Fear is a bad thing, isn’t it? We have all these positive connotations about being ‘fearless’, and all these negative attitudes about being a ‘coward’. So it may feel strange when you read the following: ‘Don’t avoid fear. Embrace it!’
I could say a lot of good things about fear. The main one is that it is a very powerful part of who and what we are, not just human beings, animals of all kinds. And it is so because eons of evolution have developed that in us. Think that part of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ can be expressed as ‘survival of the most scared’! Being bold and foolish makes for a great action movie, but being cautious makes it more likely that the story will end well, contrary to what Hollywood action movies tell us.
So, now, am I talking about being governed by fear? Certainly not. Fear is a good alarm signal, alerting us to potential danger. This doesn’t mean we blindly rely on this information. It is just an incentive to be careful, to assess the situation. For instance, in a business deal, there are all kinds of dangers; this is not a reason to avoid making deals, this is a reason to do due process, so the dangers can be evaluated and appropriate responses can be identified. People who develop software know that all kinds of things can go wrong; this is an incentive to do all kinds of testing. And so on.
But this is not the only good thing about fear. There is also something visceral. At a biological level, fear triggers alertness. Think about videos you may have seen of animals in the wild. A barely perceptible rustle in the foliage, and you see them suddenly listening more intently, smelling, looking, all their senses highly focused. Fear triggers our ability to pay more attention when we need to. And fear gives us more energy to face the danger or the opportunity, that’s the fight-or-flight mechanism. Which is great, it’s like having a booster pack of energy, or Popeye’s can of spinach.
Now, as you read this, you may recall situations in which fear seems to do the exact opposite of boosting your energy. Deer-in-the-headlight situations. This seems totally different from what I was talking earlier: Far from giving us extra energy, helping us be more powerful, fear paralyzes us. But it’s still a case of more energy: In this case, such a high spike of energy that it actually results in a short circuit. Just the same way that your electrical appliances need power to function, but they get destroyed if there’s too strong a power surge, say in a storm.
So it’s important to make a difference between those extreme situations when fear overwhelms the system and leads to a short circuit, and the situations where fear is actually a great booster pack. In real life, the vast majority of the situations we encounter are not of the paralyzing kind. Except, of course, those of us who do extreme sports.
It’s important to remember the distinction between the two kinds of fears. Otherwise, we lump them together, we think of all fears as paralyzing. Then, as the saying goes, we are ‘afraid of fear itself’. And we deprive ourselves of that extra booster pack of sharpness and power that fear provides.
The first point I want to make in this article is what I have just written in the paragraph above. But I also want to say something about the paralyzing fears. In some cases, they are appropriate, not in the sense that it’s good to be paralyzed, but in the sense that the fear is commensurate with the intensity of the situation. Anything will break down if facing a task that is well beyond what it can do. Bridges will collapse when grossly overloaded. Machines will break down. So do animals and human beings. Some may have more tolerance for overload than others, but, eventually, there is a breaking point.
Overload is very real. But most of us live lives where most of the challenges we encounter are within the range that we are equipped to handle. So how come we experience more of these extreme, paralyzing moments than the actual dangers would seem to warrant?
This is because we perceive some situations as so dangerous that our ‘extreme danger’ mode is triggered. We react to what we perceive. The reaction is appropriate, but the perception of danger is distorted.
And what distorts our perception of danger is what some people call ‘learned helplessness’. I have mixed feelings about that phrase, because it is sometimes used as a way to criticize people, as in: “You’re imagining things, grow up, face reality”. What I am talking about is something that is so intense that we cannot deal with it by simply willing ourselves to not feel it. Fear conditioning. As in Pavlov’s experiences: Fear conditioning can train a dog to run away from meat that would normally be irresistibly mouthwatering. We’re talking about intense, visceral fears, not intellectual conceits.
‘Learned helplessness’ works so well because it has a strong survival value: You learn to avoid what is a major danger, even though it may seem harmless. When you see the meat, you don’t experience it as appetizing, you re-experience the intense pain of the electric shock. There is no ambiguity, it is clearly bad, so you keep away from danger.
However, there is nothing dangerous about the meat itself. Far from being bad, it’s actually very good. So, in this case, the reaction to perceived danger is appropriate, but the perception of danger does not correspond to reality. For the dog to have an appropriate perception of reality, it would have to be de-conditioned, so that it would again be able to experience reality as it is, as opposed to experiencing the situation through learned helplessness.
In human terms, this is what we call healing emotional trauma. Coming to grips with what makes our perceptions distort certain dangers to the point that we experience helplessness, and healing this trauma. Fortunately, it is possible to do so. It is possible to undo fear conditioning and to unlearn learned helplessness. But this can only happen once we face the actuality of the problem, instead of dismissing it as something we should be able to easily deal with, if only we put a little more willpower into it.