Why 'Be Fearless' Is Awful Advice

Fear is an inevitable and healthy aspect of life.


Consider this quote from a Judy Blume novel: "Each of us must confront our own fears, must come face to face with them. How we handle our fears will determine where we go with the rest of our lives. To experience adventure or to be limited by the fear of it."

There is a woman with no fear. To protect her identity as they discuss her case, scientists refer to her as SM. She is famous in psychological circles because she has lost the ability to feel fear due to a genetic disease that destroyed part of her brain.

No fear — how great would that be? Actually, not so great. SM was held at knifepoint in a park one night and returned to the same place the next. She volunteers to pick up venomous snakes and spiders, happily stands in other peoples' personal bubbles and makes sexual advances to complete strangers.

Without the guidance of fear, SM will enter, fail to leave or eagerly revisit situations where she is in harm's way. While the absence of fear may open her up to new opportunities, it does so indiscriminately.

Growing up, I was scared a lot.

I was worried that my parents were going to get in a car accident, get divorced, hurt one another or just leave. I was afraid of all the screaming and threatening. I can still feel the sensations of fear in the middle of my chest as I write this.

I was afraid of the dark. I was afraid to be alone. I was afraid of what others thought of me. I was afraid of rejection, and I was afraid of intimacy. On top of all of this, I was afraid to express my fears to anyone.

So, I armored up. I could be hard, cold, judgmental, explosive, rageful, arrogant and deceitful. I behaved as if I didn't care about things that I actually cared a lot about. All of these were attempts to hide my fear from the world.

My shame of these behaviors only reinforced the fear that there was something wrong with me. As you might imagine, I found the idea of being fearless quite appealing. However, ...

There are good reasons to have fear.

• Fear is healthy. It is impossible for a person with a fully functioning nervous system to be fearless. This is a good thing because you need fear to survive. Without it, you would be playing in traffic and challenging people to duels in the public square over a spilled cup of coffee.

• Fear focuses your attention. When we hear a loud noise, we turn our heads quickly to see what is going on. Fear focuses our attention so that we can assess danger. Based on this assessment, we can then make a choice about how to proceed.

• Fear may indicate real danger. For example, looking down a dark alley late at night, we may feel a bit wary and choose to take a better-lit route. This may be a wise choice. If we were fearless, there would be no signal to assess the situation.

Rather than trying to be without fear, we can learn to use it skillfully.

While the advice "be fearless" is not helpful, the advice "work skillfully with fear" just isn't very sexy. However, I believe putting this powerful feeling in proper perspective is one of the best things we can do for our health, relationships and quality of life.

When we ignore fear, we may put ourselves in a dangerous spot. On the other hand, when we reflexively avoid situations without any kind of thoughtful assessment, we may miss out on life-changing opportunities. By looking at fear with awareness, acceptance and compassion, we can find some freedom and confidence in its presence.

A common instinct when we are feeling afraid is to focus externally on what we believe is causing the fear. This makes a lot of sense when there is actual danger around us. But this is not a useful strategy when the concern is intangible, outside your control or part of some imagined future.

The most effective way to work with this kind of fear is to begin by bringing attention to the actual sensations in your body. The process of internally paying attention uses a different area of the brain than the area that is creating fear.

Next, you can open your body, feel your feet on the ground and allow your breathing and heart rate to slow down naturally.

Finally, you can ask yourself if there is any action that will minimize the threat. If so, you can take that action or schedule a time to address it. If not, then you can move your attention to a present-moment task that you can control.

When it comes to fear, feeling it consciously is always better than not being aware of it.

When you are aware of fear, you can look at it, step into it, sit with it and let it pass. When you are aware that you are feeling fear, you retain the choice of how to respond.

However, fear becomes a problem when we react habitually before we have taken the time to feel it consciously. We often rationalize our actions — "the time isn't right" — rather than feeling the uncomfortable sensations of fear and responding consciously.

So, here's the real question:

If you were willing to feel fear when it shows up, what would you do that you are not doing now?

Fear is an inevitable and healthy aspect of life. Rather than striving for the unreasonable goal of being fearless, you can live a full, rich life that contains it.

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