Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This always struck me as a catchy and memorable phrase. But I do not think that I have really grasped its meaning until recently. I now take the phrase to mean the “fear of fear” is what stops me in life and blocks my success.
Fear itself is a physical sensation that indicates I am pushing my envelope. Every fear (itself) is valid and exists for a reason. There seems to be two types, instinctual fear and learned fear. Instinctual fear is passed down through evolution and hard-wired into genetics. It is what tells a deer to freeze when it suspects danger and to bolt when danger is approaching. Learned fear comes from some traumatic event that a person has learned to avoid so as not to repeat it. Both types of fear are defense mechanisms designed to avoid danger. This is a good thing, but when I accumulate too many fears or fixate on one particularly deeply rooted fear in a key area my envelope becomes shrunken and the avoidance of blocks my growth.
As such, facing fear is how I push the envelope and grow. If I run from fear I will remain stuck in life and will never grow.
When I was a kid I was horrible at sports that required hand-eye coordination. I felt humiliated when I struck out or did not catch a ball thrown to me. Over time I avoided playing these types of sports as a way to avoid humiliation but as a result I never gained mastery. Running from this fear effectively meant that I would never grow in this area.
I suspect the “fear of fear” comes from shame. There was a time in my life when I simply experienced emotions and did not process them to the extent I do as an adult. Over time I learned to fear certain things and they accumulated in my mind forming what I call my shame ego. It is the shame ego that produces meta thoughts and meta feelings. These are thoughts evaluating other thoughts or feelings about other feelings. A ball is thrown to me (for example) and I put my hands up but the ball sails past me and lands on the ground. I then experience the thought that I am not as proficient at catching the ball as other kids. I then feel humiliation. I then think I am weak and a spaz, etc. The next time a ball is thrown in my direction I experience the fear that I will fail again and repeat the experience of humiliation. I then begin to avoid experiences that elicit that type of fear.
Fear of fear is a meta feeling. For the purposes of this article there is no need to go into where these meta thoughts and meta feelings come from. It is helpful enough to begin to be aware of them and notice them when they occur. When this happens I can begin to separate myslef from them. Then I can choose not to let my actions be governed by them.
If I fear fear then it becomes a wall. If I respect fear and know that it is there for a legitimate reason and therefore nothing to be ashamed of I can then become curious and playful about the fear. Then fear becomes an opportunity to push my envelope and grow.