Well, well, well, if you are here, then that means there are things which are troubling you and causing you to fear. If so, consider yourself lucky. Why? Before I can answer that question, let me take you through the evolution of the emotion of “fear” in humans.
Evolution of Fear
During the early stages of the evolution of any species, fear played a critical role in its survival. The creature in the wild who did not fear much and was ready to take its chances in the presence of a nearby predator was more likely to end up in the jaws of the predator than survive. The one who acted on fear fled and ensured its survival. Thus, this primal emotion proved to be a major driving factor in the survival of that species and humans are no exception to this.
Now, humankind has evolved into such a stage that we no longer have to live in the wild with a constant lookout for predators. Fear is something that developed as a survival mechanism during the evolutionary stages of ancient man. It got transferred down the line to modern humans.
Fear in Modern Man
The modern man’s fear is no longer towards prehistoric-level threats. They are geared more towards softer ones. We are afraid of what others will think about us, of failure, of whether we will have to live a life designed by someone else for us, of this, we are afraid of that ....Consciously or unconsciously, we tend to avoid all these fears and go on with our lives. The more we avoid, the more we are under the illusion that we escaped from being attacked by the “perceived threat”.
Why do we avoid our fears? It's simple! We don’t want to have tensing and stressful moments in our life. We want to feel safe, we want to feel secure. We tend to take things for granted so that our lives can be simpler. For example, we don’t give a thought to the accidents that can happen to us any second as we go on with our lives. We plan things for tomorrow, for next week, for next year, and probably for the next 10 years as well. We are “confident” that we will live long enough to accomplish all those plans.
But are we certain about it? No. Being confident and being certain are two entirely different things. There is no certainty that nothing unprecedented can happen to us or our loved ones anytime. Yet we don’t account for these uncertainties in our plans for our future.
Uncertainty! The cornerstone for all our fears. The endless slew of “What-ifs”. What if I fail, what if a car hits me on my morning walk, what if this, what if that, what if, what if, what if ....the never-ending what-ifs. To spare ourselves daily from a majority of these what-ifs, we conveniently do a little trick. We create a bubble of confidence, which we often confuse with certainty, that nothing “out-of-the-ordinary” will happen. We then place ourselves in it.
With this, we free up our mind-space from many of the uncertainties of daily life and devote that to “more important” affairs of life. We don’t want uncertainty in our life, we crave certainty. This very tendency is the cause of all our fears.
Now, the Million Dollar Question - What Did We Gain by Avoidance?
Instead of living peacefully and happily, we prolong our period of stress by avoidance. The more we avoid, the more we live in fear. To live a happy life, we avoid fear, and the very act of avoiding makes us more unhappy.
Seems like a paradox, right? But it's true. Avoidance is never the solution. The only way is - to power through. Once we face it, there are no more uncertainties. Everything gets called out in the open and the issue gets closed once and for all. The fear has been faced, now we have a solid understanding of what the fear was, was there anything to be feared after all in the first place. The issue is over and now we can go on with our lives happily with the fear no more lurking in the background of our minds.
Okay, We Talked About Facing Our Fear, but What Does That Mean?
You never even know whether what you are fearing is real or not. Most often than not, your fears are not real or may even be irrational. Irrational fears are extremely common if you are going through episodes of anxiety disorders like OCD. 98% of your troubles are inside your mind, and only the rest 2% are actual “dangers”. We usually cross the bridges in our minds before we even reach them. We cross it over and over again in our minds, yet we will still be miles away from the actual bridge.
We don’t have the past with us anymore and we don’t know what the future holds for us. All we have is the here and now, the present. We waste this only thing that we have with us ruminating or obsessing over events in the past or would-be events in the future or maybe even both. Of course, we should plan for our future and learn from our past mistakes but that should not mean us wasting our present on things beyond our control.
The matter gets even worse when we unconsciously acknowledge the irrational fears as “facts” and begin fighting with them. This starts impacting our behavior toward ourselves and others in a very subtle manner. This in turn brings about corresponding changes in others’ behaviors towards us. These subtle changes start building up until we end up confirming the original fear has turned into reality. Hence, we have succeeded in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. We have made sure that what we did not want to have happened has happened.
So What to Do?
Let the Fear Be There and Let It Pass.
Do not try to wrangle with it. The more you fight with it, the more you are acknowledging the “threat” to be true. Well, maybe it is, maybe it is not. If we spend time thinking about matters beyond our control, all we are doing is, converting our "definite" present into a wasted past and a future with zero or even negative impacts.
You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are a part of the flotsam and jetsam of the brain. They don’t mean anything until you let it. They are random “neuron firings”. Let the thoughts come in and let them go. Let the events happen, and we can face them when they present themselves to us. Trying to solve all the different possible/impossible catastrophic situations surrounding a "perceived" threat, is telling ourselves that we won't be able to face it when it comes. That we are weak and we don’t have the confidence to face it and we will fail when "it" happens. Let's not disrespect ourselves by feeding that thought to ourselves.
We may or may not fail, but that depends not only on ourselves but also on many external factors. We cannot be right all the time, for we are mere humans. We may fail, but that's okay, as what other way to become more mature than going through failures and learning from our mistakes. Our life is not dependent only on our wishes. It is affected by a lot of external factors that are beyond our control. All we can do is make adjustments based on what life throws at us.
What if We Fail?
Let's say we failed, life has handed us lemons. Consider yourself lucky. Make lemonades out of it. Anyone can reap benefits from positive situations. To reap benefits when things turn against us where the real power is. When life throws you out of your comfort zone, you may face situations that you may never even have imagined. Who knows? You may even get the life you always dreamed of which would otherwise have been impossible.
With the “face as it comes” approach, you will find that all the what-ifs start disappearing from your mind. When the "threat" actually presents itself, you will find yourself designing win-win solutions. Solutions that will serve your consciousness and happiness.
But, How Can We Make the Right Decisions?
There are no perfect decisions. No decision can give you a “happily-ever-after”. There will always be pros and cons in every choice you make. All we can do is make decisions with our priorities as our guiding light. The good and the bad that come with it are ours. This is true for any choice you make.
Focus on the process and not on the result. Do not fall victim to outcome bias. Nothing can illustrate this concept better than the Pearl Harbor attack.
Before the attack in 1941, there were many signals indicating that the attack was imminent and many indicating otherwise. It was the time when many false positives were doing the rounds. The military base could not afford to evacuate base on such fake signals. Taking into consideration the slew of false signals, the military decided to take no action. Much to the surprise of the military, the attack happened.
At the time of decision-making, what the military did was the right thing, but in retrospect, it may not seem so. The process was executed for all the right reasons but the result, something not in anyone’s control, turned out to be against the wishes.
With the focus-oriented approach, even if something goes south, you can take pride in the fact that you did not do anything against your wishes. If a choice you made against your wishes led you to a disastrous end, would you forgive yourself for that?
Where to Go From Here?
Next time, when you find yourself ruminating or obsessing over any fear, ask yourself, is this helping you? If your answer to this question is a “No”, distract yourself from those thoughts and focus on the present. This will not only ensure you peace but will also prepare you for greater challenges in the future when the stakes are high. You will be able to identify where to invest your mental energy and where not to.