If, like me, you’ve ever felt exasperated by experts telling you your fears aren’t real or if you feel frustrated because you should be capable of simply ignoring them, so they’ll disappear, this is for you. We all have them, but when you consider how you respond to your fears, you face a stark choice.

Will you deal with the cause of your fear, or will you deal with the symptoms? The former requires that you acknowledge your fear and do some detective work in order to understand where it came from before dealing with it, so you can tame it or even eradicate it.The latter leads you down the path of learning strategies to master the effects of fear.

The good news is that you don’t have to spend twenty years in therapy to find and deal with the cause or attend countless courses on how to overcome the symptoms. The bad news is you have to do some work. But it will be worth it.

I’d like to explain some options, and how I believe you can work with your fears. 

What is fear? 

Put simply, fear describes our emotional response to danger. Clearly, fear is a necessary healthy response. After all, if we had no fear, we’d walk into a fire or cross a busy road without looking. So an element of fear is welcome. The ego, having learned from experience, recognises danger intervenes and keeps us safe. The problem is the ego isn’t rationale; it learns from experience and raises the alarm when an event subconsciously reminds it of a past, painful event. It doesn’t rationalise it and, when reminded of it, interprets an earlier experience as though it’s automatically going to happen again. As a result, fear can prevent us from achieving our goals, enjoying healthy relationships, enjoying a vibrant social life and preventing us from leading enjoyable fulfilling lives. It then becomes problematic and even destructive.

Depending on your psychological stance, fear will hold a different meaning. Many Personal development leaders espouse the ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’ definition. I.e. because fear is the dread of a future event, it can’t be real in the present moment. 

Many years ago, I was a Samaritan help-line volunteer, when we frequently dealt with young people who were anxious and sometimes suicidal at the prospect of failing their exams. Rarely did we speak with anyone who was suicidal because they’d actually failed their exams. This would indicate dealing with the reality, painful though it may be, is much easier than the fear of what might be.

Others take the existentialist view. Existentialists believe in existence before essence, which means we create our own meaning and don’t have a divine purpose. Life is only in the here and now. That being the case, perhaps all fears are ultimately fear of death? Fears of flying, snakes, blood, fire, or crossing oceans support this argument as being associated with death.

Great thinkers, including Socrates and Plato, as well as most religions, believe death is the separation of the body from the soul, rendering death meaningless.

Whatever your view, we may as well get moving and do what our heart is telling us. After all, why wait until it’s too late?

While I have some sympathy for the False Evidence Appearing Real scenario, embracing it doesn’t necessarily lead to an absence of anxiety, which is the mental manifestation of fear. There’s a good example of this theory in the Film “Bridge of Spies” starring Tom Hanks as the American negotiator Jim Donovan and Mark Rylance as Russian Spy Rudolph Abel in the true story (at least the movie was based on the true story) of the spy swap with U2 pilot Gary Powers, in 1960’s Cold-war Berlin.

Throughout the movie, Donovan asks Abel, “Are you worried?” To which Abel always replies, “Would it help?” Oh, if it were so easy. So what can you do to manage fear, I.e. deal with the symptoms of fear and manage them?

Dealing with the symptoms of fear

The first step is awareness. An awareness that your body is reacting and warning you via tensions in the stomach or other part of the anatomy. As we know, fear is about what might happen, so the aim is to bring yourself into the present moment. It isn’t easy to ‘just let go of your thinking.’ You can distract yourself by breaking the pattern, I.e. find a task to distract the mind. Best of all, perhaps, is to meditate and bring the noisy mind back into the present. If you’re present, you are dealing with reality, what is and not what might be. 

A good start is to take action despite the fear. 

Whether we take the view that all fear is ultimately fear of death, I propose we can divide fear in to two main camps, fear of rejection or fear of failure.

Fear of rejection

….is often associated with loss. Loss of love, health, relationships, status, money. These people often feel they are too much, too difficult for the world. The feeling usually stems from an experience of abandonment by our primary care providers in childhood. I’m not suggesting literally abandoned by parents or care providers, although it can be. Mostly, the feeling is far more subtle, which is why it takes some digging to unearth it. 

If you are a people pleaser to the extent of your own detriment, or someone who blames yourself for everything (not the same as taking responsibility) this may be you. If you find yourself provoking an end to relationships by getting a preemptive strike in, this may also be you. I once worked with a woman who had been divorced five times by the age of fifty and who knew she always acted in a way to provoke her partners into walking out. She didn’t know why.

Why would anyone do that? Because the pain of her ending a loving relationship on her terms was less painful than being abandoned by her partner. Psychologists might describe this process as a borderline wound. I.e. she would consistently push the boundary with her partners to test them out. When they left, she could prove to herself what she already believed. She was unlovable. If they stayed for any great length of time, she would lose respect for them. It was a lose-lose scenario.

When we made a link with a devastating rejection as a child, and she understood it wasn’t her fault, the wound was healed; she was more able to sustain a relationship without fearing being left. 

Remember, this type of wound is very subtle and is not always obvious to the individual or those close to them.

The mantra for the person fearing rejection is, “If you really knew me, you might see I’m unloveable and leave me.”

Fear of failure

In some respects, fear of failure is the opposite of fear of rejection. The person who fears failure will often be very engaging, the life and soul of the party. Very driven at work will usually display the trappings of success. This is the person with the designer watch or jewellery, the German car with the latest number plate and a home in a desirable location. All too often, they fall into the trap of living beyond their means and get into debt, amplifying the feeling of lack and failure. 

This person’s deep fear is that they might not be enough. If I display the trappings of my success, you’ll think I’m capable, successful, and you won’t see my actual pain.

If you’re in business, either employed or an entrepreneur, you will meet this person at a Personal development or networking event. “How are you?” “I’m really busy. 

How about you?” Come on, we’ve all done it. We might describe this person’s wound as a narcissistic wound. The description is often misunderstood and attributed to a self-loving, selfish, don’t care about anyone else character. Nothing could be further from the truth as it is, literally, all a front. This is the person who experienced love conditionally and not unconditionally. Consequently, they never had healthy self-belief installed in them. Crucially, they were never empowered enough in their formative years. 

Their aim is to feed their fragile sense of self by wearing the mask of material success. Remind you of anything? We could almost be talking about Western culture with its insatiable appetite for materialism. It’s why people get into debt at Christmas. It’s a short-term fix.

The mantra for the person fearing failure is “If you really know me, you’ll see that I am not good enough to be loved.” Again, it is on a subconscious level.

Summed up, Fear of rejection is feeling too much for the world, fear of failure is not being enough. Many practitioners in the Personal Development space, wrongly in my view, only talk about not being enough. It’s because they, like many of us, only focus on what they define as success rather than the deeper goal of fulfilment.

Now, let’s be clear: our fears are more complex and I’ve cited what I believe to be the two core camps in the fear war. There are others and I’d be happy to discuss them in future articles/posts. Let me have your thoughts and comments.

In conclusion,

We can try to deal with the symptoms of fear, but wouldn’t it be better to deal with the cause? It takes effort, and you may need to work with someone who knows how to uncover the causes and work through them to face the pain and replace it with a new healthy, empowering understanding. We can then move on without dragging our past behind us.

Draw a line in the sand and say “Enough” Don’t wait until you know how, but make a start anyway!