Wisdom//

Fear of Fear, and the Delusion of Safety

Whether in our social lives, our relationships, or our careers –– everything we're afraid of comes down to one common theme.

Shutterstock
Shutterstock

Fear is a painful feeling that usually prompts us to avoid the cause.

When I was a Clinical Psychologist, the first patient I had was a spider phobic. Her goal was not to be scared by having a spider near her. She had made a series of choices to avoid coming into contact with a spider. For example, she made sure that she wore long sleeve tops and trousers with elasticated edges. She wore rubber rain boots when in the house in case there was a spider in the house. She lived with a vacuum cleaner in the middle of her living room in case anyone saw a spider, and she repeatedly prepped her family on the ‘emergency’ procedures. Even outside the house, she made sure she never stood under a tree, and she carried bug spray in her handbag.

By trying to avoid the thing she feared, my patient had developed a set of ‘safety behaviours’ in an attempt to keep her safe. The irony was that these behaviours maintained the fear. Avoidance will give us the delusion of safety but will prevent us from the very outcome we want.

The treatment of a phobic is to build the muscle of tolerating the fear gradually. For this patient, I introduced her to cartoons of spiders, then realistic pictures of spiders, then spiders in boxes, and by increasing her ‘threat’ tolerance, she finally moved to tolerating live spiders crawling on her hand.

I spend much of my time talking about interpersonal fear at work and how damaging it is to efficiency, engagement and the quality of our work. Here are some of the fears that I see often, the fear of:

  1. Speaking up 
  2. Not speaking up
  3. Being rejected socially 
  4. Being rejected professionally
  5. Not being noticed 
  6. Being noticed
  7. Saying the wrong thing
  8. Showing weakness
  9. Trusting others 
  10. Building meaningful relationships
  11. Showing strength
  12. Doing things differently or taking risks
  13. Losing control 
  14. Being in control
  15. Being shouted at or being dominated by others
  16. Shining too bright 
  17. Showing others up

All these things come down to the same thing. We fear the fear. 

We fear the feeling of fear, and so we avoid it. 

Just like the spider phobic, we set up a series of complicated behaviours to keep us safe. However, it is the delusion of safety we gain; the fear is maintained; our goal gets further away. 

The cure is the same. We need to build our muscle of tolerating fear continually. Don’t avoid the fear, don’t add on safety behaviours to avoid the feeling of fear, tackle it head on and inch your way to the other side. 

Have you any deceiving safety behaviours? For example, if you fear speaking up, are you avoiding putting your hand up, avoiding speaking in meetings, avoiding presentations, avoiding eye contact, avoiding saying what you know in case someone asks you about it, avoiding forgetting what you are saying by over-preparing? These behaviours deceive you into feeling safer, but perhaps it’s time to check whether that is working for you or not? Have they saved you from your fears or are your fears still there?

You can run this sort of exercise with any of your fears. What safety behaviours have you designed to keep you safe that are moving you further from your goal? 

As ever, I’d love to hear from you about your fears at work, what they are (I’m researching for my next book – so seriously would love your contribution), how you deceive yourself into feeling safe, and what your steps are to build the muscle of tolerance, so you stop fearing the fear.

Oh and if you can’t see what you are fearful of, don’t fret, others will know! Perhaps you can ask them…? Or did I just find a fear 😉? 

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.com

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