I’ve recently been in the middle of a major career decision. Of course, I had all the pros, cons, risks, and benefits laid out in front of me. But as with many of these decisions, there was a part of me that sat just beyond the reach of my conscious, logical mind, and it seemed to know something hard to grasp, hard to weigh and measure. It’s part of that “gut” that people say to trust, pushing me toward or away from alternatives…but should I really trust it after all? I realized that it was fear, and it wasn’t trust that was important, it was understanding.
Fear is a signal. It’s a system developed to help us avoid danger. It’s great for warning us away from peril; if we’re walking alone in a strange place after dark, it makes sense to be a little scared, ready to get the heck out of there should something jump out at us. On the other hand, we might have the same fear response when we are heading to a party where we don’t know anyone, before we give a toast in front of strangers, or when considering a new job. In none of these situations are we likely to have to run away, yet our bodies are ready to help us flee for our lives.
Our physical systems are amazing in how they respond to the environment, but the reaction can be pretty blunt, often overdoing things in extreme or dangerous ways. We heat ourselves with fever to fight an infection, but may have to take medicine to decrease the temperature. Our skin repairs itself in response to damage, but can cause an unnecessarily large scar or keloid. We mount allergic responses to certain antigens, sometimes so much that the response itself might kill us – a overreaction if there ever was one. This makes it hard to tell the difference between useful responses and overreactions, and for us to know what to do next. If we eat something and then start vomiting, should we take an anti-emetic, or let our bodies purge the offending substance?
Fear may also be an overreaction, responding to something not necessarily dangerous, but only unfamiliar, making us uncomfortable as a result. Discomfort isn’t always a bad thing, it sometimes shows that we are extending beyond what we’re accustomed to, and maybe that’s exactly what we need. This is what the memes mean when they say to “do something that scares you, every day.” They aren’t suggesting that today we play in traffic and tomorrow fight a bear, but that we try to push our boundaries to the point where our fear signals are activated. Fear is not developed enough to distinguish “fear of destruction,” when we are in real danger of harm, and “fear of construction,” which heralds an opportunity for growth.
Calibrating these signals can help us to use them wisely, but unfortunately no one can tell us how to understand our own reactions. It’s a personal journey, in which we have to learn about ourselves and our typical responses. The first step is to recognize fear when we see it, especially in its milder forms, masquerading as dislike or reluctance. Once recognized, fear has to be interpreted. Personally, I find that I’m very good at rationalizing myself away from doing or even considering things that make me uncomfortable and I need to pause and really consider if my choices make sense, or if they are justifications based on fear.
A few questions can help with this: “What is the worst thing that could happen?” and “How likely is that worst outcome?” often lead me to realize that there’s no real danger, I’m just stretching myself. Another question I like is from psychologist James Hollis, who suggests we ask ourselves “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”
If you are playing Russian roulette, your fear is quite appropriate and the potential for destruction – the ultimate diminishment – is pretty darn real. Please stop doing that. But situations that may fail and also have a huge potential for growth – going to that party, giving that toast, taking on a challenging project, or starting a new job – these are much more likely to enlarge you, adding something positive to your life. The worst that can happen from these is not that bad and you have a chance of coming out of them with a new friend, a welcome change in your life’s direction, or maybe just a good memory.
That’s fear of construction. It’s not warning you away, it’s telling you you’re on the right track.
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