Fear is your mind at its dumbest

Post image for Fear is your mind at its dumbest

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.

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Photo by CamrynDyches


{ 56 Comments }

Neill June 29, 2014 at 11:12 pm

This is SO well-written. So much of our conscious self is informed by unconscious operations, and one of the most prevalent is the fight/flight amygdala chunk of brain that apparently fires first. And you’re right: that ancient infrastructure doesn’t look into the future. That’s for other sub-systems.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 8:38 am

Thanks Neill. I think that’s the fundamental way in which fear tricks us: it appears to be a kind of knowledge about the future, but it has much more to do with the past.

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onebreath June 30, 2014 at 1:20 am

Usually I am quite in agreement with what you write, but something about this sits funny with me, though I am not sure I will be able to eloquently expand. :)

I think my discomfort arises because, in my own experience, sometimes the body (and the fear it is detecting) is aware of things that the conscious mind wants to ignore. I think that you are lucky, David, that you have not had an outcome in your life that hasn’t caused you deep regret and mortification. Sometimes, the fear is a legitimate prelude to those debilitating experiences. “Feel the fear and do it anyway”, to me, is an endorsement of ignoring the bodily wisdom that sometimes is more in tune to the nuances of a situation than our rational, thinking minds can match. It may work sometimes but, again, to me, is not a universally applicable principle. I feel it is not in line with the mindfulness concepts in which I have come to rely and believe whole heartedly.

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George June 30, 2014 at 5:34 am

Agreed. There is a difference. There is fear as in “performance anxiety” and so on: brush that aside.

But there is another bodily-knowledge-sense, (described as Eugene Gendlin’s “felt sense” in Focusing, for instance) which contains useful “global” information about a situation, sometimes uncomfortable. Ignore that at your peril. It “knows” things, sometimes almost impossibly/magically. Sometimes it’s just a feeling, a vague “no”, other times it spawns actual semi-verbal instructions: “do this” or “don’t do that or this will happen”.

I’ve ignored, countered a stack of those and they’ve all come back to bite me in the way described. Massively and irretrievably.

So, yes, brush aside anxiety in its standard “anticipation-fear” form, but keep your attention on your body’s center and attend to the information it contains – and believe it.

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George June 30, 2014 at 6:00 am

Addition: you should also be careful what “predictive” thoughts you let through; stamp on those you don’t want to happen when they arise. They have causal power, even if it’s just in the form of minor self-hypnosis/setting action or attitude in motion.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 8:53 am

This makes sense, and it makes me realize I may have made it sound like fear is just an annoyance to plow through and that we don’t really need it. I don’t think that. I was trying to underscore the fact that fear is not intellectual, it is visceral, yet we often let it undermine our rational thinking about what’s really at risk.

“Feel the fear and do it anyway” isn’t supposed to be a general policy of ignoring fear. It means “The presence of fear is not an indication you can’t or shouldn’t pass this point.” If this isn’t obvious from the article I apologize. I got on an bit of a tirade against low-level fears of saving face and avoiding awkwardness and may not have clarified that there are still many instances in which fear serves us. The point is really that fear is not a place to stop using your thinking mind, but often that’s exactly what we do.

> I think that you are lucky, David, that you have not had an outcome in your life that hasn’t caused you deep regret and mortification.

I am lucky in many ways but I would be careful about saying things like this. It sounds like, “You don’t know pain until you know MY pain,” and I’m not sure how much you could really know about my internal experience in life.

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Shanelle June 30, 2014 at 1:23 am

I personally believe you should win the Nobel prize for this piece. Mind-Blowing . Although as a believer in evolutionary psychology I do think fear serves some beneficial purpose, after all we do need to be cautious at times as some decisions based on fearlessness lead to horrific outcomes, but I completely agree that we misuse fear too often and that it need not be given the power it usually does in our lives. Cheers!

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Anne June 30, 2014 at 1:40 am

Good article. Thankyou David. Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of my tendency to “catastrophise” – building a whole sequence of imaginary disasters in my mind and reducing myself to a jelly in the process. So a neighbour playing their music a bit loudly one evening has me, in my vivid imagination, having to move house. “What if..” is life-sapping. And perfectionism is another killer – the fear of getting something wrong has stopped me from even trying so many things. Becoming aware of such thought patterns is so helpful, because then I can spot them at an early stage, step back, take a breath and challenge their truth.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 8:56 am

>So a neighbour playing their music a bit loudly one evening has me, in my vivid imagination, having to move house.

This one sounds familiar :)

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Ilknur June 30, 2014 at 2:08 am

A great article again. Thank you for sharing.
I always belive that fear is a game of ego. Our ego is trying to protect us by using our older archives in our minds. And it(ego) always have a gain from it.
For example, we are afraid from an exam.Because we want to be succesful, not being succesful may effect our self confidence,or people may think that we are unsuccesfull, so we will not be important…bla bla. Ego gain here is feeling important. If we can accept that we are always important and improve our self confidence then ego loses and fear ends. So I always focus to find what is Ego’s Gain?
I am now working on `why we are anxious about people we love`. My mind sometimes makes scenarios which are not true about the people I love being in trouble,or dying or some dramatic things. What is the gain of ego here ? I couldn’t find any satisfying answer yet.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

> I am now working on `why we are anxious about people we love`. My mind sometimes makes scenarios which are not true about the people I love being in trouble,or dying or some dramatic things. What is the gain of ego here ? I couldn’t find any satisfying answer yet.

When it comes to fear surrounding relationships, and the temptation to avoid a particular conversation, it helps to ask what exactly are you afraid of. What is this event that you fear will happen that you think you can’t bear? Maybe you can bear it, or maybe it’s not likely at all.

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ilknur June 30, 2014 at 9:53 am

Hmm nice question. I feel like I can not bear. Now we touch somewhere really deep(which is nice) I will dig this a bit.

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pete June 30, 2014 at 2:34 am

thanks for sharing my personal motto when i feel useless fear is act now fear later.

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Karen J June 30, 2014 at 12:35 pm

I really like that, pete! Borrowing it ;)
“Act now. fear later.”

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John B. June 30, 2014 at 2:50 am

What an amazing article! Thanks for posting this. You are so right about the outcomes of fear in our life. We are paralyzed by our imagination, which is already corrupted by our perceptions of the world. Only way how to deal with it is through deeper understanding what is necessary and what is redundant for our happiness. On the other hand, I do believe there is still enough place for serious concern in our lives. We SHOULD pay attention to what is happening in our society and environment – we should demand governments to deal with the climate change, inequality, poverty, among other stuff by showing the worst case scenario, which would be possible. This is when I consider applying light pressure necessary.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:05 am

Right, I’m definitely not arguing for apathy or non-discernment here, just that fear should not be the final arbiter of our actions. We can always appeal to our rational faculties after we notice the presence of fear.

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Nevu June 30, 2014 at 4:14 am

Haha – Brilliant, arriving at work today I am entering into a situation I have been fearing all weekend. Logged on and read this before the storm began and am now entering the murky reality fear waters. You are absolutely right – its still pretty crappy – but absolutely not in the way i had imagined. The way it actually turns out moment to moment alows a kind of space around it for a different reaction from the one that kept me awake the other night.
In reality, on bad days the problems arrive in cluster crap bombs that pull us in all directions but as you so rightly say
“The “outcome” of any particular endeavor is just another middle chapter, just another starting point for something else.”

Fantastic piece – thanks.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:09 am

That’s a particularly fascinating part about fear for me: when the thing you fear does happen, it is always different than you pictured. It feels different and looks different and requires different things of you.

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Karen J June 30, 2014 at 12:38 pm

Here’s hoping that your “pretty crappy situation” turns out to be not even as bad as your 4am revised outlook saw!

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Nevu July 1, 2014 at 4:46 am

Thanks Karen, Im on uk time so it might look I am jumping through a tardis when you read my messages!

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Steve June 30, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Cluster crap bombs… haha :)

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Free To Pursue June 30, 2014 at 4:17 am

I enjoyed this post.

“For all you know this new place sits on a better path than the result you had hoped for.” That often is the case. I am thankful now for a number of interesting results caused by some events I feared would happen.

On the flip side, I am also thankful for the fear that often drove me to work harder on projects I cared about. Fear of not making something good enough caused me to “stack the deck” in my favour and has resulted in a number of fabulous opportunities over the years and experiences that I will always cherish.

Ultimately, it’s how we handle walking into the unknown and trying to see all the possibilities by looking forward in a positive & purposeful way as opposed to being confined and defined by our past selves.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:12 am

Yeah, I guess it’s a matter of looking beneath the emotional heat of fear to assess whether it’s serving you here. If fear keeps you productive in a certain and doesn’t detract too much from your quality of life then you may want to leverage that. For me fear has always been a productivity killer.

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BrownVagabonder June 30, 2014 at 4:36 am

Fear definitely makes me dumb.. More than that in my fear, I do stupid things without thinking about the consequences clearly. I’m practicing mindfulness to help with this. Staying in the moment helps me stay focused on reality rather than made up fiction in my head.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:14 am

Hi BV. Mindfulness is especially useful for fear because you can discern between its presence as an emotion, and the scenarios it paints in your mind. You can just note that it’s there, and then consult your rational mind about whether there really is a lot at risk here.

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Mike June 30, 2014 at 5:14 am

Generalized anxiety is as much a plague in Western culture as depression. Constant unnecessary worrying for me, and for a lot of people, leads to an obsessive drive to control all outcomes and minimize all risk. For many people, such anxiety can become incredibly problematic, to the point of being pathological.

Like thousands if not millions of others this can cause physical symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome and nervous tics. I’m not sure why anxiety is such an affliction in Western culture. I’m not even sure it is a cultural thing, as anxiety seems to be hired-wired into us if we consider it as an evolved response.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy seems to be one approach to deal with it, in the sense that it helps change the measures of success that one sets oneself. In my experience, i’ve come to rationally understand CBT and mindfulness, but not to the point where I have been able to successfully employ such techniques for my betterment. My question is, what does it take to employ methods like mindfulness (CBT is kind of like mindfulness) successfully? Is it just regular practice?

Mike.

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George June 30, 2014 at 5:44 am

I mentioned this on another thread, but I really recommend ‘The Mindful Way Through Depression’ by Mark Williams (now). It goes from general mindfulness to eventually open space awareness.

Think of it like the Zen saying: it’s like a wave in a glass of water vs a wave in the ocean. The latter is insignificant; that’s what open focus awareness is like. The wave is still there, but it is not everything anymore.

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George June 30, 2014 at 5:47 am

My extra top tip: if you just get into the habit of always including the feeling of your feet into your awareness of the moment, you will find this helps; it means your attention cannot be accidentally “condensed” onto the location of the feeling of anxiety. And it does have a location, you will find.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:25 am

I don’t know anything about CBT, except that many people have said it transformed their lives.

I have made great use of mindfulness though, in many applications, including dealing with fear. In the case of mindfulness it is a matter of practice, but you have to have a fairly clear vision of what you’re doing and how you will apply it. Next month I’m releasing a guide on practicing mindfulness in everyday life situations.

It helps immensely just to notice the presence of fear, particularly its effects on your body, because then you can see it clearly as an emotional reaction happening right now as opposed to some kind of divined knowledge of catastrophes to come. You notice the fear, acknowledge that it’s doing certain things to your body right now, and that this reaction is understandable, and then you can assess whether you want to act in spite of it, or heed it, or gather more information before you do choose.

But mindfulness needs to be something of a habit before you’ll have much luck using it as a response to fear, because it has to occur to you at the right time, and quite often the fear inhibits us from trying anything unfamiliar to us.

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Vishal June 30, 2014 at 5:56 am

First of all, amazing article. Very well articulated.
I believe that fear has a place in our life. You need certain degree of fear to not get into trouble, like breaking into another house. Fear of law is what makes our society stable.
But i think you are referring to “false Predictions” that our mind generates and I completely agree with you. 99% of the time, these predictions do not actually happen. It is human nature to feel fear sometimes but we should not give in to fear.

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StephInIndy June 30, 2014 at 8:44 am

whew! thanks. just in time for my next interview ;-)

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:32 am

Good luck Steph!

And also, having been on both sides of interviewing tables, it helps to remember that in their round of interviews the employer probably fears not finding a good employee. Go alleviate their fears!

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Lance Bonds June 30, 2014 at 9:15 am

Embrace fear. If I am not doing something that scares me, or contemplating doing it, every once in a while, I feel like I am not living, only going through the motions. Sometimes you feel most alive when you think you are pushing the envelope of failure…

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Esme June 30, 2014 at 9:24 am

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

~Frank Herbert, Dune

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:38 am

I knew someone would post this! It really is the mind-killer, and I understand this quote differently now. We let fear trump the more sensitive parts of our minds.

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John June 30, 2014 at 9:35 am

I was just thinking the other day about how our minds always want to point out how things will never work out, we can’t do a particular task, etc. Then I thought about the possibility of outcomes. Applying the “what really is the WORST that could happen from this event/task?” is a mode of thinking I’m trying to experiment with. Most of the time, if I apply this mode of thinking, the worst possible outcome is that I will be uncomfortable for a few minutes or hours. NOT my life will end or I will be severely scarred for life, as fear would have me believe. Very well written article David.

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David Cain June 30, 2014 at 9:43 am

I have done this too, and came to the same conclusion. Often we will wall off entire realms of possibilities because we can foresee the possibility of discomfort or awkwardness — and that’s all! That’s the cost of a worst case scenario.

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Karen J June 30, 2014 at 3:51 pm

Not to mention, the actual *likelihood* of that worst case really being the result? Usually, slim-to-none!

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John June 30, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Exactly!

Jfebman June 30, 2014 at 10:49 am

Well written. One of my daily reminders…”Problems as they arise, are rarely as painful as the experience of fearing them.” #69. Thank you David. http://www.raptitude.com/2009/07/88-important-truths-ive-learned-about-life/

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Anita June 30, 2014 at 10:55 am

Hi David, well said. I too write on a Blog about the ‘Human Experience’ as seen through the eyes of my own personal experiences for a while now but this article on FEAR was written by my then 19 yr. old daughter who as extremely shy as she used to be decided to challenge herself and take a course on Public Speaking and a career in communications, this was her Final Test speech and now 4 yrs. later she is a Producer at CBS news at 23. Hope you enjoy it, worth the read. Best to you and your audience and thanks for being part of the solution. Hugs xoxo Anita

http://youneedanita.blogspot.com/2010/12/what-is-fear.html

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Kelsey June 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Great post! Fear and worry can often take over when we care deeply about a particular outcome and think that we can control it. If we didn’t think we could at least somewhat prepare ourselves for this unbearable future thing, we wouldn’t put so much effort into imagining the potential horrible possibilities. But like you said-Whatever it is, “You can take it.” I love the “feel the fear and do it anyway” quote because courage really is a muscle that must be strengthened through practice – no matter how ‘wimpy’ we feel at the time.

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Tara C June 30, 2014 at 2:28 pm

This is an excellent, insightful post. Wish I could have read it 2 years ago, when I was going through crippling anxiety over a possible career change. Now I have gotten to the point where I can look back at the experience and see how none of my fears came true and all that worry was wasted energy that made me literally sick. An important lesson in life.

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Karen J June 30, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Thanks for this, David.

I just watched “The Rise of the Guardians” (from Dreamworks, 2012), and the main messages in that “kid’s flick” are all parallel to this post! Delightful correspondences ~ there are no mere coincidences, right?

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Gayle June 30, 2014 at 6:35 pm

“Thou hast seen many troubles, travel-stained pilgrim of the world, but that which hath vexed thee most, hath been the looking for evil. And though calamities have crossed thee, and misery been heaped upon thy head, yet ills, that never happened, have chiefly made thee wretched.”

MARTIN FARQUHAR TUPPER

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kate July 3, 2014 at 9:55 pm

“”I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened’……Samuel Clemens

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Randy Hendrix July 5, 2014 at 10:03 am

“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”…GREAT STUFF!

This article goes into the “Best of” category…so looking forward to “You Are Here”!

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BobToday July 6, 2014 at 3:08 am

Completely agree. The difficult part is to get fear off your mind.
What I try to do is try to recognize when I am (for example) avoiding something because I fear it. Then think about it like it was someone else his problem. What would I advise?
This should give me the most objective solutions.

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Tom Southern July 6, 2014 at 4:30 am

Fear is an overbearing parent. It tries to keep us from hurting ourselves and in so doing, hurts us more than what it was trying to save us from. The “see I told you so” kind of parent.

It’s primeval protector. Still lurking in our subsconscious: “Son’t go out of your cave, it’s dark. Something nasty might kill you.” We still listen to it. In fact, I’d say we listen to it more these days than in the “good old days” when health and safety was just a fantasy in a somebody’s eye. “Go out into the woods, you might meet someone interesting.” my mother used to say to me when I told her I was bored. Not something we’d say to children now, is it? And Fear of what might happen in the woods is to blame.

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Holly July 6, 2014 at 10:52 am

Hello. I just found this post and it is so timely for me. Thank you for your thoughts. For years I wanted to write and was just too afraid to do it. I’ve worked through a lot of my fears but writing never quite happened. (Ironically I’m a therapist and work with others about their fears all the time.) The short story is that this year I decided to start a blog and the first post, Facing the Flying Monkeys, was about facing my writing fears. http://yakkityyaktalkingback.com

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Drossi July 6, 2014 at 6:15 pm

I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
Mark Twain

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Joe July 9, 2014 at 4:36 am

The first time I heard it said, I grimaced. But, as I continue to move through life the words end up being more poignant and real. The past is nothing but electricity in our minds, the future doesn’t exist, and the only thing that’s real is now.

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Randy Hendrix July 10, 2014 at 8:25 am

Well said Joe…thanks for sharing.

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Kyle Hotaling July 18, 2014 at 2:50 pm

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

- Frank Herbert Dune

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Jess Roc July 25, 2014 at 7:42 pm

I just stumbled on to your blog and this post has actually inspired me to step out on faith so to speak in my own endeavors, one being to start a blog on my new found road to a better life experience, not to mention it was also posted on my birthday so I will just take that as a sign. I listen to my surrounding a lot so and even when I know I have a positive idea my fear will talk me out of following through and I go back to my comfortable place but this time all the signs have come full circle and I will take a step out of comfortable. Thanks for the great post

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Jim July 31, 2014 at 11:10 am

I am new to your site, and I found you by way of the pale fox. Reading your post, and the comments, as with most things in life, was no accident. Your piece is well-written and thoughtful. Fear is probably the number 1 disease on the planet. The more we understand about its genesis and consequences the better off we will all become. A group discussion about fear (both personal and global) is good for our collective souls.

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