Saturday, November 25, 2006


Cultivating fearlessness

It's Thanksgiving Saturday, and a day to relax. So this is a re-post of an item I wrote for a company blog on 15 July 2005.

In her post on cultivating fearlessness, Tessa talks about the value of not being afraid. I've been thinking about this since she posted it, and have some things to say about it.

As I see it, there are a number of different reasons for fear, some of which are these:

  1. Fear of direct consequences. If I do/say <x>, then <bad thing y> might happen as a direct result.
  2. Fear of the unknown. "I'd better not do <x> because I don't know what will happen if I do." Related to "direct consequences", maybe a special case of it.
  3. Fear of reprisal. If I do/say <x>, then someone might later retaliate — somewhat different, I think, from direct consequences, but also related.
  4. Fear of rejection. An early manifestation of this one is, "I can't ask her out; what if she says 'no'?" But now, "I can't ask my manager for <x>; what if she says 'no'?"
  5. Fear of success. Yes, sometimes one actually is afraid of this, and this is perhaps the most damaging of the fears.
  6. Fear for fear's sake. Phobias fit here, as well as lesser, but no less unreasoned fears. Fear of flying, fear of spiders, fear of crowds, fear of being alone.

Fear of direct consequences

This is the sort of reasonable fear that makes us consider the pros and cons of what we say and do, and prevents us from hurting ourselves or making enormously bad decisions. It's bad, of course, when it prevents us from making any decisions at all. We must learn to weigh the consequences and decide whether the risks are worth the benefits. Indeed, a relatively small risk of nasty consequences may not be worth it if there's little benefit even in the best case. On the other hand, a chance of a big win is worth considerable risk. We learn to develop confidence and to measure that confidence against the risks.

Fear of the unknown

I believe that the first stage in working with this is to understand that things are seldom truly unknown, at least in the lives of most of us. We can usually analyze a situation and come up with some possibilities, and convert the situation into one of the other fears, and deal with it that way. When something really is in this category, even after such analysis, I think what I do is to consider "unknown consequences" as a very small negative point, and weigh it against the benefits that way.

Fear of reprisal

Since this is similar to the prior ones, one may handle it similarly, by balancing the pros against the cons. Where it differs is that one must also consider the positions of those who might retaliate. I certainly consider reprisal from, say, my second-line manager, to be more of a concern than that from, say, a peer with whom I seldom work. On the other hand, whose ear does that peer have, and can the peer escalate the reprisal? This gets complicated quickly. In general, one tries not to tread on toes, but sometimes one has to.

Fear of rejection

This is one of the least useful fears, and yet the hardest to break through. "What if s/he says 'no'?" Well, indeed, so what? If that's all that happens, it's not so bad. And yet this fear debilitates many of us more than does any other. It comes in variants, too: "What if I make a fool of myself?" "What if they think I don't know what I'm talking about?" "No one wants to hear what I have to say."

We've probably all dealt with this one at some time or other, and probably still do occasionally. Brazen it out. Develop confidence, but not to a fault. There's a difficult balance here, but if you learn it you can be assured that the worst that will happen is that someone will disagree with you or will "say 'no'", and that that isn't really such a bad thing.

Fear of success

How can anyone be afraid to succeed? Well, with success comes higher expectations, the need for continued success, more responsibility, and, consequently, stress and uncertainty about one's ability to meet the demands. Here, as with "fear of rejection", we must learn to develop confidence in our abilities, and in our abilities to get help when we need it. If our success be meaningful to others too — and it almost always is — then others have an interest in seeing it continue. That fact works in our favour.

Fear for fear's sake

There's little to do here; this is fear we must simply break through. Counselling may help, "confronting our fears" may help. Ultimately, though, it just has to come from within.

Of course, as I think about it, I see that it all has to come from within. We can help each other to be less fearful, through support, cooperation, and friendship. In the end, though, it has to come from within.

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