I am afraid. You are too. We are all afraid of something, and it’s not a bad thing, at least not always. Sometimes, our fear is a natural reaction that truly can save our life. But more often than not, I would argue, it prevents us from doing something that really wasn’t that dangerous in the first place and would have given us some kind of benefit in the long term.
Why do we fear things? It’s all an evolutionary mechanism that has given our species a survival advantage for hundreds of thousands of years, since before we had all the modern luxuries and logical considerations of our modern world. But these ancient fears often prevent us from taking perceived risks, even if they could be highly beneficial to us. But hey, knowledge is power, so understanding our fear can help us override our natural response.
Here are a few examples of common fears and why they incite the response within us.
1. Fear of Stangers / Meeting New People
Why fear someone new? Most of us have a bit of a fearful reaction to situations with lots of new people, though we can learn to overcome it. I mean really, chances are that the stranger on the street walking past you won’t all of a sudden kill you out of the blue (in most cases). However, this was a problem for our ancestors, since they stuck to a tribe of say 50 people. They knew everyone in their tribe, and usually if they saw someone from a different tribe, once or twice in their entire life, it meant hostility would soon follow. Outsiders were always unpredictable and dangerous. So it’s natural to be cautious of someone new, but in our modern world we have a lot less to be afraid of.
This fear sticks with us when we see new people, though it is diminished a lot when the new person is recommended by someone we trust. In this case, we put faith in our friend, that they wouldn’t introduce us to someone who would be hostile, and so the fear response is lifted a little bit. We still have some uncertainty, but hardly as much as we do when meeting a completely new person.
Ever notice how comfortable you become when you’re talking to someone new and you realize you have a common friend? Immediately your brain is reassuring you that this person must be safe because mutual has already accepted this person, making them less likely to stab you.
2. Fear of Failure
This is a biggie. This may be the single greatest reason why people don’t take the risks necessary to succeed in their endeavours. People feel that if they try and fail, that the world will view them as a failure, or look down on them, or ostracise them in some way.
The reason why we feel this way is perfectly rational. When we were back in our tribes of 50-ish people, if we took a risk and did something to endanger the tribe, we would actually be ostracised. Messing up could compromise the health of the tribe, and if blamed for a critical mistake you could be killed or excommunicated.
Luckily the world we live in is not so harsh. Politicians can make horrible mistakes time and time again and they still end up in office. Sometimes I wonder how, but that’s another story. The point is that there are very few possible mistakes you can make that you can’t recover from. The way we feel about failure is often far worse than the way others treat us for it.
Ultimately, if we experience failure, it gives us an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and about the world. It always gives us useful information, and prevents us from making mistakes in the future.
3. Fear of the Unknown
Have you ever noticed how fears tend to subside after awhile? A roller coaster is a good example. When I was young I used to be so afraid of them. I hated the heights, the speed, and couldn’t understand why so many people liked to face their doom for a thrill. I had a few friends drag me along on a small coaster, and I was scared to death. Though once I made it through the ride I did like the adrenaline rush, aside from the fact I couldn’t stop shaking. A few more years of being dragged on rides, and eventually I grew less afraid of them, and I even started to love riding them. I learned to enjoy the feeling of anxiety before going on a ride, the nervousness as it reached the top and was about to fall, and the rush of energy and excitement from surviving the ride.
The reason our fears weaken over time is that with each successful attempt, we start to perceive less danger than we did the first time. If I go on 100 roller coasters, suddenly I don’t feel like the next one will kill me. I still feel the fear, but it’s much easier to overcome.
If I had to look to the past in order to explain this one, I would think that it could act as a last-ditch survival mechanism. Let’s say our nomadic tribe moved to a region where the only source of food was moose. If you’ve ever seen a moose, they are big, ugly, and fast. I would be afraid if I had to hunt a moose. Say our nomads had no choice but to hunt the moose to survive the Winter. The first time they would band together and work with each other to counter their fear and succeed. As they practised safe ways to hunt the animal, the fear of failure and the perception of danger subsided. They know what to do in most situations. It’s this process that has allowed homo-sapiens to adapt to live in diverse climates, through ever-changing seasons.
It’s basically ‘knowledge is power.’ The more you overcome the fear, the more you learn about how to navigate the situation successfully, so that the next time you have a better idea what to expect, and dull your fear response.
Whatever it is you’re afraid of, or not doing out of fear, think about it objectively. Chances are there will be an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests you will not die, be rejected by your peers, or be labelled a failure forever. It’s much more likely that you’ll learn something valuable, and actually increase your chances of success in the future.