be focused on “what you want less of” instead of “what you want more of.”
If you believe that you should be fearless, you’ll do whatever you can to anesthetize that feeling when it inevitably shows up -- even if it’s something that leaves you worse off in the long run. I often ask my clients, “What are the things you do to try to get rid of or avoid fear and other difficult emotions?” Their answers almost always include isolating, emotional eating, shopping, bingeing on Netflix or social media, excessive sleeping, drinking, and smoking. On the more severe end of the spectrum, they mention drug use, cutting, hooking up, compulsive exercise, bingeing, and purging. Almost every time, they say that these behaviors they use to try to numb the feeling actually end up making them feel worse in the end.
When you’re so focused on what we want less of in our lives (like fear), that’s where your energy and actions are centered. This leaves little time and energy for focusing on what you want more of, like connection, spirituality, adventure, play, learning, and giving back.