When is Fear Helpful and When is it Not?

Have you experienced fear?

The feeling comes on suddenly, without warning and leaves you immobilised… 

I remember having that feeling when I joined a boat trip with a group of people, to go snorkelling; all of a sudden the captain shouted that he had seen a whale shark and we should all jump in; no one seemed to have a problem and just jumped straight in but, although I wanted to jump in too, I just froze. 

I just couldn’t do it and promptly burst into tears. 

Although I was afraid, I wanted to see the whale shark so much, so I gathered myself up, gave myself a good talking to and jumped in… I survived. I didn’t drown. I wasn’t attacked by a shark…I swam, snorkelled, saw the whale shark and fell in love with the ocean. That was 4 years ago and I haven’t looked back. I had a choice in that moment to be my fear, or to let go and trust that I would be ok. 

I have felt fear many times before that too, but only a few occasions come to my mind. One memorable time was when I was working as a financial consultant for Prudential. I had completed extensive sales and customer service training and it was Day 1 on the job. I froze, was in tears and felt completely overwhelmed that I wouldn’t be able to do the job. I was totally out of my comfort zone. But I had a choice: I could become my fear or just get on and try and do my best. I chose to try and, to my amazement, I sold the most policies in my first week than anyone had ever done before… 

I know now that, when I face my fears in the moment, beautiful things can happen. If I hadn’t faced my fears in the moment, what could have happened in the future? Maybe I would have feared the ocean and then never seen all that the ocean has to offer and not carried on with my travels. Maybe I would have left Prudential because I was too scared of being rejected, I may not have lived the life I’m living now, maybe I wouldn’t have the shop… 

So why do we feel fear? According to Google, the definition of fear is ‘an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm’ and to ‘be afraid of (someone or something) as likely to be dangerous, painful, or harmful’. 

If we put our hand on a hot iron we will get burnt; if we go near the iron again we may feel some fear that the iron will hurt us so we become careful around irons. This makes sense and matches the definition of fear. This is great as it’s part of our survival mechanism. 

I remember being in the Co-Op when two guys walked past me and I felt fear in my body in that moment. The feeling came and went very quickly – in a matter of seconds, but a few minutes later they ran out of the shop with lots of bottles which they hadn’t paid for. I had felt fear as they walked past, some sort of intuition, and I was grateful for the warning and gave them a wide berth – this makes sense and matches with the definition of fear – and is great for survival – that instinct which we all feel, but sometimes don’t pay attention to. 

Fear can be a good emotion then, but when can it be limiting? When it stops us from living and doing the things we want to, and when our mind latches onto the fear and makes up imagined scenarios that are just not true. 

Our mind tries to keep us safe by telling us all sorts of stories… Would we listen to a friend who tells us we are not good enough to apply for the job that we really want because we might fail or feel out of our depth? Would we listen to someone who tells us we are better off on our own and not go out on a date in case we are rejected and feel hurt?… No, of course not, so why then, in these situations, do we listen to our own inner fears? 

It’s down to our programming, our conditioning. It’s in our subconscious; it’s our mind trying to protect us from being ‘hurt’, based on a previous experience. If it’s stopping us from burning ourselves on a hot iron then all is well and good, but if it’s stopping us from taking action in the moment or stopping us from living the life we want then it needs investigating. This kind of fear can stop us from doing the things we want, based on an experience, because of how we perceive a previous hurt, rejection, failure, embarrassment, self-doubt, unworthiness – how we perceive ourselves. 

Whether you want to go for the job of your dreams or go out on a date, to face any of your fears; the answer is simple. You need to recognise when the emotion of fear is positive and keeps you from harm, and when it is holding you back. The hot iron will always burn you, and one bad date doesn’t mean they will all be bad. What you are feeling is not in your past, it’s happening now in this moment. You now have many more resources and a greater understanding – you are not the same person, it’s a different time and life has moved on so you are free to make different choices. 

One thing is for sure: if those subconscious, hidden beliefs are not resolved they will pop up over and over again, latching onto something else: our job, relationships, our thoughts about ourselves, how we see ourselves in the world… 

These unknown fears are the ones we need to resolve. I have learnt that, when I feel fear in the moment, I need to acknowledge that emotion, become aware of what’s happening around me and recognise why am I feeling fear at this time – more often than not when I am conscious of my fear, it goes as quickly as it came. 

When I feel a continual nagging feeling of fear in my body (usually in my tummy, similar to a car ticking over), I do a couple of things. 

Firstly I recognise and acknowledge the feeling and I know I need to dig deeper; there is something in my subconscious that I need to resolve. This is my opportunity to explore it; to allow myself to listen and to hear what it has to say. I feel the fear in my body and allow it to speak, layer by layer until I get to the core of it. There is usually an emotion like upset or anger, in that core. Once I’ve identified the emotion, I can then let it go freely – I have learnt if I don’t do this, the commentary will keep running in the background and I will make choices based on the fear of what might be, and not on the reality of the situation. 

This recently happened to me; We were going off for another ocean adventure and I had that nagging fear feeling in my tummy. I didn’t want to deal with it there and then, but it wouldn’t leave me alone so I dived right into the feeling and just acknowledged it. I asked myself what is this about? I felt butterflies in my tummy. I gave it a colour, black. I gave it a sound, thunder. I gave it a smell, a rubbish smell. I felt fear, then upset, and then some words came to me: ‘focus on the feeling of fear as it will keep you from disappointment, which will lead you to feel hurt and sad’. This was crazy and made no sense to me. I realised, in that moment, that my fear was trying to protect me from disappointment and hurt, which in turn was stopping me from enjoying the now!! How crazy was that? Once I understood what was happening, the feeling left and I was able to enjoy the rest of the day. 

My conclusion is that fear can be useful if acknowledged and dealt with in the moment. We can trust and know that we have everything available to us to be able to deal with what is in front of us. 

If we don’t deal with the fear in the moment, and we become the fear, it becomes an issue over time. Fear that we are not conscious of, that continues to tick along like white noise in the background, stops us from enjoying the life we dream of living. This fear, and the stories it tells us to ‘pretend’ to keep us safe, needs attention. This kind of fear does not serve us, it paralyses us and stops us from enjoying the moment. And we deserve to live, and enjoy, every moment.