“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” FDR brought for that memorable phrase, speaking after his first inauguration Saturday, March 4, 1933. He was on to something.
No one who has ever lived has escaped fear. It has been said that there are basically two human emotions—love and fear. Other emotions are variations on these two. It’s reasonable, then, that a person’s perception of anything is rooted in either fear or love. Since many problems are influenced by perceptions, those based in fear get more attention. It’s very unlikely that you, or someone you know, wants to live with fear. That’s why fear gets so much attention—nobody wants it. It’s the ultimate marketing tool.
Infants are terrified of two things, falling and loud noises. That’s a healthy way to begin life. From the get-go you know that you can’t fly and that falling could have a bad ending. A loud noise is caused by something, and the louder the noise, the bigger and more dangerous the something. We never completely lose those fundamental fears.
The emotion we recognize as fear is an instinctive safety system. If we were not capable of fear, we would be extinct. Whenever you perceive a threat, a danger to your well-being, fear mobilizes your system to fight the danger or get out of its way. This is healthy. It protects us. Fear is a powerful emotion. It is also very, very, uncomfortable. It alerts us that we’re physically or mentally in a dangerous place to our well being.
That’s why fear motivates us so well. People do what they must do to escape from the danger or eliminate it. When the threat is gone, or perspective shifts, fear leaves. In this sense, fear could be considered a courteous emotion—when it has done its job, it goes away. Or, at least it diminishes in intensity.
Suppose you want to drive your new convertible 120 miles per hour on the Interstate. However, you set the cruise control a hair over the posted speed limit. Why? The fear of being stopped and ticketed by the police is greater than the desire to feel the rush of 120 mile-per-hour wind. This is a social fear—law.
As a society we govern ourselves by means of law. There are undesired consequences for violating the law, therefore most people choose not to do so. In this sense, controlled fear provides a defined system for the common good. Law and custom are the ways society governs itself. Fear, then, can be a very helpful emotion.
Fear is often used to manage relationships from families to the workplace. Dawn knows this. She’s worked in a number of jobs that were fear-managed. The motivational theory was that people would only do the right thing through fear. Dawn screws up and she is fired. Dawn does her job correctly and she isn’t punished. It’s not the best management style to be sure, and a big reason Dawn was looking for another job.
Management or government by fear is used by people who are afraid of their employees, staff or citizens. For instance, Bentley runs a business and believes that all employees steal from their employer. He knows that any moment his back is turned, the rabble will steal from him—either real material or lost business by insulting or mistreating customers. That may or may not be true, but if Bentley perceives it to be true, then it rules the way he treats his employees and conducts business.
What kind of employee is more likely to apply for a job with Bentley’s company and be hired? Someone who is inherently honest? Or, someone who harbors a belief that all employers exploit employees? Which of the two will be attracted to working for Bentley?
It is curious how people attract what which they fear/despise the most. If Bentley expects his workers to cheat and steal from him, then the door is wide open for those workers who hold the same perception of Bentley. And they walk right in. And they are hired. And they cheat and steal. What a mess. What you fear you bring near.
It’s the problem of the negative self-fulfilling prophecy—I fear, therefore it happens. That which you fear, you draw near.
Fear is the perception of danger. The danger can be physical, such as a powerful thunderstorm, or can be a mental or emotional fear, such as having the lights suddenly go out in your hotel room, or suspecting that a loved one is behaving in a way that will harm them.
There have been times when Jane was afraid of losing control of her emotions. She was afraid of her strong feelings overcoming her thinking and acting blindly, not choosing her behavior. I feel—I act— I think. Oops.
Fred may have had times when he feared losing his mind. He was fearful of scattering his thought process such that he couldn’t concentrate on anything or make a decision. His thinking would become paralyzed. I can’t think—I act—Oops.
The point is that the perceived threat or danger doesn’t have to be physical, such as a ten-year-old stealing a gun and going to school for live action computer games. The danger can be abstract, such as fear of the unknown. People are instinctively wary of situations when they don’t know what’s out there.
The most disturbing type of fear is non-specific—there isn’t anything to be seen, touched, or heard, that is the danger or threat. It’s not a typical dark and stormy night. But the fear is dark, and the emotions are stormy, as they alert Fred or Jane to do something to fight or escape the danger. The problem is that the danger is unknown.
The Tribulations of Wanda, Monique, Sam and Tyrone
Fear can be rational or irrational. Rational fear is based on something - a genuine and identifiable threat. Irrational fear is based on—who knows? It’s irrational. Something is scaring somebody but it’s nothing that anyone else can see, understand, or measure.
Wanda is married. Her husband has a nasty habit of beating her whenever he’s afraid, which he disguises as anger. Wanda is afraid of him—which is what he wants—and she works very hard to not disturb or anger him. At some point Wanda may realize that her life could be better off without him. Then again, she may be a prisoner of wanting the problem to be the solution. Regardless, the discomfort of her fear will continue to make her life miserable.
Sam was looking forward to entering middle school. The thugs ruling the halls were equally looking forward to new victims to extort. Very soon Sam learns that if he doesn’t bring the cash payoff to the thugs each day, he gets beat up. Sam becomes very afraid of going to school. His parents may not be privy to the reality of his school experience and dismiss his fear and reluctance. It is particularly frustrating for Sam if those adults who should help protect him (parents, teachers, etc.) don’t, won’t or can’t.
Wanda and Sam face very real, rational fears. At some point they will be free of the abusive husband and thugs and their fear will abate. It’s a bit different with Monique and Tyrone.
Monique is engaged to a man who has a good job, treats her well and supports her aspirations for a career. Not a bad relationship, at least according to her mom. But (yes, the BUT that keeps showing up), Monique knows, in her most personal thoughts and feelings, that he will leave her. Five years later, after marriage, a wonderful child and her budding career, she simply “knows” that he is going to leave her. Her fear of this has affected their relationship from the beginning.
Her fear is not associated with anything external, the perceived threat is a successful marriage. Why? Who knows? It is a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Situations like this are frustrating, not only for Monique, but for those in her life.
Tyrone also has a fear that others cannot understand. He is intelligent and a good student. Tyrone’s family was mystified, therefore, when he dropped out of college and refused to go back. He’s got a job and is meeting his adult obligations but he just hasn’t achieved his potential. His relationship with his parents is a bit tense since they nag him to return to college.
Like the case of the barking dog, no one but Tyrone knows that he is terrified of having to take the public speaking course required for graduation. His private fear never goes away and affects him and his family.
If Tyrone admits his fear of the speech class he will probably hear that he is making a mountain out of a mole hill. Some well meaning person may take him into a classroom and ask him to imagine that his classmates are wearing only underwear while he delivers his speech. Nice try. In his mind pops the image of a room packed with people in their underwear while he stands fully naked at the podium. A person’s perception of danger is difficult for another to fully understand or appreciate.
It doesn’t matter if there are five students in Tyrone’s class or fifty. It doesn’t matter whether the class room is half-full or half-empty. He doesn’t like the podium!
Young Steve and 32 Flavors
Because it is so uncomfortable, fear can also be a motivator for personal growth. Fear of failing a test in school can motivate the student to study and prepare for the challenge. Fear of embarrassment has kept countless people from doing stupid things. Facing a danger/ threat/challenge and meeting it results in self-confidence. It works well on the job.
As a teenager, Steve had his first job behind the counter in a neighborhood ice cream shop. Thirty-two flavors, twenty toppings, the problems of calculating the cost of each, serving the customer, and making sure they leave with correct change. It is perfectly natural that young Steve feels anxious—a variation of fear—on his first day on the job.
Yet his fear of goofing up also gives him the energy and motivation to learn the job. He has yet to experience serving customers, but, by golly, he has practiced doing it. He’s on the job and customers rush in. He takes each step slowly, insuring that he selects the ordered ice cream and correct topping. He knows his math and the first customer leaves with both ice cream and correct change. It is a triumph for Steve. He is now less fearful of customer #2, who wants to add to the mix one of those pesky bananas.
After a couple days, Steve is no longer feeling afraid or anxious about his job. He has faced his fear and risen to the challenge. He has gained confidence in his ability to manage fear by learning the job. This prepares him for the next challenge—the boss wants to increase his responsibilities to include setting up and closing the shop. That’s scary for young Steve but he prepares for his new responsibilities. Why? He wants the added increase to his wage. Steve is able to link the two—fear of more responsibility and the reward of higher pay.
In this situation there is a simple and direct payoff when Steve recognizes his fear and does what he needs to do to eliminate the threat—loss of promotion if he botches the job. This is an important moment for young Steve. His success in managing his fear will serve him well as an adult. Overcoming fear always results in a positive— one less threat or danger in life, and new skills to meet challenges lurking in the future.
Prudence in Action
Here is another thought exercise: Pick any person and ask if he or she has made a change in his/her lifestyle within the past three years to accommodate a fear of crime. The change could be minor, such as adding a new lock on the door, shopping only during daylight, or installing a car alarm. The change could be significant such as moving to a different neighborhood or school district, refusing to go out alone at night, or installing a home security system. Whole industries are based on helping people alleviate their fear of crime, which is considered prudent.
Keep asking that question and you will probably discover that most people you know have compromised some of their freedom due to a fear of being a victim of some criminal act. Such fear is based on perception.
The odds of being a victim of the coffee-guy-turned-terrorist are small. But the perception is the reality and people will bar their doors and windows to lock out the danger. The downside is that the wrong person is behind bars. But that’s how fear works to protect us—the discomfort forces us to take some action to eliminate the danger or remove it from ourselves. Nothing new about this preventive measure. As has been said, a stitch in time saves nine.
It’s always easier and more efficient to recognize a problem early and devise a solution, or plan, than it is to suffer the event and deal with the casualties. Remember Y2K? Doom and gloom in 2012? And, right now, Covid-19 and the end of life as we know it?
This is what Dawn was attempting to do the night before her big interview. The problem was that her solution, sabotaging the interview, didn’t address her real fear—changing her job. Avoiding the new position did not alleviate her fear, it merely postponed it until another day. She hasn’t changed her thinking about herself.
Challenges never cease nor does an inherent fear of the unknown. Fear works to better prepare us for whatever is around the corner or lurking just a bit in the future.
Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something!
Calvin Coolidge got it right. “If you see ten troubles coming down the road,” he said, “you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you and you have to battle with only one of them.” With an outlook like that, it’s easy to understand why Silent Cal was seldom anxious. Unfortunately, many people see the ten troubles and leap into action ten different ways. Some, fifteen or twenty – a typhoon of diffused activity.
Worry has been described as the interest paid on trouble before it falls due or actually arrives. Many people go through the day paying a very high interest rate on their perceived troubles.
Worry is a part of the natural response to fear. Worry is a mental activity that attempts to satisfy an instinct to do something. Concern, a variation of worry, can help Fred or Jane mentally prepare for the challenge. But does worry alone accomplish anything? Not really.
What is Jane likely to do when she sends her three-year-old off to pre-school for the first time? She worries. Her child is going off to a strange place, around new and unknown people, and, the scary part,
Jane can’t be there. Her concern (fear) for the child’s well-being appears as worry.
Jane may have to resist leaving the house or her job to check on Junior. She worries about the child all day long and her worry can distract her from other responsibilities.
During her break at work Jane will call the school to check on Junior. All is well, and she feels better. Her worry is less for a while. Her worry and concern will diminish in time as she becomes more confident about the school and the safety of her child. Worry has served its purpose—it motivated her to keep a close eye on the situation since she can’t be in two places at once.
Because Jane was able to do something—call the school during breaks and lunch—she perceived some influence over the situation. Her worry never mushroomed into a monster. But what would have been the situation if she did not decide to call, or was unable to? Her worry would probably dominate her thinking until the end of the day.
Worry feeds on indecision. Worry flourishes when someone perceives that he/she has no defense against the threat. Perceives sounds a lot like believes. The greater the worry, the more fearful a person feels about the situation. Worry in itself accomplishes nothing. But it sure burns up a lot of mental and emotional energy.
Let’s create a new scenario for young Fred. He’s in college. A big test is coming. He knows that he needs to pass the test. Failing the test is a threat, a danger to his goal of graduating. He automatically goes into a fight/flight mode. His mental and emotional systems are telling him that he needs to make some decisions.
Fred knows what decisions he needs to make: Attend class, read the books, and study his notes. But let’s curse Fred with stubbornness. Although he desires to pass the test, he really doesn’t want to invest the time and energy to do what he needs to do to meet the challenge.
Instead, Fred worries.
Fred worries about the test and complains about it to his fellow students at the movie, basketball game, the restaurant, the pub, or—name a place. Fred is working very hard at his worry because
it makes him feel that he is, in some magical way, preparing for the test. He stays up all night, worrying.
The next day he catches up on the lost sleep rather than go to class. Rested, Fred now scrambles—with the energy fueled by worry—to find some classmate who attended the class and learn what he missed. If Fred is really good at his worry, he has probably strained the good will of his classmates to take notes for him.
Let’s take a break and look at Fred’s worry versus Jane’s worry. She’s concerned about the well-being of her child and makes the decision to call the school. It’s likely that the staff is accustomed to worried parents and they understand her concern and frequent calls. Even though she can’t be physically present to protect Junior, she does what she is able to do. She makes the decision—call and check on him.
Jane’s decision results, over time, in confidence that Junior is safe and her worry diminishes. On the other hand, if Junior was being mistreated or the school was not responsive to her concerns, she would have been able to take a direct action and remove the child from the school. In either case, Jane had a rational fear and made a rational decision. She acted as a result of her worry. She successfully managed the change of her child making his initial foray into the big world.
Okay, back to young Fred. His decision is to avoid doing what he knows he needs to do to pass the test. Instead, he worries more. He takes the test and does lousy. Compound interest. He can now worry about flunking the class. Even his parents, who are footing most of his college expense, are worrying about poor Fred who just can’t seem to make it. They are also losing sleep. At some point they also will have to make a decision. Fred gets to worry about that too.
Fred is wading waist-deep in another perception that accompanies worry and indecision: Envy and Resentment. That silly Sally attended every class, read the books, and studied. She passed the test, got a good grade in the class, and is closer to her goal—graduation.
Selfish person that she is, according to Fred’s perception, she no longer gives him her notes from classes he skipped. Fred exiles her from his circle of friends. Misery truly loves company, and Sally just doesn’t play by his rules. He’s pissed. Sally is now a perceived threat—her folks know his folks and they talk about their collegiate children. How dare she pass the test when he’s worried sick!
It happens. The parents of a son or daughter in the military during war are fraught with worry and concern. This is a rational fear about a situation over which they have no direct influence or control. The nature of the war or conflict doesn’t matter. No amount of telephone calls, texts, or e-mails to the government could influence the safety of their loved one.
Still, their concern (worry) motivates them to take some sort of action. The nightly worry could evolve into a decision to offer a prayer of protection each day for the endangered child. The important point is that a decision was made for some action. The worry/concern won’t abate until the child returns safely from the danger. But, the prayer may very well permit more sound sleep and a sense of doing something. The decision is the key.
Young Fred prays as well—hoping for a magical event that will give him a good grade. But he does not make the decision to attend class, read the books, and so on. His expectations are irrational. The bottom line is that Fred has control over whether he attends class or not. He chooses not to do so. His worry will have no end. He’s worried sick.
What kind of statement is that? You probably know someone who has said, “I’m worried sick about that.” But what did they mean?
“I’m worried...” Translation: I’m scared.
“...sick...” Translation: My stomach is in knots, I can’t sleep, eat, feel nervous all of the time, I can’t concentrate on anything.
“...about that...” Translation: There isn’t a thing that I can do about it, the situation is totally beyond my control.
What is the perception in that statement? How is the person reacting mentally and emotionally to “I’m worried sick about that?” The dread and fear are reinforced. Not only are ten troubles about to wreck my life, but they’ve got fifteen more behind them, “heading right for me!” The physical effects of the anxiety are reinforced and the lack of control is confirmed. Yet the worry continues. Something needs to be done.
Compound worry trumps other thoughts and feelings. The strong statement “I’m worried sick” is heard very clearly by every cell in the body. “Hey,” thinks the little cell, “the boss says I’m supposed to be sick.” What the boss expects, the boss gets.
There is a growing awareness of the connection between attitude, expectation, and health. Certainly some diseases and ailments are influenced by genetic factors, but attitude is very powerful. You’ve read accounts of “the will to live” working miracles in terminal cases. Conversely, gut-wrenching worry and complaining can screw up the heartiest of digestive systems. On the other hand...
Hank’s Curious Math
A lot of people worry about getting older, as if worry will somehow reverse the process. Perception continues to rule. You may know of someone who is “old” at thirty and others who are “young” at eighty. The difference? Perspective. A good example is Hank.
Jovial 60-year-old Hank is smitten with 30-year-old Bonita, who is equally enchanted with Hank. They become engaged. “Goodness,” Hank’s friends remark, “she’s half your age!”
“She’ll catch up,” replies Hank calmly. “When I’m 90 she’ll be two-thirds my age.”
In Hank’s perspective, at some point in time, they may very well be the same age. It’s a curious math. The important factor, and the best thing Hank has going for him, is his perspective. He’ll probably make 90 enjoying his life. Hopefully, 60-year-old Bonita will be able to keep up with him.
Benjamin Franklin allegedly remarked that youth was too precious a thing to waste on the young. Perhaps the sage wasn’t lamenting physical youth, but celebrating the perspective of maturity. The advantage of age is experience. After decades of watching troubles come racing down the road and most of them ending up in the ditch, the seniors among us are less likely to panic when a trouble doesn’t ditch itself. Youth rarely has that perspective. They simply haven’t lived long enough. In the curious equation of life, the less one has lived, the greater the impact of fear on the unknown future. The longer one has lived, the less impact of fear on the unknown future.
Fear is a natural emotion that serves to protect you. Fear is extremely uncomfortable and that’s why it is a great motivator.
Negative self-fulfilling prophecies often have a fear motivating the sabotage.
Fear leaps into action once you perceive a threat. Fear doesn’t care whether the threat is actual or imaginary - a perceived threat is a threat indeed. Rational fear has a recognizable threat, often external. Irrational fear does not have a recognizable threat, and is often internal.
Fear motivates you to do something, to take some action, on some level. Many people worry. Worry of itself accomplishes little. Worry can be lessened by making decisions.
Remember the ten troubles - nine will probably dissipate before reaching you, unless you give your attention to all of them, all the time!
There is a connection between attitude, expectation, and health. Remember Hank’s curious math.
From "Habits, Patterns, & Thoughts That Go Bump in the Night"