For many of us, fear is a four-letter word. We ignore it, dismiss it and despise it. We see it as another thing we’re doing wrong. After all, we’ve read that it’s best to be BOLD, BRAVE and FEARLESS. And we’re anything but.
We see fear as a synonym for weakness and failure. We assume that courage is the absence of fear.
But it’s not. And that’s not the whole story. Which is why we asked various therapists who specialize in anxiety to spill their lessons on fear—lessons they’ve learned from their own clinical training and work with clients. Below, you’ll find wise insights and valuable stories.
Fear has a purpose. A critical one.
Because fear can spark a slew of unpleasant and downright scary sensations throughout our bodies, we might yearn, we might ache, to annihilate it. But the goal is not to eliminate all fear, said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. That’s because fear is vital.
“Fear is an essential emotion that actually has a noble duty: It’s meant to protect you from danger.” Fear prompts us to lock our doors, buy insurance and not engage in dangerous behaviors, he said. Without it, we simply wouldn’t survive. Fear saves lives.
Fear becomes problematic when we don’t explore it and let it fester—so much so that it holds us back, said Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Going inside your fear is the key.
“Fear mainly comes from a lack of control and the unknown,” Thorn said. “The more we feel we are in control or know about a situation, the less fear we may feel.” This is why instead of pretending a fear doesn’t or shouldn’t exist, Thorn and her clients explore worst-case scenarios. They dig in.
As they explore each scenario, they come up with a game plan should that situation actually occur. In other words, they take the fear from an “unknown” to a “known.”
“The more [clients] start to feel like they would have some control and have thought through the fear, the better they seem to do,” Thorn said.
Howes has found the same to be true: “Actually exploring the fearful outcome can empower the fearful person and help them feel more in control, ironically.” Because fear hijacks our rational thought, it’s not helpful to tell someone who’s convinced they’ll be fired over a minor mistake that they’ll keep their job.
According to Howes, what’s more helpful is to ask: “Why are you afraid you will be fired? What would it mean if you were? How might that firing look? Why is keeping this job important? What would you do next?”
Looking at your past helps you identify when fear isn’t protective.
Howes was working with an attorney who’d taken a health-related leave of absence. During his leave, he began fearing his return. “He was preoccupied with all the skills he might have lost, imagined himself freezing up in the courtroom, and pictured himself losing case after case and getting fired.”
He also started telling himself that the best way to avoid failure was to never go back. However, Howes questioned his reasoning because his past (and present) told a different story: He loved being in the courtroom. He never froze. He was regularly promoted. His firm held his position for an entire year, frequently checked on his progress, and told him they couldn’t wait for him to return.
When they explored his fears further, it turned out that his real fear was about his leave of absence: It was really hard for him, and he couldn’t imagine having to take another leave.
“Avoiding his comeback wasn’t going to help him, but staying healthy so he could keep doing the work he loved would,” Howes said. “This gave him something to do instead of something to avoid, which made his return much easier.”
Facing a fear should result in growth.
“If you have the choice, don’t do something that terrifies you and brings you no benefit or growth,” said Lena Aburdene Derhally, LPC, a psychotherapist, writer and speaker in Washington, D.C. With any fear, she suggested asking yourself: “Do I want to do this?” “Is it important for me to do this?”
For instance, bungie jumping, sky diving and stand-up comedy might terrify you—and not help you grow. However, setting and maintaining a boundary with your mom might. So might sharing your idea at your next work meeting. So might going back to school, if that’s your dream.
The fear is often worse than the reality.
Years ago, Howes worked with a college student who had a hard time making friends. She was so afraid of rejection that she never asked anyone to study or have lunch. To remove fear’s power, they created a game (“something in psychology we call ‘prescribing the symptom’”). She’d approach a dozen people with ridiculous requests, which they’d inevitably reject. For instance, she asked one classmate if she could wear her jacket. She asked a campus security officer to borrow his pepper spray. Everyone, naturally, said no.
However, the sting of each rejection was fleeting, and she ended up having a lot of fun. “Once she realized rejection was temporary and not the end of the world, she felt freer to make those sincere requests to spend time with people she wanted to befriend,” Howes said. “She learned her fear of rejection was much more paralyzing than the reality of rejection, and this empowered her.”
Plus, “facing most fears can make us more resilient,” Derhally said. “The more we expose ourselves to what scares us, the more we can tolerate it.”
When we avoid or dismiss our fears, they transform into big, mysterious monsters. But when we get to know them, when we create game plans to face them, we realize that they aren’t so scary and impossible after all. And you never know: You might even end up having fun—or experiencing any number of positive outcomes.