If you’re a normal person, you probably suffer about a hundred times as much from fearing bad outcomes as you do from the ones that do happen to come true.
And it’s unlikely that the sleepless night spent fearing a bombed job interview served as useful experience for when it did happen. It probably made it worse, and maybe even caused it to happen in the first place.
You probably didn’t notice that the 99 other things you feared that day never became real. If you had a ledger for all the fears in your life, and on the left you wrote down the what you feared would happen, and on the right you wrote down what actually happened, anybody reading it would laugh.
There are no real outcomes anyway. We worry so much about “ending up” in a particular bad way. But even the fears that do (more or less) come true have no finality about them, they’re just a new place from which to work for now. For all you know this new place sits on a better path than the result you had hoped for.
Was sadness and disappointment the final, permanent outcome of your rejected novel? Was it the end of happiness in your life? The “outcome” of any particular endeavor is just another middle chapter, just another starting point for something else. There’s nothing damning about the middle of any story, and unless you’re dead, you’re in the middle. (So I guess there is one true outcome, but there’s no uncertainty about whether it will happen, and it has the virtue of ending all your worries anyway.)
Everyone has a past riddled with bombed exams, awkward job interviews, bad dates, lost wallets, and birthdays with low turnouts, and few of those fears-come-true continue to cripple us today. Mostly they consist of an awful few minutes followed by an ordinary bad mood, maybe an inconvenient new errand to complete or a new parameter to work under, and some unpleasant rumination later on, if you choose to bother with that.
Of course, most of the unpleasant developments in life are the ones it didn’t occur to you to worry about anyway. They “blindside you at 4pm on an idle Tuesday,” as Mary Schmich put it in her famous column-turned-book. (The one about wearing sunscreen.)
When you decide you’ll walk into your moments of truth — your project launches, race days and blind dates — with an unconditional willingness to see what happens, fear doesn’t have much to do.
For some reason we interpret the presence of fear as a trustworthy reason to be tentative, to delay our arrival at a result. This gives fear time to make the unhappiest possibilities bigger in our minds, seemingly more worthy of respect. Yet fear is your mind at its dumbest and least articulate. All it knows how to do is shout “Get away!”
It designs endless disaster scenarios, not just of failure or setback but of complete ruin. It understands your options only in terms of how they could bring on your annihilation, and therefore is blind to everything else that your experiences can do for you: wisdom gained, doors opened, and particularly the possibility of success. It just doesn’t see it.
So it always bets on death and irreversible consequences without even reading the odds sheet. But like any idiot conspiracy theorist, when it guesses right its confidence explodes, and you can’t shut it up. (“See! They didn’t like your poem! How stupid that you tried!”)
When you point out any of the million instances in which fear was wrong, it changes the subject to its most recent victory, or it makes a brand new prediction. If you’re not thinking for yourself, you’ll start to parrot its paranoid convictions — “It doesn’t matter what I do, things never work out for me! Nobody can love me!” and other beliefs so asinine they would require a global conspiracy to be true. You might even find yourself actively looking for evidence to support fear’s claims, not for any logical reason, but because you wish you were as confident as it is.
And once you’re confident fear is usually right, you’ll be right so often that you’ll never want to bet against it. That’s the great irony of fear: give it too much respect and it becomes the paralysis and annihilation from which it ostensibly protects you.
We are smarter than fear. Walk into the thing it tells you to cower from — or “Feel the fear and do it anyway” as Susan Jeffers would say it — and fear dies, because you ignored its only wish, which is to keep you from going certain places to see what’s actually there.
Unless you have a rational expectation of grievous bodily harm or financial ruin, respond to fears with curiosity about what life actually looks like beyond the moment of truth. Pass through the door and see what’s there. You can take it. The sky has fallen a thousand times already.
Even if you do find what fear warned you about, you’ll notice it had none of the details right. It doesn’t look like, feel like or require of you what you thought. That’s because fear doesn’t know anything about the future. Fear only ever has old material to work with; it makes its predictions out of the past. It’s desperate to prevent you from getting to the future to see what’s really there, because then it will quickly lose your respect.
Photo by CamrynDyches
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