Fear seems to have a gravitational field, capable of sucking in everything that comes into proximity with it.
As I reflect on what about fear makes it so powerful and how I can relate, manage or deal with my fears, the answers that come up are not what I expect.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of fear in life.
The first are fears that keep me living. Like the fear of walking into a busy street with cars speeding by. The fear of getting a disease during a pandemic. The fear of being eaten by a bear while camping. All of these feel valid and worthy.
The other are fears that keep me from living. The fear of failure with a new business idea. The fear of rejection with romantic interests. The fear of being judged or not accepted by others. All of these feel like obstacles along my way.
Each of the fears that I experience, and plenty more, have their own gravitational force. Some feel stronger than others, however all share the common characteristic of being able to draw my attention, trigger emotion and generate bodily sensations.
Where did all of these fears originate from? I am not sure exactly. I imagine that several were seeds planted inadvertently during childhood. Others are from my current circumstances, such as the company I keep, the media I consume and the conversations I choose.
The strongest fears appear to originate from my own lived experiences though.
For example, several years ago, I was on a beach vacation in Puerto Rico with friends and while enjoying the fierce waves in the ocean, I had a near drowning experience. At the time, it was scary, and I feel grateful to the people who came to my rescue. However, within a few hours of the incident, I did not think much of it.
A few days later, I found myself back on a beach and as I walked towards the water, I felt foreign sensations flood my entire body. At that moment, I was experiencing a strong fear that I had not previously experienced. This was a fear that was trying to keep me living.
Another example, this one from over one decade ago, during the early years of starting my business. In my early 20s, fresh out of school, I hired a few senior people to join the team. I was young and inexperienced, they were older and more experienced. It all made sense to me at first.
Once I began to work with them though, in the startup stage that we were clearly in, it became quickly obvious that this was not working out. We were too early-stage for their experience level and the culture fit was challenging.
I can now reflect back on this clearly and calmly. However, at the time, I felt like a failure. And it felt awful. I blamed myself, and absorbed more than my fair share of responsibility.
What happened next was fascinating.
The business had grown out of its startup phase, had established product-market fit, revenue was growing and we had just received a large injection of investment. Despite the clear need for some experienced talent to help grow the business, it took me two years to make the hires. I interviewed no less than 100 candidates for two of the roles, each time justifying the lengthy process to myself as I had not yet met the right candidate.
In a moment of frustration and fatigue, I paused the search. Once I had taken some space from this project, I began to see clearly what was going on. I was experiencing a fear of failure. It was keeping me, or rather my business, from living to its full potential.
Within a few weeks of this insight, I filled the roles, and a few more, and it turned out great. I had broken free from the gravity of this fear.
It takes a few steps for me to break free from the gravity of fear, and its cousin, anxiety,
It starts with awareness. In any moment that I feel even an ounce of agitation, stress or tension, if I ask myself ‘what am I scared of here?’, I usually will uncover an underlying fear that is pulling me in.
Once I can see the fear that is present for me, I begin to reset my relationship with it. I experience fears, like I experience comforts and discomforts. I do not have fears, like I have a business, a sister or a name.
This framing is very important. I do not “have a fear” of any thing. I will at times “experience a fear” of many things.
It is like the experience of taste. Based on what I am eating, I will experience different tastes. If I eat popcorn, I experience saltiness. If I eat mustard, I experience bitterness. If I eat blueberries, I experience sweetness.
Fear is a real experience for me. It is important that I acknowledge my experience, versus try to discount it or ignore it. Only then can I learn to acknowledge others who also have their own experiences of fear.
Once I understand that I am experiencing something, versus having something, I can now try to put it into perspective.
When on a hike in the mountains, on a walk by the ocean or simply looking at a picture or painting of a landscape, I immediately feel calm. The reason is that when I widen my perspective, I become small in relation to what I am seeing. And when I become smaller, so do the issues that are triggering the experience of fear. They may not disappear, however they are now in perspective and I can give them the appropriate amount of attention.
Fear is greedy. It tries to grab as much of my attention as possible. That is how its gravitational force functions.
The experience of fear will always come and go in my experience of life. Some fears keep me living, others keep me from living. My approach is not to avoid or conquer fear, but rather learn to be aware of it, understand my relationship with it and see it in perspective of something bigger.
This is how I can ultimately break free from the gravity of fear, and continue to live life with a little less friction, and a little more ease.