I write a lot about fear. It must fascinate me.
The evolution is fear is interesting. It developed in human beings as a protective response against genuine threats to our survival. If if hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here – your ancestors would have been eaten by lions millions of years ago. You could say that fear – when it comes to physical danger – is not just useful, but life-saving.
And yet whenever there is no acute physical danger present – and in the modern world there almost never is – the feeling of fear is incredibly unhelpful. Does it make sense, for instance, to experience the same physical response when public speaking, or asking someone out, or contemplating writing a book, as you would if you were being chased by a lion on the Savannah?
Fear narrows your perspective, limits your options, and makes you act in ways that are far from rational. If your life is in jeopardy, and it increases your chances of survival, good. If it’s not, bad.
When I put it like that, I make it sound like you are stupid for having this involuntary response. If the thing you fear poses no actual threat to you, why should you fear it? If you do, then in a sense, you are stupid. You’re at least irrational. But this is where it gets sticky.
Because nobody likes to think of themselves as stupid or irrational. The moment you do, your mind does somersaults trying to reframe the situation to cast you in a smarter light. So whilst on the one hand it’s a useful and freeing moment when you realise that there’s no need to fear anything but fear itself, it can also be the start of some pretty devious self-deception. Like…
You’re putting off eating healthier because you’re scared of feeling like a loser if you can’t stick with it. But you tell yourself you’re just waiting until Monday. Or that you you would eat better but you can’t because your family would make it too difficult. Or that you would eat better but “diets don’t work” and “I might not be perfect but at least I’m healthier than <one of your friends>”
You’re putting off writing a screenplay because you’re scared that you can’t write a good one. But you tell yourself you’re just in research mode right now. Or that you’re one of those artists that needs to wait until they’re inspired. Or that you are definitely, definitely going to start… but next week, when things are little less manic.
You’re putting off quitting the job you hate because you aren’t 100% sure what you’ll do next. But you tell yourself it’s because you’re being strategic and biding your time. Or that you’d love to quit but you can’t just yet because this is the firm’s busiest time of year. Or that you’d love to quit but you kind of owe it to your boss to stay a bit longer.
If any of these sounds remotely like you, please realise that you’re not alone – the Good Lord kitted out every single of us with a near-infinite capacity to bullshit ourselves. And whilst sometimes I make giving into your fears sound like the worst sin you can commit against yourself, I think this is much, much worse – giving into your fears whilst telling yourself that you’re facing them.
The good news is, though, that when you see yourself doing this, and you find it in yourself to say, “Okay, I might as well admit it – I’m not doing x, y, or z, because I’m afraid to. Sure, there’s no rational basis for that fear, but so what? I feel afraid.” … you instantly feel better about it. I think this is because no matter how great you are at lying to yourself, some part of you always knows what’s up, and it won’t quite let you feel right so long as you cling to your self-deception.
In a perfect world, we’d all face our fears head-on and prove to ourselves that they weren’t real in the first place. But that’s a tall order. So if you’re aren’t ready to overcome something you’re afraid of, realise that admitting you’re afraid is still a step in the right direction. It’s still progress.
It’s a difficult pill to swallow, but once it goes down, it tastes a lot better than lying to yourself.
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”– Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov