Fear often comes with a negative physical reaction: a clenching feeling in your stomach, elevated heart rate, or sweating. Fear evokes a fight or flight response: getting defensive easily or avoiding confrontation. These reactions evolved to help us deal with life threatening situations, but in daily situations, the constant presence of fear can be exhausting and stressful. But there can be benefits of fear, too.
So how can fear be useful in our daily lives?
First, fear can be a sign that something is wrong. Maybe you need to get out of a bad relationship, a bad job, or a bad living situation. Maybe you just need to revisit your interpretation of a situation. On the other hand, fear can just be resistance to an uncomfortable situation that will ultimately lead to something better. Maybe you’re afraid to ask your boss for a promotion, but you go for it and succeed.
The key to knowing what your fear is telling you is to understand where it came from.
One fear I have is triggered whenever someone tells me that “we need to talk.” Whether my boyfriend, my boss, or a friend says this phrase, I immediately want to run and hide to avoid having the conversation. To dig deeper into this fear, I do an exercise called the Five Whys, a technique popularized by Toyota to discover the underlying cause of a fear or problem. Here’s how it works:
First Why: Why am I afraid of the phrase “we need to talk”?
First Answer: That phrase sounds like the speaker is mad at me.
Second Why: Why am I afraid of someone being mad at me?
Second Answer: Because they will yell at me. *Notice that this is an assumption and not necessarily true!
Third Why: Why am I afraid they will yell at me?
You get the picture.
The Worst Case Scenario
Another technique I use is picturing the worst case scenario. What is the worst possible scenario of someone telling me we need to talk? My worst case scenario is someone I care about saying this, getting mad at me, and leaving me. And then that happens with everyone I know. I realized that my underlying fear is not of those particular words, but afraid of the people I love leaving me and being alone forever. When I write that out, I can see how unlikely that is! Now when someone says “we need to talk,” I recognize that it triggers this fear, and I am able to analyze the situation more rationally instead of jumping to worst case conclusions.
Once you realize where your fear is coming from, you can really begin to address it. For example, if your fear of asking your boss for a promotion is actually a sign that you don’t think you deserve a promotion, you can dig deeper into your insecurities. Make a list of all the reasons you would be a great fit for the new position, and all the successes you have had in your current job. Sometimes, just writing down the underlying issue in a journal is all you need for reassurance.