What fear is and isn’t

by Calvin on March 12, 2010

I know someone’s going to raise this point, so let me just get it out of the way right now.

When I talk about the room of fear and the room of love, there’s always someone out there who’s going to say “well isn’t it a good thing to be afraid of some things – like snakes or fast-moving cars headed in your direction?”.

And the answer is “yes of course” and “no” at the same time.

What’s good is to be aware of the things that threaten you.

Whether it be competitors or snakes or or cars, it’s good to be aware that here’s something you should look out for and pay full attention to.

But when you’re IN fear, what happens is that you’re spending most of your energy being afraid, and that actually robs you of your attention and prevents you from focusing on and using all your energy and resources to improve your situation.

Also, most of us don’t like feeling fear. In fact, most of us don’t like feeling ANY negative emotion – I guess that’s why we’ve decided to CALL them negative emotions.

So if fear means that you now become desperate to do something, ANYTHING, to stop that dreadful feeling of fear, then you’re acting in affect, you’re acting from a state of emotion and fear, and you’re going to make stupid, short-sighted decisions.

Like yelling at someone who’s about to cross a trafficked road, so he stops to look at you rather than at the traffic. Or if you’re feeling fear about your finances, you may do anything to make some money, now! But you end up making something crappy that leaves you with a support burden and a tarnished image. What a waste.

So what you want to do is recognize the fear, and simply get used to having the feeling of fear, without trying to make it go away. If you can do that, you’re way ahead of the game. Get used to being afraid on a regular basis.

How does fear happen? How do you end up being afraid of things?

I think it happens because of pain. We don’t like it when something hurts. It could be physical hurt or emotional hurt, maybe even existential or spiritual hurt, I don’t know (but it seemed the next logical step after physical and emotional, didn’t it?).

So we’ve fallen off our bike, and now we’re afraid of riding bikes. Or we’ve been hurt by a lover, and now we’re afraid of loving again.

I saw an interview with Jason Calacanis the other day, where he was asked what he would do differently. And he said that he should have sold his first business, Silicon Alley Reporter, sooner. It was worth a ton, but then the bubble burst, and suddenly it was worth nothing. So with his second business, because of the earlier pain, he was afraid to hold out and wait for a better offer, so he sold Weblogs, Inc. to AOL for a “mere” $25 million or whatever the number was. And he regretted that.

You see how it’s the fear that’s influencing the decision, and that the fear came from the earlier pain, right?

I have an example from my own life. In 2000 when I was living in Brooklyn, we had a home invasion late at night. Two guys, one with a knife, the other with a stocking over his head and a gun in his hand. I fought them (not sure why, but I’m happy that I did), and they ended up running away. I was scared. It was painful. Frightening.

So this past Sunday at 8pm, when it was dark outside and I wasn’t expecting anyone, someone knocked on the door. And I felt the fear very strongly again. I called out to my wife. “Someone’s knocking!” I don’t go open. I’m afraid. And she says, “Oh, it’s probably the delivery guy with the food I ordered online”. And then my heart relaxes and I go open the door.

Past pain leads to current fear.

But notice that the fear is NOT RELEVANT to the current situation. Circumstances have changed. For Calacanis, the economy had changed, and it was to keep growing for a couple years. For me, the chance that a dodgy person is going to invade my home on a Sunday night in the neighborhood that I live in is unfathomably small.

But the fear is still very much present.

What’s interesting, too, is that it wasn’t until after the whole thing with the delivery man was over that I realized that’s what happened. I didn’t realize I was afraid. All I knew was that I didn’t want to open the door. “Honey, could you open the door, I’m in the middle of something.” Bullshit. It’s not that I’m in the middle of something. It’s that I’m afraid, and I don’t even know it.

A friend of mine told me about his wife who’s a physical therapist with older women. What happens when they break an arm is, even after they’ve had the cast taken off, they still don’t use that frickin’ arm. It’s not that they don’t know they need to retrain it. But the fear caused by the pain of breaking the damn arm in the first place is unconscious, so they don’t even get to make a conscious decision about whether to use that arm or not. Their brain does it for them.

It’s the same thing with you and me. The fear is acting at an unconscious level, and our brains automatically steer us away from the things we’re afraid of. Afraid of being home alone? We’ll call up a friend and arrange to go out and have beers, before we even realize it’s fear driving us. Afraid of public speaking? You won’t even consider getting up there.

That’s why it’s so important to go realize what you’re afraid of and go do it anyway.

Because I guarentee you, that there’s something you’re afraid of right now, that you don’t even realize, because it’s acting at a completely unconscious level, that’s holding you back from being everything you can be.

Seth Godin said as much in one of his books, I forget which one. He mentions the Peter Principle: That everyone gets promoted to their level of incompetence. And then he augments it: Really, it’s that they get promoted to their level of FEAR.

Because your fear is the main thing that’s holding you back. Your unconscious fears are preventing you from doing certain things that, if you did them, could propel you, your startup, your business, your career – even your intimate relationships, your relationships to your friends and family, and your relationship with yourself.

You “comfort zone” is really just another word for staying away from the things that activate your fears. So when people say you should get out of your comfort zone that’s the same thing, and it’s good advice.

And here’s something else interesting: It’s extremely hard to find out what the real fear holding you back is.

Here’s an example from my own life. About a year ago, I was looking at a conference that I wanted to go to. And I’d lurked and lurked, and kind-of decided that I wasn’t going to go. Why? We have two small kids, and I didn’t want to leave my wife alone at home with the kids. Besides, I didn’t really have the money. So I’d decided to stay home.

But then I met with someone who said “Why not? I have small kids, and I go to the US for conferences all the time. Of course you can go!”.

That blew my excuse right out of the water. Okay, I guess I could go. But I still wasn’t sure.

So I sat down and wrote a list of all the reasons not to go. I mean, I knew I wanted to go, but I needed to look at the reasons I DIDN’T want to go.

And there were 11 good and not so good reasons. Like I’d already spent a lot of money on training and acquiring knowledge, now it was time to put it to use, not to acquire more knowledge. And like not having the money.

But it was reason number 12 that hit home.

It said: “I’m afraid of going there and not know anyone and being all alone.”

Coming from the background and the childhood I do, that was the one that hurt. I got to feel a lot of shit – verbal and physical pain – from other people as a child, and that’s caused me to fear being alone with strangers. So that was where the real fear was hidden.

And once that was out in the open, I could look at it and decide if I wanted to make that reason enough not to go, which was an easy decision to make. Today, being who I am today, I have no reason to believe that strangers at a conference in the US are going to chase me and beat me up, like they did back then. So I can decide that I’ll go despite the fear, and it’s probably going to be okay.

But before it was out, it was there, directing the course of my life, without me knowing about it.

Surfacing an unconscious old fear like this something that can make a really big difference. Extrapolate that over the course of your life, adding up all the small things you do and don’t do, and it can make an even bigger difference.

So fear is good. Fear is your friend, because it points the way to what you need to do to grow in life and in business.

Write down the thing you want to do – your goal, if you will. And then list all the things that you makes you NOT want that goal. All the things that prevent you. Take your time. Breath deep into your belly. Get relaxed. Maybe even go for a walk outside. These are things that help you surface stuff from below your consciouss thoughts. And write them down. And keep writing. Most often it’s the last one that really hurts.

Surface your fears this way, actively look for what you’re afraid of that you didn’t realize, investigate the fear, look at what you want to do about it, knowing what you know today, being who you are today, and

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