Fear Of Fear, And The Delusion Of Safety

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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 made a series of choices to keep her safe and avoid coming into contact with a spider. For example, she made sure that she wore long sleep tops and trousers with elasticated edges,  wore rubber rain boots when in the house, particularly at night, there were rooms in her home she wouldn’t go in. She made sure she never stood under a tree when outside, that she lived with a vacuum cleaner in the middle of her living room in case someone saw a spider, and prepped her family on the ‘emergency’ procedures to go into if there was a known spider in the house.

By trying to avoid the thing she feared, my patient had developed a set of safety behaviours that maintained the fear.

The treatment is to build the muscle of tolerating the fear, gradually. By introducing her to cartoons of spiders, then realistic pictures of spiders, then spiders in boxes, she increased the ‘threat’ tolerance. Eventually, she tolerated live spiders crawling on her hand.

Avoidance, while keeping us safe from the fear, will prevent us from the very outcome we want: Being fear free.

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

10.   Doing things differently or taking risks

11.   Losing control 

12.   Being in control

13.   Being shouted at or being dominated by others

14.   Shining too bright 

15.   Showing others up

They come down to the same thing. We fear the fear. 

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

Just like the spider phobic we set up a series of complicated safety behaviours to protect us from the fear. However, this maintains the fear and doesn’t help us get to our goal. Instead, we need to build our muscle of tolerating fear continually. Don’t avoid, don’t add on safety behaviours to avoid the feeling of fear, tackle it head on and inch your way to the other side.

For example, if you fear speaking up, notice if you have built on any misleading safety behaviours. 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? These behaviours deceive you into feeling safer, but perhaps it’s time to have a check in on whether it works or not? 

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

As ever, I’d love to hear from you about your own fears, what they are (I’m researching for my next book – so I 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 😉?


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Amy helps teams use the psychology of groups to their advantage. Her programs drive connection, communication and courage for remarkable achievements. Please see The Safe Space and DrAmySilver.com


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