Can you identify a time where you felt inhibited from doing something you really wanted to do, such as changing careers? Asking for a pay raise? Applying for a new job? Learning a new skill? Speaking in public?
Have you ever felt apprehension even before you took the first step toward a new event, task or goal? If so, you’ve experienced the corrosive and paralyzing forces of one of the most pervasive human emotions: fear.
No one is immune to fear. Even courageous people experience fear. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the management of fear.
Fear is an unpleasant, often strong emotion caused by perception of danger. It plays a very important role in our daily lives. It manipulates our thoughts, distresses our system, and influences our behavior. Whether the threat is real or perceived, the effects experienced are similar.
Our attempt to arm-wrestle with our fears often manifests itself as procrastination, doubt, hesitation and insecurity. We may put up with experiences we dislike, with conditions we condemn, and rationalize our circumstances by assigning blame to others, all of this because of fear.
An executive said to me: “I would love to start my own business, but . . .” and an excuse followed. A colleague shared: “I would love to move overseas, but . . .” and an excuse followed. These excuses were shaped by fear.
Oftentimes we put our dreams in a holding pattern and our aspirations circle in the air like a pilot waiting for the tower for permission to land. Fear inhibits us from approaching the runway and bringing to earth our cherished goals.
Fear undercuts our self-esteem, suffocates our creativity, and limits our potential. We ultimately become victims of our own self-protective behaviors.
As you think about the threats and challenges ahead, what is your response to them?
When confronted with fearful scenarios most of us will engage in self-protective behaviors. Self-interest will take precedence over concerns for a greater cause. Teamwork, collaboration, and consideration for others of others will take a backseat.
Fear fosters short-term thinking: Why worry about long-term goals when we are dealing with pressing threats right now? Under such conditions, it is common to seek escape and settle for instant gratification.
Fear nourishes unhealthy competition: Unhealthy competition promotes victory over excellence. Doing well in this context is never enough for a “player,” but outshining others is.
Fear promotes a win-lose dynamic, which distract us from the aim. We become obsessed and distracted by the dangers of losing and the prospects of winning, but we may actually be playing in the wrong game.
Fear destroys trust: Trust must be cultivated. Skepticism, disbelief, and doubt associated with fear can have an overwhelming detrimental effect on trust.
Fear stifles innovation and creativity: Innovation and creativity require risk, experimentation, trial and error, and even failure. If we are intolerant of failure, we squander the potential to break away from the tried-and-true way of doing things. We play it safe and follow established procedures, or simply do what we are told even if we discover of a better way. Where there is fear, sameness of a known way prevails over the uniqueness of a better way.
Fear limits communication: A climate of fear damages human interactions. Language becomes reactive, secretive, defensive, guarded, covert, and malignant. The sharing of information is discouraged and as a result, suggestions do not surface, ideas are not shared, weaknesses are not revealed, and mistakes are buried.
Fear activates the rumor mill and gossip becomes the channel for spreading the word. The distorted message carried by this informal network propagates and can deepen fear further.
It’s easy to regard fear as a motivational tool. Motivation comes from the root word movere, which means to cause motion. Fear can cause motion. The problem is fear can generate bigger efforts, but not better results. There is no such thing as healthy fear. The outcomes of fear tend to be all negative. Fear can produce intense short-term bursts of performance, but in the long term it will produce devastating effects. Fear may trigger an adrenalin rush that pushes us to high performance. But when it becomes chronic, we cannot sustain this high-pressure performance without harm to ourselves.
Fear is often compared with high blood pressure because it can go unnoticed, but its effects are devastating nonetheless. It is a silent killer! Fear impacts our choices, our plans, and our actions. Fear colors every decision we make and every step we take and every experience no matter how monumental or mundane.
When embarking on a new task, it tends to seem scarier than it actually is. Nelson Mandela noted that “it always seems impossible until it’s done.” If we do not address our real or imagined fears, they will grow and spread like weeds in a garden.
Most people have psychological warehouse of fears. It is important to identify them. Do you know what you are afraid of? As Eleanor Roosevelt noted, “You gain strength and confidence by every experience in which you must stop and look fear in the face.”
Awareness of the presence of fear is a prerequisite to taking action and succeeding in spite of it. Let fear surface. Do not suppress it, since it will probably morph itself into an even more frightening form.
A simple, yet effective way to gain awareness of our fears is to make them explicit because most of the impossibilities, obstructions and fears are self-created. Think back to two or three years ago. What important decisions were you facing then? What fears were associated with making those decisions? What decisions did you make? What were the outcomes? Were the fears justified?
Whenever you are facing.an important decision or event—such as a job interview, accepting a promotion, going back to college or any other key action in your life—write down what you are afraid of. If you pursue that decision, wait at least a year and compare the actual results with your imagined ones. You will probably be surprised with the results. It takes far more mental energy to give into our fears than to deal with what is actually taking place. When tainted by fear, our imagination will produce more drama than reality may offer.
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke noted: “No passion so effectively robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” It is natural to feel fear, so the key is finding ways to acknowledge it and take action anyway.
J. Gerald Suarez is professor of the practice in Systems Thinking and Design at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. He is author of, “Leader of One: Shaping Your Future Through Imagination and Design.”