How Much Does Fear Motivate Your Choices in Life?

Lately I’ve been reflecting on this question. It’s an important one.
Maybe less important when you’re 25 (though I wish I had kept it in the forefront of my mind at that age) but I can’t think how asking it doesn’t reveal what we are hiding, avoiding or displacing at any age.
Nearly everywhere I look online I see references to fear. Of course, the news is fixated on it – because the clichéd expression – fear sells – has a lot of truth to it.  If theories of emotional contagion are correct, fear spreads in both obvious and insidious ways. If fear is a thing – it is cunning in its camouflage.
A quick glance at some social media maxims speak to the warnings and promises associated with the role fear can play in our lives:

  •  Everything you want is on the other side of fear   I think there’s a measure of truth here. There is so much that we want that we dismiss as impossible because of conditioning.  What I don’t like about glib statements like this is that people can feel less empowered if they can’t take up the Olympic challenge to quickly transform life-long habits of mind.
  • Fears are stories we tell ourselves  This is often true. The amount of fear my thoughts have generated in relation to what was “true” keeps me vigilant to my thought patterns. But, I am also aware that the voice of fear (like any other emotion) can hold valuable truths about any part of experience. There are many things we are adept at denying that are a possible risk to our well-being (health and climate change warnings come to mind) In other words, fears are not always simply tales we spin in our heads. The skill is in discerning the difference and acting carefully in response.
  • Stop letting fear rule your life. Ok, this one is true and not true for me. While I don’t feel hobbled by my fears, I also can see that they are still wasting too much of my life energy. The problem with facile statements like this is that working to transcend our fears isn’t easy. It isn’t simply a matter of deciding we are done with our fears – and moving on – but doing the work to understand why persistent fears continue to stand in our way.
  • Fear is a liar. Like stories we tell ourselves, our inner voice can invent some pretty remarkable tales – yes and even, lies. When that voice says things like, “You’re a failure, a loser, not as good as, not enough, etc.” you can reliably call it a lie
  • There is nothing to fear but fear itself.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural speech included these famous words when he attempted to both rouse and assure a desperate public that great things could be done during the depths of the Great Depression. I think we can all take away from this memorable line that our fear of fear is often far worse than the event itself – if, in fact, it comes to pass at all.
  •  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  This one gets me hooked every time. Put it on a plaque on the wall because it asks us a vitally important question that goes to the heart of the choices we make – and don’t make – what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Well, what would you do?
Jungian analyst and author, James Hollis, writes,All of us have to ask this simple but piercing question of our relationships, affiliations, professions, politics and our theology: “Does this path, this choice, make me larger or smaller?” Usually, Hollis suggests, we know the answer immediately because we always intuitively know and yet are afraid of what we know and even more afraid of what it may ask of us.”
Our not looking, not asking, not seeing, avoiding, hiding, deflecting, neglecting, distracting, exhausting and rationalizing what we want but don’t allow for ourselves is a bow to fear. Our actions are always in service to our unconscious needs – and too many stay unattended in the dark because of our fears.
Behavior doesn’t just happen. It’s motivated by our beliefs and emotions. This conscious and mostly unconscious process is always going on. Should I walk down this block or the next? Can I be honest with my boss? Can I be real with this group of people? Should I spend this money? ( money, folks is a huge repository of fear for many people) Should I trust this person? What if I break off this relationship and land up alone? What will happen to me if I get sick? Who will take care of me when I get old?
At the core of fear are the existential questions every human being faces:  Am I enough? Will I have enough? Will the world overwhelm me or will it love me?
Ouch, ouch, ouch. None of this is emotionally comfortable. All of this chronic uncertainty can leave us feeling like we always have to hang on to the edge of the pool for dear life.
But we cannot banish fear from our human experience. It is after all, an inescapable part of our journey.  Fear, like any other emotion is not our enemy.   Stripped down to its pure essence fear’s job is to keep us safe. That it lulls us into a sense of false psychological safety is part of its attraction and a major part of its problem.

Taking the Gentle Way With What We Fear

As scary or obscure as it may seem, becoming more acquainted with what Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron calls, the places that scare us,” can begin to loosen the pent-up resistance of our unhealed fears. As Chodron suggests, “Each time you stay present with fear and uncertainty, you’re letting go in a habitual way of finding security and comfort.” 
The key to working with what we fear is changing the way we think about it.  Despite the popular advice to overcome or conquer our fears, facing and healing our fears will not be “won” using the language of war and struggle. Our fears will not be eliminated by taking a hard-line approach.
Learning to listen more deeply to the needs behind our fears is an important beginning.  In doing this we have to walk the fine line between listening, understanding and not rationalizing what we fear.  Summoning the strength of other emotions like self-compassion can help us to do the emotional healing work that’s needed.
The more I live the more I learn to become kinder and gentler to myself in dealing with my fears. I’ve let up on the pressure to take Herculean steps. Learning to respect our emotional life is continuous process. It pushes, prods and pulls – it bends, shifts and releases. It is kindest when we are kindest.
We begin by “starting close in” as the wonderful poet David Whyte writes, “Don’t take the second step, or the third, start with the first.”
That’s my advice.

Start Close in ~David Whyte

Start close in,

don’t take the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.


Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.


Start with your own


give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something



To find

another’s voice,


your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear


to another.


Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.


Start close in,

don’t take

the second step

or the third,

start with the first


close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.


~David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

Louise Altman,Intentional Communication Consultants
Join our mailing list and receive our occasional mailings!

Leave a Reply