We all have fears. They are a built in protective mechanism that helps ensure our survival from things that are harmful to us. Fears develop from our past experiences. When a specific event, or stimulus, results in a negative outcome, especially if this happens multiple times or in a very significant way, we are at risk for building a fear of that particular stimulus. Our fears extend way beyond snakes, spiders, and heights. As people we can become conditioned to be afraid of anything: people, situations, emotions, etc. For some of us however, these fears are no longer protective or adaptive, and instead can interfere with our lives. If you are avoiding the things you feel afraid of, you could be making your fears worse over time.
The 5 fears I have listed below are ones that I commonly see people struggle with. If you can identify with any of these, listen up, as they could be interfering with you moving forward in your life and feeling truly fulfilled.
- The Fear of Failure
Failure, the F word, is something we are taught to avoid at all costs. In reality, failure is a necessary part of life that teaches us many lessons. We all experience failure and no one is immune to it. It may be a job that didn’t work out, a failed marriage, a failed career, not achieving a goal, making a big mistake, or making a decision that didn’t work out for the best. In many ways failure shapes our paths and helps teach us what is working in our lives and what isn’t working. Without failure or mistakes everything would work out perfectly and we wouldn’t be able to define our path in life. When we stumble upon roadblocks, we learn something important about ourselves. That information may lead you to try something different next time or problem solve about what isn’t working. It is easy to feel defeated when you have failed at something but, if you give up and stop trying, it becomes impossible to move into the realm of possibility. The most successful people in the world experience failures, the only difference is they persevere despite these setbacks eventually achieving their goals. The bottom line is that failure is uncomfortable for most of us. Despite this you can keep moving forward anyhow.
- The Fear of Disapproval
When I was younger, I believed that it would be possible for everyone to like me. I thought that if I was just nice enough, funny enough, and sensitive enough that no one would ever disapprove of me. Life experience has shown me that this is an impossible task. Disapproval can be painful because it may signal a threat of rejection, abandonment, or removal of love and support. In tribal times, disapproval from other group members could result in being socially out casted and isolated, limiting one’s chance for survival. Evolution has hardwired us to seek approval and acceptance from the people around us. Unfortunately, in modern times this isn’t always the most helpful mechanism. When we become too caught up in what others think of us, and whether they like us or accept us, we are giving them power over our own self-worth. You may find yourself dismissing and disregarding your own needs, feelings, opinions, and boundaries just to win approval from someone else. This begins to eat away at one’s self-confidence.
I am going to encourage you to let go of the idea that everyone must like and approve of you. Each person you encounter has his or her own struggles, insecurities, perspectives, and past experiences. Consequently, it is impossible for everyone to like or approve of you. What others think of you often says more about their own psychology than yours. The bottom line is that disapproval stings a little bit for all of us. However the goal is to know yourself, honor yourself, and live by your own convictions while respecting the rights of others. If someone is not okay with that, then you probably don’t want them in your life anyhow. There are many other people on this planet who you can connect with.
- The Fear of Strong Emotions
Emotions or feelings are as important to us humans as our sensory organs. The complexity of emotion developed in human beings over time because they provide significant adaptive functions or ways of helping us. Emotions provide us with very essential information about when to protect ourselves, when to prepare for danger, when to take a step back and reflect on aspects of our lives that need change, when we are doing things that are harmful to ourselves, and when we are doing things that heal us and help us. Emotions are necessary for guiding our intuition, helping us make decisions and solve problems, and building deep emotional attachments with others. The rich experience of life would be lost without emotions and we would basically function like robots.
Emotions can also be very strong, uncomfortable, and at times even distressing. Our experiences around emotion as children often set the stage for our attitudes about feelings as adults. If you are sent messages that feelings are bad and make you weak, then you will be inclined to deny your feelings. If you learn that feelings are painful and unbearable, then your tolerance of emotions will likely be low, and there will be a tendency to avoid any situations or experiences that may elicit uncomfortable emotions (thus limiting important life experiences). We learn how to cope with feelings from our parents. Did your parents help show you how to work through unpleasant feelings? Did they teach you effective ways to cope with feelings? If the answer is no, then possibly you have developed your own ways of coping with painful emotions that may actually make your feelings worse over the long run.
The more you avoid, deny, or cope with negative feelings in an unhealthy way, the worse you are likely to feel. This is how normal feelings of sadness can turn into a depression, or how feelings of anxiety and fear develop into an anxiety problem. When you allow yourself to feel your feelings, by observing them, tolerating them, and patiently allowing them to be there until they natural dissipate, the better you will ultimately feel. This may not happen immediately. There needs to be willingness to experiences distress over the short term in order to receive benefits over the long run. Eventually you will come to view your emotions as important information that needs to be processed, rather than something that you must avoid.
- Fear of Change
In life, if we are not changing we are not evolving. If you aren’t moving outside of your comfort zone then you are not challenging yourself in new ways. Many people fear change because there are risks associated with it. There is always uncertainty involved in change and sticking with the familiar is so much easier. The problem is that what might be comfortable and familiar may not be working for you. Still people are inclined to choose certainty and familiarity over fulfillment and satisfaction. Choosing the path of the unknown raises questions, and there are no guarantees of success, this is true. But, the only way to get to a new place, a place that is more consistent with the path you want to travel, is by taking the risk. Staying with the familiar will continue to result in getting the same results in your life. Although it’s uncomfortable and at times stressful for most us, a meaningful and fulfilled life must embrace change.
- Fear of Conflict
When you think of conflict images of aggression, violence, yelling, and relationship problems may be elicited. Perhaps you think of your own experiences in your family or background where there was unnecessary fighting and hostility. It is understandable why you would want to avoid conflict if you’ve had overwhelmingly negative experiences surrounding it. There are costs however to avoiding conflict. Ultimately, this avoidance can lead to issues not getting resolved, growing resentments, passive aggressive behavior, and ignoring your thoughts, feelings or needs.
Conflict does not necessarily have to be an awful thing. In fact, it is an unavoidable part of life and any close relationship. When you are close with someone, whether it is a romantic partner, best friend, parent, or co-worker, it is impossible to blend your lives together without differences cropping up. Conflict gives us an opportunity to pay attention to what may not be working in a relationship and resolve it. If managed well, conflict can encourage effective communication, promote understanding, bring people closer together, and lead to issues being resolved. Managing conflict well does involve effective communication, taking time out when overwhelmed by emotion, active listening, and understanding the other person’s perspective.
The good news in all of this is that it is possible for you to overcome any of these fears you may have. If you find yourself having difficulty facing your fears or feel overwhelmed on where to start or how to start, please read my upcoming article on “How to Overcome your Fears” for more specific information on this topic.