Fear is a good emotion, it’s life saving. It can help you if you have to make a really quick decision from the pit of your stomach. But if you can afford just a few seconds to ponder, then fear is not a good basis for decisions.

Don’t let fear win – a Challenge

That it isn’t a good basis for a decision doesn’t mean fear is bad, though. Often it’s been said that we shouldn’t let fear win, but to do that you mustn’t ignore it either. So I challenge you (and myself) to an introspection, a form of handwritten meditation:

Step 1: Write down everything you fear.

No-one will read this but you, so be honest. Of some of the things you want to write down you might know from the moment it comes to your mind that it is irrational – write it down anyway. Even if while you are  writing it, while reading it, you know it’s an irrational fear. Others you might know they are soundly based, for others you might not be sure. At this moment it doesn’t matter, let’s list them all.

Have a look at your list. Some fears might be more concrete than others.

I am afraid of pain when I go to the dentist next week

is for example very concrete.

I am afraid of dying

could be vague or very specific depending on your circumstances. Try to spot vague fears, like:

I am afraid of being laughed at.

Can you make these more concrete? Like: When are you likely to be laughed at? Is that a situation that you might fear or even try to avoid? If something like the above turns into

I am afraid of the snarky comments of the girl sitting at the desk across the floor in my office,

then you’ve come a great step forward.

Step 2: Think about consequences of these fear in the past and future if you change nothing

At this point we still don’t care about whether or not a fear might be solidly fact-based and reasonable or irrational, because the fear is real even if the cause is not.

We tend to avoid things and situations that we fear. That’s the function of fear. So have a hard think – this can be harder to spot than you might imagine – what does your fear make you do or avoid?

If your fear of your office mate lets you hide behind your computer and miss out on important career opportunities, then this has a serious impact on your life.
If you can’t shower anymore because if your fear of spiders, then you have a real problem.
Did you stop going out on your own because you are afraid of being alone on the street? – If you are a woman you are probably not alone in this.

Make sure that for all fears you listed in step 1, you also go through step 2. You might have something to add to your list, too.

Step 3: What is the worst that could happen / why do you fear it?

For the first time we now come closer to the question of how rational your fear is. Let’s think about what’s the worst that could happen: So you are afraid of spiders. What exactly do you think will happen? What is the worst that could happen? And is it really that bad? If you are living in the UK, like I am, then all the spiders you’ll encounter are harmless, and nothing bad really can happen.

There might be more fact-based fears that still seem bigger in your head than in reality: What does happen when the girl makes that awful comment about you? Maybe you’ll imagine how hot you’ll get, and everyone will look at you. And then – what?

Play it all in your head, and work out how you would like to react, what you could do to make it maybe a little bit better.

This is now the step where you will really have to do some fact checking and put in some work. You fear that more Urainians could arrive in your country? And then what? They’ll steal your job? – How likely is that? What are you doing for a living? – They’ll talk in the underground and you won’t understand it? – Why do you fear that? (maybe expand your list and start over from top)…

You fear that global warming will result in your house being flooded? Are you living close to water? How likely is that indeed to happen? In what time span?

While I personally do not regularly go through all these steps (I am thinking maybe I should!), I do go through step 3 every time I am a bit worried. When I go on a train trip, for example, I find myself frequently worried I might either board the wrong train or get off at the wrong station. It’s always good to remind myself in that case, that I have a credit card with me, which will allow me to buy another ticket. That the worst case that can happen is that it will take me longer to get home. And if I am stuck anywhere after the last train left, I can always check in to a hotel. – Once I reminded myself, the fear’s gone. (It happened only once to me, by the way, although I traveled a lot by train, and it wasn’t even that bad. I was able to go back one station in the same ticket; so it apparently isn’t even likely to happen.)

Step 4: Are the steps you go through to avoid your fear (step 2) in a justifiable relation to the risks you worked out in step 3?

That’s a very important step. Avoid showering in fear of harmless spiders? – Might not be appropriate. Cancel a mountain climbing trip because of fear of falling – might be a yes.
It’s your call in all cases. You are to judge to whether you want to make this sacrifice. Therefore make sure you spend enough time on fact checking.
For all of which you answered no, you’ll have to carry on to Step 5.

Step 5: What could you do differently, not to avoid the fear but to change the situation

Have a talk with that girl? – That would be hard, for sure, but maybe the best solution in the long run? Or maybe talk to others at the office if talking to the girl herself is no option.

One of your measures might be to think about therapy (if your fear seems irrational and you feel you have to go through great lengths to avoid situations).

Whatever you do and decide, changing perspective and taking on fears is a hard choice, but one that can only pay off in the long run. This is what it means to:

Don’t let fear win!

If you took on my challenge, when you are through with your list you probably have a couple of tasks ahead of you.  I’ll go to work on mine now, and I already know what will be top of that list: quit at least one of the four jobs I am currently doing.

Never let fear win. It wants you to hide and avoid. Instead: evaluate, think, and change.

P.S.: The photos accompaning this post are from a new project about which I don’t want to say too much. Only this: The seeds and eggs I made as part of it, all contain scrolls, and the most recent all have part of this manifesto in them.

5 replies on “Fear Manifesto”

  1. Hilke this is very interesting. I read it twice, am thinking about it. I feel I haven’t giving it the thought it deserves. I do notice when I meditate that some strange fears crop up in my head. It’s definitely good to be able to step back and see them as either not justifiable or having a solution. And in some cases (like dying) it’s something that has to be accepted. I can’t change that. I’ll be thinking about this for a long time. And I’m looking forward to seeing more details of your new project.

    1. Hello Judith,
      it’s good to hear that my thoughts in general seem to make some sense to you.

      A fear like “dying” is probably too vague to fit well into this scheme. And indeed, it is just a fact that we all have to die eventually, and we can do nothing but embrace and live with that.
      But we do have some degree of control over how we die, and it might be worth to talk with those close to us how we think we would like to die, and what we think for example about organ donation, or what kind of funeral we might want to have. Even thought neither of us is ill, this is something M. and I talk regularly about.
      And also, it’s different whether we just generally fear not being here anymore — I have a vague sense of fear of missing out on chunks of my kids’ life for example when I die. That’s new to me, btw., I used to think that I only worry about how I die, and once I am dead, it all doesn’t matter anymore either way. But that’s changed now. Anyway… It’s different whether we fear death in general, or whether we fear for example being found out of hiding a jew in Nazi Germany and being shot. The latter is very concrete and you can go through the assessment above: what happens if I don’t do it? what price do I pay for doing it and enduring the fear and all that goes with it. Do they have a balanced relationship to each other (i.e. is it worth the risk)?

      Very generally I wanted to make a statement here against the “positive thought” way of thinking which seems to tell me to not dwell on my fears. Which seems to tell me if I just ignore it hard enough it might go away. The opposite is true for me. If I think through it thoroughly, and know why I am doing it, that it is the best way forward, and that worse things could happen, – then this keeps my fears at bay.


      1. I find the “you can choose to be happy” movement annoying. Of course you don’t need to be upset when the store doesn’t have your favorite yogurt. But it’s better to deal with what you can instead of ignoring it. There are many things that would be better dealt with than ignored.

        1. Full agree.
          It’s when more serious decisions are involved than ignoring yogurt when it get’s truely annoying. I am in contact with mothers who don’t seek a diagnosis for their children’s problems, presumambly in the hope that by no thinking about it, it will go away. Or in the fear that when you start thinking it, and admit that something is wrong with your child, that it might be a disability, then it becomes true. It’s a wide-spread believe. “Speak of the devil and he doth appear”. Which of course in some aspects is true… It’s a complicated matter. Still, careful investigation of fears serves me better than clinging to the hope that nothing of the kind will happen.

  2. Oh, that’s very sad – it must be hard for you to see these mothers ignoring their kid’s problems. Yes, investigating is good. You need the facts to make a decision. How frustrating.

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