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A Story About Fear
Some years ago, I went to an amusement park with my mother. At first, she was somewhat afraid of the roller coaster, but eventually relented in the name of adventure. As we boarded the roller coaster, I could see the tension in my mother’s body, undoubtedly caused by the adrenaline coursing through her veins with each hearbeat. I was probably feeling the same way, but since this is another one of those situations over which you have no control, it didn’t really bother me that much. Hey, if this was my day to die, then it is my day to die - might as well enjoy the ride before the accident!
As I finished my thought, the roller coaster started moving slowly. I could feel the weight of the metal that was going to hurl me at whirling speeds in a few minutes. My mother’s grip tightened with each passing second. I can only imagine what was going through her head right then. It probably contained some images of her flying through the air diving towards the ground.
Pretty soon, we were at the top. You could see my mother tensed and ready for a battle to the death. I, on the other hand, was as relaxed as I possibly could be, eagerly waiting to see what kind of strange sensations a couple extra gs would bring.
Before long, the roller coaster went over its apex and started accelerating downwards. At that time, I haven’t ridden a roller coaster in a while, so some terrifying sensations was definiately expected, Strangely, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d thought. The upwards “pull” feeling on my stomach wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d remembered. Maybe it has something to do with growing up and having a bigger body. Anyway, the random motions still seemed interesting, jerking me back and forth. I sat there, looking around at stuff at weird angles. I could probably have had a sandwich and read a book without it bothering me too much.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I caught a glimpse of my mother. She was completely bent over, with her head in between her arms, in one of the most terrified positions a person can be in. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the situation. It reminds me of those cartoons where two guys fall off a roof, one guy lands on the floor, while another guy is grasping desperately onto the lowest ledge, only inches from the ground. The first guy taps the on the shoulder of the second guy, kind of saying, “Hey eerr, you know you can let go right?” This is exactly what I tried to do - I leaned over and gently tapped on mom on the back, seeing if she’ll relax. She barely acknowledged me, completely paralyzed by her own fear. Later, as we were getting off, she told me that she sprained her neck on the ride.
I am reminded of this experience every time I see people make a really big deal out of not so bad situations. For example, we hear of college students committing suicide because of the pressure of getting good grades. It’s so tempting to tap them on the shoulder and say, “You know - all that piece of paper says is you don’t know it very well right now - it’s not like you can’t just learn it later!” This is an example of something that could just be ignored, but instead is blown up into ridiculous proportions, just like Jack and Bob in The Key To A Healthy Relationship.
I’ve actually known the college student mentioned above personally. We played chess together at one point in high school and I knew him to be one of the smartest people in the school. Yet, from what I’ve heard, he jumped off a bridge from the pressure of graduate school and because his best friend also did the same.
The Obstacles That Our Fears Create
In both of these situations, the person in question created a seemingly unsurmountable obstacle that exists solely in their imagination. In my mom’s case, she was so sure that she was going to die on the roller coaster that day, that she did everything she could to avoid the experience. As a result, not only did she not enjoy the ride, she had a sprained neck to go along with it. In the case of the student jumping off the bridge, he probably viewed certain accomplishments in graduate school as the ultimate achievement in life. Because he thought that if he didn’t achieve this, his life would have no meaning, he ended his life just to avoid “failing” at this imaginary task.
Looking around, there are numerous instances of fears that keep people from getting what they want every day. A guy standing next to a girl who likes him but he’s afraid of asking out. So he walks away, leaving himself and the girl disappointed. A guy who wants to start a business but sees all the problems before they even manifest. Ultimately, he decides against it because these problems seem so unsurmountable, leaving himself and his potential clients unhappy. Every day, many people are prevented from accomplishing their dreams due to these imaginary obstacles. I am sure that I have had my fair share of these unjustified fears. Here’s a few tips for combatting them:
Recognize Your Fears - First, you need to recognize that this is indeed one of the fears you have. If you already accept this particular fear as the absolute truth, then there is no way to face that particular fear and hence no way to overcome it. For example, say you want to start a business, but you are afraid of taking risks. Every time someone talks to you about starting a business, your immediate response is “Oh, that’s too risky for me”. In this instance, you have so internalized the fear of taking risks that you don’t even recognize it as one of your fears anymore. In your world, it becomes an absolute truth that starting a business = bad. You no longer recall why or how you came to that conclusion, just that it is.
This is an extremely dangerous mode to get into because not only are your fears limiting your progress, you don’t even know that it is! This is the very situation that the graduate student who committed suicide got himself into. He became so obsessed with doing well in school and feared failing so much, that failing = the end of life for him. Once he saw that he couldn’t accomplish what he wanted, he figured he was going to “die anyway”, so he might as well do it earlier.
You should always very carefully examine the reasons why you choose not to do something. As long as something doesn’t kill you or permanently injure you in some way, you can do it! Start by making a list of anything you want to do. If an automatic thought crosses your mind stating some reason you can’t do it now, that is the result of some sort of fear. For example, let’s say you want to start a business but you can’t do it now because you don’t have enough money, that is the result of the fear of going broke, the fear of being hungry, the fear of having no shelter, etc. Or maybe you are not talking to the guy or girl you like because now is not a good time. That is the result of the fear of being rejected, the fear of not belonging, the fear of being inadequate, etc. Write down the reasons you have and the fears associated with those reasons.
Once you have recognized your fears, you can now work towards defeating them. These are the things that are holding you back from exploring more possibilities and limiting your growth as a person.
Understanding The Root Of Your Fears - With your list of fears that are holding you back, you can now try to figure out where these fears come from. For each item on the list, examine whether this fear is the result of some other fears. Your goal is to consolidate your list to as few fears as possible, so that you can better understand where the root of your all your fears are coming from. For example, say one of the items on your list is the fear of being poor. Ask yourself, why am I afraid of being poor? Maybe it’s because being poor limits your freedom. Maybe it makes you insecure about your ability to support yourself. From that one fear, you have actually expanded your list to two fears. Continue this process and ask yourself why you are afraid of having no freedom and why you are afraid of being unable to support yourself.
When you start this exercise, your list will probably grow bigger and bigger as your discover more and more of your fears. However, like finding bugs in software engineering (and then fixing them), you eventually will hit a peak and the number on that list will start to decrease. Try to find as many common base fears as possible, so that you have a smaller number of fears to have to work on. I also find this excerise to really help with knowing yourself better.
When I finished this process, I only had one fear left on the list - the fear of not existing.
Overcoming Your Fears - Fear, as far as I can tell, is the result of uncertainty about a situation. We fear death because we don’t know what happens after it. We fear losing our jobs because we don’t know if there is another way we’ll be able to support ourselves. We fear asking a person out on a date because we don’t know what the other person’s expectations are and whether they would say yes or no. In all of these instances, fear comes from not knowing what we would do should some particular situation happen.
To get rid of the fear, simply figure out what you will do in each of the possible scenarios. For example, for the fear of asking someone out on a date, figure out what you would do if he/she says yes, he/she says no, he/she says yes with a smile, he/she says no with a smile, he/she throws a glass of water at you, etc. Once you know exactly how to handle every single situation, there is simply nothing to be afraid of anymore.
Of course, it’s not always easy to plan out exactly what to do in every situation. How do you even go about doing that? There are infinite number of situations that can come up, so there is no way to “memorize the correct action” for each particular situation. This is where knowing your purpose in life helps tremendously. When you have a definite purpose that encompasses all situations, then you will always have something fall back on if you don’t know exactly what to do.
For me, that purpose is existence. In any situation where I am unsure or confused, I will pick the option that maximizes my existence. Dying? No problem, I will just create as much stuff as possible (could be things or ideas) while I am alive and my existence will become these things. Asking for a date? if yes, we find out more about each other. If no, I go back to my happy single life and possibly try again at a later time. Losing my job? I will try to find some other way to increase my existence. Sure, I may still be afraid from time to time since I haven’t worked every single thing out, but given a bit of time, I will always know which path to take.
Having this purpose is like having a giant compass whenever you are lost. You may not know where you are now, but you will always end up at your destination if you follow the general. Knowing this, what is there to be afraid of? You will get what you want, you are heading the right way, and you do know what to do when you are lost. Since this is an internal thing, this sure seems like a good saying: “For all problems, look inside yourself”.
Figure out your purpose and fear will never control you!
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