Learning to distinguish “fear” from “fear of fear” is key to leading a happy life

Don’t panic.
Don’t panic.
Image: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
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There’s one piece of advice that’s always stuck with me: “The only way to not be scared of being punched in the face is being punched in the face.” This is quite true, as I learned after receiving the first (and only) punch in my life. Late one night, I inadvertently bumped into someone outside a bar and promptly got sucker-punched. I remember being shocked and having a bloody lip—but also, strangely, noticing that it didn’t really hurt that much.

This episode got me thinking about the difference between “fear” and the “fear of fear.” Learning to separate one from the other turns out to be extremely important to leading a happy life.

Fear versus facts

Fear is essential to human survival. It lets us know when we’re in danger, and it can spur us to take steps to protect ourselves or ask for help. For our ancestors, fearing isolation, starvation, darkness, and snakes all served important evolutionary functions.

Fear also helps us better understand the tradeoffs of our decisions—a concept that’s called “asymmetric payoffs” in decision theory. For example, from an evolutionary perspective, losing a day’s worth of food could mean death, but gaining extra food did not correspond to longer life expectancy. Being hyper-vigilant to threats was a “better bet” than trying to marginally improve your current well-being. The analogy today is how many people tend to stay in unsatisfying job, choosing to favor their “known” path of least resistance as opposed to the uncertainty of a new job, which could be rich with fulfillment and opportunity.

Fear can also make us act irrationally. According to the economic theory of loss aversion, most people are more afraid of losing $100 than they are excited about the prospect of winning $100. We see this irrational behavior in investing—we’ll hold onto a losing stock in the hopes that it will creep back to its purchase price. In marketing, “trial periods” and rebates are used to entice consumers to make purchases they might otherwise put off, framing the decision as what you would “lose” if you didn’t buy the product, versus what you stand to gain. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it, “we feel pain, but not painlessness.” And so we go out of our way to avoid feeling pain, even when it means that feeling a bit of pain now—say, by selling the stock—is better for us in the long run.

Too much fear can get in our way. I’ve found the best method for dealing with fears is to unpack them. This helps quiet my mind—and put logic back in the driver’s seat.

Figure out what you’re really afraid of

As a coach and speaker, I use an exercise where I ask the audience to anonymously submit the answer to the question, “What are you afraid of?” I then aggregate the results.

People’s fears generally fell into two categories. First, there are survival fears: fear of death, fear of heights, fear of losing a loved one or not making enough money to provide for your family. These kinds of fears are what author Karl Albrecht calls “extinction” fears. They are reasonable things to be afraid of, but they generally involve drastic, worst-case scenarios—in other words, they’re pretty rare, particularly if you live a relatively privileged life in a wealthy country. Even so, extinction fears can be triggered by comparatively small things; an ambiguous email from your boss, say, can make you panic about losing your job and winding up penniless.

Then there are perception fears: the fear of failure, embarrassment, or missing out on life experiences (that is, FOMO). These fears fall under the category of “ego-death,” which Albrecht calls a “shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.” As someone who gets really nervous public speaking, I can relate to that fear of shame and humiliation. But perception fears can be managed to some extent. Simply recognizing them for what they are can help us create some distance between ourselves and our emotions, allowing for more clear-headed thinking.

Take my friend Joe, whose name I’ve changed for the purpose of this story. Joe had a 15-year career as a business strategist. He had longed dreamed of joining a start-up, and eventually got an offer to be the chief operating officer at a relatively high-profile (and well funded) e-commerce company. Joe had some initial hesitations about the risks involved in the new venture. But for a startup, the company seemed to be on strong footing with a very rosy outlook.

When he arrived on his first day, a few quick looks under the hood revealed that the company was in big financial trouble—it wasn’t even clear if it would be able to make it through the next pay cycle. Joe was understandably terrified. He had a wife who was staying at home with their young child, and the typical financial responsibilities of a New York City parent. Joe was waking up in the middle of the night, his mind racing with fears that he would be unable to get a job or make rent, forcing his family out on the streets.

But when we began talking through these fears, it became clear that they were largely irrational.

“How long do you think it would take you to find another job?” I asked Joe.

“Well, when I left my last company, they were so sad to see me go that they gave me the genuine offer of reclaiming my prior job, if I ever needed it,” Joe said.

If he could just go back to his old job, I said, why he was so worried that he had jeopardized his family’s well-being?

Joe’s response was incredulous. “You know how embarrassed I’d be to go back to them two weeks after leaving?”

And there you had it. Joe’s extinction fears—the idea that his family would wind up homeless—were actually a cover for his deeper fear of humiliation and shame. Realistically, he could easily get another job. But his caveman brain had taken over, clouding his judgment. Once he realized that not only would his embarrassment be temporary, but that his ex-colleagues would be ecstatic to have him back, the banality of the situation became evident.

Good Morning America anchor and author Dan Harris describes going through a similar fear spiral in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress, Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works. Harris was insecure about his hair loss. This insecurity meant that it was easy for him to panic; when something innocuous triggered him, he would “immediately project forward to an unpleasant future (e.g. Balding → Unemployment → Flophouse in Duluth).” But tying his hairlessness to his financial well-being and continued employment was clearly a stretch; once he realized this, he turned to meditation to deal with the issues that lay at the root of his fears.

What these examples show is that, much of the time, our deepest, darkest fears are pretty overdramatic. There are legitimate reasons to grapple with extinction fears, but much of the time, we’re not really in mortal peril—the issue has a lot more to do with our fear of losing face. This self-awareness can help get out of panic mode and start problem-solving. As mountain climber Jimmy Chin has said about managing fear: “It’s about sorting out perceived risk from real risk, and then being as rational as possible with what’s left.”