“Get rid of your fear of failure, your tensions about succeeding, you will be yourself. Relaxed. You wouldn’t be driving with your brakes on. That’s what would happen.” — Anthony De Mello

Fear is a powerful, primitive human emotion. While critical to keeping ancestral homo sapiens alive, fear as it exists today is substantially more complicated in nature.

When we say the word “fear,” most of us conjure acute fears that produce immediate sensory anxiety, otherwise known as an amygdala hijack. When we are afraid, our bodies release cortisol and adrenaline stress hormones to help us prepare for fight or flight. We are afraid of flying, and, when we fly, our heart rates speed up.

While the evolutionary proximal predator threats still necessitate immediate flight, other probable, almost certain (to us) anticipations of future danger require different treatment. Every day, we are motivated and governed by fear that does not manifest in actual conscious feelings of being afraid.

Without awareness, most of our long-term control is not in our hands, but in those of societal and familial conditioning. However, fear is a choice. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “We are our choices.” Uncovering these fears so that you can make your own choices takes courage.

Awareness is Point Blank Difficult

One of my most potent fears recently uncovered? Fear of not being admired.

Sharing this aloud honestly feels absurd and even shallow. I have always been independent, confident going against the grain and flirting with disruptive ideas. Within that context, others’ approval, while important, was something I have been willing to risk in order to find my own way.

Arriving at the realization that my behavior over most of my life has been, at least to some degree, motivated by a deep clinging to others’ admiration was point blank difficult.

First, there is difficulty facing the fear itself. Oftentimes the fear will seem trite. I came to understand the power rationalization plays in my life; I thought I knew better than to place so much weight on approval.

Second, there is the self-admonishment. In my case, I discovered shame accumulated over years for not living up to the desire I had set forth. For every time I did not achieve importance or admiration, I — a highly accountable person — took on the blame.

Third, once your fear is out in the open, there really is no going back and the road to change will take time and can be discouraging. Uncovering a root fear is like uncovering an essential truth about the world. I intrinsically know that relying on a perception of others’ admiration is not a way to live fully. While I relish in people and my relationships, and I am not willing to let their opinions dictate my life. However, as someone who embraces change in my life, I deeply understand that the path is not straight up and to the right.

The revelation for me is that a fear that I did not know existed has motivated me in both subtle and obvious ways. And so instead of discouragement, it has me deeply curious: How do we methodically identify what our root fears are? And how do we heal?

Identifying our Root Fears

Stoic philosophers and incredible thinkers of our present day often explore the benefit of defining a worst-case scenario. As Tim Ferris shares, a fear-setting practice can unlock amazing future possibilities for people. Without repeating this methodology, I agree that playing out the worst case scenario can have a very positive impact on one’s life.

However, the trouble with fear that does not manifest as being afraid is that our root fears are pervasive in our lives without us being aware. And playing out the worst case for our surface-level fears may very well help with coping, but may also result in the same theme perpetuating itself over and over in our lives with no complete resolution.

To transcend this type of fear, it is critical to uncover our root fears. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What is always bugging you? Why?
  • Around what do you say “I’m always in this situation”? Why?
  • Which situations in your life do you dwell the most on? Why?
  • What situation in your life are you deeply frustrated about? Why?

You must be willing to take the simple question “why,” and keep blowing it out until you have no where else to go. When your entire list of “whys” is in front of you, then ask, “what am I afraid of?” If any comparative statements or words crop up for you (should, could, better, etc), it may be a signal you are close.

I offer that many of these fears will show up in the form of something not happening:

  • Fear of things not working out — Someone who gets frustrated when his business is not working out as it could, when his relationship with his dad is not going as well as it could
  • Fear of not having options — Someone who is always in triangles, with work, with her love life, with professional choices
  • Fear of not being worthy — Someone who sabotages his diet and avoids risks in his professional life

It is easier to identify the pain felt when that which we desire is not there then the pleasure perceived when it is.

Freedom to Choose

An entire separate post could be written on methodologies for introspection and change. While useful for the exercises stated above, in this piece, I will remain focused on how I am moving forward as thoughts for how you might be able to too.

Free to choose. Having identified a root fear, perhaps the biggest gift of all is knowing that I get to choose whether or not I am actually scared of the fear. While letting go of decades of conditioning will require methodical and patient steps forward, I do know that I do not need nor want to rely on others or my perception of others to bring me happiness. I also know that admiration will not lead me to happiness. In a very simple sense, knowing this has removed the intensity with which this fear governs me.

Testing assumptions. My assumption that admiration was not a feature driving my behavior was incorrect. Analysis is not awareness. I wanted to be admired despite, and/or perhaps because of, my willingness to go against the grain. Understanding this has disarmed my belief in my assumptions about myself, thereby opening the door to think and act differently and to be curious about other underlying “why’s” in my life.

Introducing change. Being aware of my fear allows me to identify it more easily when it crops up so that I have a choice — even a small moment of pause — of whether or not I let the fear govern my behavior. Combined with a healthy amount of meditation, journaling and other awareness activities, I am more frequently spotting the habit so that I can make the choice to unwind it.

Root fear — whether it be conditioned from our past or new ones that form in our future — will always be with us. The clandestine and even counterintuitive manner in which they operate requires substantial effort to uncover them. If willing to spend time with this process, at the end of your search, you will begin to spot conditioning that you may no longer want, need or identify with.

Making a shift to stare your fear straight on gives you a choice. What you do with that choice is yours to decide, but the beauty is that this choice will be made in consciousness.