Snakes along the trail: your fears

This may be the most important article in this series. Our hopes and our fears are two of the most important elements that make us who we are.  We are constantly thinking about our hopes, but how often do we think about our fears?

"Nothing is so much to be feared as fear," American naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in September 1851. Eighty-one years later Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed these sentiments in his inaugural speech:

We have nothing to fear but... fear itself.

When Roosevelt uttered those words, the stakes could scarcely have been higher: The country and the rest of the world were in the midst of the greatest depression of the century. Fear was everywhere, threatening to paralyze any action that could turn the situation around.

While none of us today face fear on the scale seen in the 1930s, we all face the very real possibility that fear can hold us back from achieving our goals and living our values.  This often happens without our conscious realization.

What is fear?

If we compare ourselves to an airplane, our hopes are like the thrust that keeps the plane in motion.  Our fears are like drag.  The forces need to be in balance for the plane to keep moving forward.

We can also compare our fears to a framework.  Fears are like road barriers. 

On one hand, they can keep us out of dangerous situations.  Right now, visualizing a possible future self painfully gasping for breath on a ventilator can motivate us to maintain healthy behaviors, like mask-wearing and social distancing in public. 

On the other hand, sometimes our fears impose barriers to places that we'd like to go - places that won't actually hurt us.  In those cases, we need to get a grasp on what's holding us back and why.

When fear is not helpful

Daniel Gilbert, quoted in the previous article in this series, has thoroughly researched people's predictions about what their levels of happiness will be after a hoped-for event occurs or fails to occur.  Gilbert and colleagues compared the future happiness of assistant professors who achieved tenure with the actual results.  Their happiness quickly returned to the baseline after the tenure was achieved. 

Gilbert and others monitored losing contestants in a dating game to see if they were as unhappy about losing as they predicted they would be.  They consistently were not.Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective Forecasting. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 345–411). Elsevier.

Obviously, fearing adversity in the future is not helpful when the adversity will be momentary.  Whether we attain our hopes, realize our fears, or even encounter an unexpected event, our happiness is usually only momentarily affected.  What about traumatic life events?

Should we fear trauma?

In fact, people who have experienced traumatic events can gain an increased appreciation of life as a result.  In 1995, the psychologists Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun coined the phrase "post-traumatic growth" to describe the ability of individuals to triumph over traumatic events.  They describe this phenomenon as follows:

It is manifested in a variety of ways, including an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life.Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). TARGET ARTICLE: “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence.” Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18.

In a 2004 article, they quoted two individuals who had experienced post-traumatic growth.  Sally Walker, a survivor of an airline crash that killed 83 people said, "[Now] everything is a gift."   Hamilton Jordan, chief of staff for Jimmy Carter, gained a new perspective on life as a cancer survivor:

After my first cancer, even the smallest joys in life took on a special meaning - watching a beautiful sunset, a hug from my child, a laugh with Dorothy. That feeling has not diminished with time.

No one wants to go through trauma, and taking reasonable precautions to avoid severe risks is wise.  But realizing that we can even endure traumatic live events can help us put our fears into perspective.

What about problems?

Who of us isn't fascinated by the idea of a genie in a bottle who could instantly solve our problems for us.  However, if it were possible to have this experience we might quickly conclude that life is less meaningful.  Why?

Challenges and unexpected events bring meaning to life in at least three ways:

  1. They make our life story more interesting.
  2. They add to our skillset and make us more useful.
  3. They allow us to grow in ways we couldn't otherwise.An optimistic outlook, resilience, and a good set of cognitive tools can help us grow instead of shrinking in the face of adversity.  These are all subjects that will continue to be explored on this website.

Should we fear problems?  Think of the last time you felt the urge to curse about something.  What happened?  Was it a tragedy, pain, or mere inconvenience?

I've never heard anyone say it out loud, but we seem to share a widespread belief that problems shouldn't happen to us. Why else would we have an urge to curse when the universe is actually giving us a gift?

In reality, the most successful people are problem solvers.  When we encounter an unexpected problem, we are naturally disappointed.  But how do you know what other, bigger problems you may have in the future that this one might prepare you for?

Just take action

There's no point in blaming another person or a past self for the problem at hand.  I might be tempted to think, "I should have known better!"  But if I really knew better, I would not have actually made the mistake.  It's hindsight bias that makes us think we should have known better.  Besides, regardless of how it got here, the important thing is, it's my problem.  I'm my present self, riding the horse I'm on with all of the emotions and circumstances that surround me right now.  I should be focused on three things:

  1. Taking responsibility for the problem, at least for the part I have control over
  2. Doing what I can to solve the problem
  3. Learning from the experience

One last thing:  After you've solved the problem (or failed to solve it), make sure you add your efforts to your identity map.  The more you can document how you felt when you encountered it, what you learned, and how you felt afterward, the more confident you'll be the next time a problem comes along.  What if you failed to solve the problem?  Write down what you learned.  And give yourself credit for trying.  The road to success is paved with failures.  Someday your future self will look back at your life map and smile knowingly as they see how this problem was one small step toward a larger success.

Now what?

It's often said that while there are lots of things we can't control, we can always control our attitude.  But they rarely offer useful advice on how to go about it.  I'm going to give you ten suggestions.While writing this article I observed that this list shares similarities with cognitive restructuring, a method "used successfully to treat a wide variety of conditions, including depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addictions, anxiety, social phobias, relationship issues, and stress."  My list is intended to help you take action (or be at peace with not taking action). If the problem you're facing is emotional distress rather than action paralysis, you may want to try the steps in cognitive restructuring instead.

  1. Write down something you are putting off or are afraid will happen.
  2. Write down as many reasons you can think of for this fear.
  3. Write down as many negative outcomes as possible.  What does your future self look like if this fear comes to pass?
  4. Write down the costs of not acting.
  5. Write down the benefits of not acting.  Maybe it's a good fear.
  6. Write down the benefits of taking action despite your fear.
  7. Weigh the costs and benefits of acting versus letting the fear stop you.  Make a good decision.If you've got here and it's still not clear which path to take, try listing your core values and placing each one on the for or against side of the decision.
  8. If you decide to act, write down any progress that has already been made.
  9. Write down the next action(s), in as simple a form as possible, and make a schedule for getting started.
  10. Take the horse by the reins.  Also, recruit support from others.

One last suggestion:  Take the results from #4 and #6 above and put them where you can see them often.  This will help convince your future self, who might be tempted to give in to the fear again, to stay the course.

The real thing to fear isn't fear

In view of the foregoing, I have a slightly different take on Thoreau's and Roosevelt's claims about fearing fear.  It isn't fear itself we should be afraid of.  It is unexamined fear.  Some fears are good, but a thorough understanding of our fears gives us much more freedom than we could have otherwise.

Wear your seatbelt.  Wear a mask.  But when fear stands between you and something you really want, pick it up and look at it as closely as possible.  Maybe the key to the shackles you're wearing is already in your hand.

Next week:  How to stay on the trail


  • Fear is like the drag on an airplane or like a barrier in the roadway.
  • Our predictions about future happiness or disappointment are often wrong.
  • We can even triumph over traumatic events.
  • We shouldn't fear problems in life.
  • Don't curse your luck; just take action. A problem is a gift from the universe.
  • A ten-step method for dealing with a fear barrier that's in your path.

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self
  6. The Rider - Your Present Self
  7. Don't Beat the Horse
  8. The Fly on the Horse - Self-Distancing
  9. That Tricky Horse Handler - Your Remembering Self
  10. The Destination: Your Future Self

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