What I learned from Studying Fear

A few months ago I got into an interesting conversation with my roommate and co-founder.

He proposed an idea, and my response was, “what if it messes up x,y,z? That will lead to us spending more time on q, and it will be a waste of resources.”

He immediately replied, “Have you ever noticed that you make decisions based on fear?”

It took me aback. Decisions based on fear? What do you mean? I’m not afraid right now? Afraid of what?

He’s a bit of a “cryptic” talker, and usually has a powerful message behind statements like this. So I dove a bit deeper.

“What do you mean by ‘make decisions based on fear?’”

“You decide not to do things because you’re afraid of what might go wrong. Your fear of potential problems has a tendency to override your decision making process.”

He had a point. Perhaps I did do that. Did he have any other examples?

He then walked me through a handful of past decisions I made. It was true, a lot of my initial responses to problems were ones of fear. I tried to justify fear with skepticism, but I was only fooling myself. When I honestly looked at my past decisions, I noticed a trend of letting fear influence my decisions.

It became a turning point in my life. I began to see how fear based thinking applied to a variety of decisions I make, both in work and in my personal life. I started to notice when other people would use it in their own reasoning.

…I soon realized that this is a common problem amongst most of us that we’re unaware of.

Here are some examples of how fear based thinking can influence decisions:

  • Why don’t you approach that pretty girl for her phone number? Fear of rejection
  • Why don’t we quit our jobs and do something we love? Fear of unemployment, or that our family won’t support the decision. Or our friends might criticize us for it.
  • Why don’t we travel to that country off the beaten path? I might get robbed, shot or killed!
  • Why don’t we break up with a significant other despite clear issues? Fear of the anticipated breakup and how difficult it will be.
  • Why don’t we apply for that out of reach job? Ask for the raise? Push a little harder on the sale? Fear of rejection
  • Why don’t we address most of our problems in life? Fear of the unknown. It makes us uncomfortable and so we avoid it.

I then began to see examples of fear based thinking in social dynamics across the board. Why does someone take abuse from their boss? Fear they will get fired if they speak up. Why does the person yelling at everyone get all the attention? Everyone is afraid. Why does someone not tell their family about an important (but controversial) decision? Fear of their reaction.

Fear has an interesting way of creeping into our life all the time without us being conscious of it.

Now don’t get me wrong, fear is useful. It helps us to make rational decisions and prevents us from doing something stupid. From an evolutionary standpoint, it served a lot of purpose. You should be afraid if you’re about to get attacked by a bear and have to run for your life!

However, we can’t let fear be the primary factor when weighing a decision. We can’t let fear blind us from seeing the upside. We can’t allow fear to prevent us from taking action on something that could have huge benefits in the long run.

Should you be afraid if you’re about to quit your job? Absolutely! It’s going to be tough, and you’re going to have to hustle to create the life you want to for yourself. But should this prevent you from doing it at all? That depends. In many instances, the fear we create in our minds isn’t justified and we’ll be just fine. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

So how do we flip the fear based decision making? Make decisions out of LOVE.

(*scratches head) Decisions out of love? How does one exactly make decisions out of love?

This is something I’m still trying to get a grasp on in all honesty. Right now though, I look at it as love for oneself. Taking care of yourself and making the best decision for your long term happiness. If you love yourself, quit the job you hate because it doesn’t bring you happiness or fulfillment. If you love yourself, take care of yourself and pick up a hobby you love. If you love yourself, get on a diet and start exercising so you can live a longer, more fulfilling life.

Make decisions out of the upside. The best case scenario. Make decisions based on what could go right in the situation.

Does this mean negate fear? Absolutely not. The key is to embrace the fear, know it’s there, and look at it objectively.

“Ok, this is the downside. Can I protect against this? Is it worth the risk? Now, having weighed this, what is the upside?”

Let’s revisit those same scenarios from earlier with this mindset.

  • Approach that pretty girl for her phone number? Could meet someone you love.
  • Quit your job? I love myself too much to spend 70% of my week doing something I hate.
  • Friends and family who don’t support you? “I would feel the same way if I were you, but I know that this is what’s best for me.”
  • Fear of no money? I’m smart and capable and I know I’ll always be able to find something to support myself.
  • Break up with someone? We’re not in a healthy relationship and it’s what’s best for both of us.
  • Deal with your problems? Because you LOVE yourself! You want the best possible life for yourself!

Interesting how a flip in perspective changes the entire equation, eh?

Action Items:

How do we put all this into practice? Here are some methods I’ve used to become more aware of when fear is influencing my decisions.

1) Awareness: The first, and hardest, step is to become aware that you’re doing this at all. It’s hard to catch at first, but with a keen eye you’ll begin to notice when it creeps in. Personally, I notice it most when listening to other people talk about their problems. Once I catch the thinking, I flip the reasoning and help them discover the alternative. This exercise trained me to do it more for myself.

2) Write down all your decisions: I found that I would often try to “think through” a problem. I would weigh all the options in my head. Instead, I now brain dump everything I know about the problem onto paper. I weigh all the sides of a decision objectively. It’s much easier to spot fear based thinking when it’s on a piece of paper sitting in front of you.

3) Get others to call you out on it: If your friends understand fear based thinking, get them to call you out on it! There’s nothing like having someone say, “you’re doing it again” for an immediate shift in perspective. I still do it all the time, and with the help of my friends we catch it. It’s been an incredible tool and has made our relationship stronger.

4) Be Diligent: Becoming aware and getting people to call you out is only the first step. I am describing a radical shift in the way that you think. It can take a long time to correct depending how often you already do it. For some people it may come easy. Others might notice all their decision making is rooted in this mindset. It might take a long time to correct, but don’t give up in the process. The more you exercise the muscle, the stronger it will grow 😃

What have your experiences been with fear based decisions? Have you had similar experiences? Tell me about it in the comments! The more we can help each other, the better we can all become.

Thoughts? Similar experiences? Let me know in the comments below!

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Also published on Medium.

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