"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself": People Power - Mar 2016

By Sam Allman

To live life is to be immersed in paradox and irony. That makes it difficult to understand. We have to feel sadness in order to know what happiness is; noise makes us appreciate silence; and absence creates value for presence. A paradox is a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true. Niels Bohr, the renowned Nobel Laureate, referred to paradox when he said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Paradoxes increase ambiguity. Ambiguity eliminates simplicity and easy answers. It is one of the most important and difficult principles for the human mind to accept. Our minds seek clarity in thinking and in actions. We desire simplicity and exactness. Our minds want step by step recipes. We stress ourselves out when our lives are too complex and complicated. To quote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “Our life is frittered away by detail. … Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” 

We want simple answers to complex questions. We want those answers to be the same even when situations and people are different. Maybe that’s why many of us get stuck doing the same things over and over again expecting different results, which is Einstein’s definition of insanity. We keep following the same recipes even though they don’t work in every situation or with every person. It’s like asking which recipe for spaghetti sauce is the best. The answer… it depends. 

Yet Einstein has also been quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” The fact is, if we want to increase our people power, the subject of this column requires that we accept ambiguity and paradox. There are no simple answers, only paradoxical answers. Which is best? It depends. 

We are mentally programmed to deal with fear. But handling it effectively requires accepting ambiguity and paradoxical thinking. Easy answers do not help us grow. It’s the problems we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give people an answer, all they gain is a little knowledge. But give them a problem, and they’ll look for their own answers. 

What do you think? Is fear good or bad? The answer is yes, or … it depends. Your personal power and your power with people require avoiding simplistic recipe thinking when strategizing on how you respond to it.

Fear is a byproduct of our thoughts. It’s how we think about what’s going on around us. If our perception is that we are in danger, real or not, we will experience our bodies’ natural response: fear. That’s why fear is a choice. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt: no one can make you afraid without your permission. Our thoughts, either consciously or unconsciously, produce chemicals that move us to protect ourselves from perceived threats or danger. That response can happen within the blink of an eye. Adrenalin and other chemicals prepare our skeletal muscles and our body to fight or flee. Anthropologists tell us that this response to danger was instilled in us to assure the preservation of our species. 

Alfred Hitchcock said, “Fear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

If our lives are in danger, it is that simple, whether we are facing a wolf or walking along the precipice of a cliff or jumping out of the way of a speeding car. The problem is, since fear is a creation of our thoughts, our perception of danger could be wrong or flawed. Fear can be real or imagined. Either way, our physical and emotional response is the same: fight or flight. That’s why we must think beyond the simple answer. 

There are two kinds of fears: rational and irrational—or in simpler terms, fears that make sense and fears that don’t. The purpose of fear is self-protecting, but it can also be self-defeating. It’s that self-defeating fear that sabotages your personal power. Hence Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

All hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and openhearted vision of people who embrace life. Irrational fear kills the mind, the heart and the imagination. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. We must be open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement and acceptance. When we retreat from life—a version of flight—we limit our ability to create, sabotage our potential and reduce our personal power. This kind of fear is life’s only valid opponent. Only it can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary. It has no decency, respects no law, shows no mercy. It goes for our weakest spot, which it finds with ease. It begins in the mind with self-defeating thoughts that immobilize us or cause us to take refuge from life. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive, or even to hope, by a limit imposed from within our own minds. 

Irrational fears control us whether we are aware of them or not. Irrational fears shackle us like chains. We become prisoners to them. They prevent us from taking action, moving forward or embracing life. If you don’t control your fears, they will control you.

Though not exhaustive, here are some of the fears that cause many of us to retreat or to not embrace life so that we cannot reach our potential or experience the possibilities that are available to us.

Fear of Failure: This may be the most potent fear of all. In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho writes, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” This fear’s potency is tied to our self-esteem, the belief that if we fail, we will be discovered as frauds. Better to not try than to try and fail. It sounds logical. Why wouldn’t we want to protect our reputation? What’s the reality? Paradoxical thinking shows that anything worth building, doing or learning usually requires multiple failures. It’s a fact that you can fail your way to success. On your journey you will learn what doesn’t work. Failure is rarely fatal, neither is success final. In reality, failure to try is the biggest failure of all because it never allows us to reach our potential.

Fear of Success: This fear is also tied to self-esteem. It’s the belief that if you do succeed, you will not be able to handle or perpetuate that success. Success is more complex than failure. It’s more comfortable to stay in a familiar situation, even if it’s not your ideal. But in our success-oriented culture, we forget the fact that success can be downright frightening. Achieving success (however you define it) means you are entering the unknown. Who knows what the unknown will bring? Will I be scrutinized or criticized? What new pressures and demands will success require? Will I be able to handle success? Consciously or unconsciously we may wonder if we are up to the challenge and whether it will be worth the risk. This fear and the fear of failure are expressed by procrastination and self-sabotage. 

Fear of Rejection: The fear of rejection—that we are unlovable—is one of our deepest human fears. We are biologically wired with a longing to belong. We’re anxious about the prospect of being left out, lonely or isolated. The word “no” epitomizes this fear. We hear that word and we assume we are rejected because we are not good enough. Rejection hurts. So, ironically, instead of risking rejection, we create it. Afraid of rejection, salespeople make presentations but don’t close or continue the sales process when the customer objects. This fear makes its bearer afraid of asking for what he or she wants. “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it will be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matthew 7: 7-8.) The fact is that you must risk rejection in order to get what you want. It’s paradoxical. People are not mind readers. We must not be afraid to tell or ask for what we want. If we don’t ask, we don’t get. We cannot turn the responsibility over to others to fulfill our needs.

Fear of Authenticity: This is the fear of being weak or vulnerable, and it is closely tied to the fear of rejection. Instead of being real, we hide behind facades of fakeness. In this society we value strength and power; we honor super heroes. So we hide our weaknesses, our foibles and our defects. We pretend we are more powerful than we are. Ironically, when we fear authenticity and try to be someone we are not, we fear being discovered as fakes or frauds. Some trade off. Paradoxically, vulnerability shows strength. The willingness to admit mistakes, take responsibility for failures and be transparent about personal weaknesses and fears actually demonstrates a character of strength and personal acceptance.

Have you recognized any fears that cause you to withdraw and not embrace life? Reflect. What have you done to sabotage your life? Look inwardly. What do you fear? Sometimes all you need to do is to recognize or admit to yourself that you have a self-defeating fear and are afraid. Paradoxically, it can have the effect of helping you relax and ceasing to allow it to control you. “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change,” said American psychologist Carl Rogers.

Little by little we can expose ourselves to our self-defeating fears. Eventually, they will have no power or control over us, and the fears shrink and vanish. That’s why we hear phrases like: Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, the title of a book by Susan Jeffers; or “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt; and from author Stephen Richards, “When you do what you fear most, then you can do anything.” Admit that the risk you take is scary and take the action anyway.

Let’s face it, we live in scary times. We worry about who the next president will be. Will he or she be good for business? We worry about terrorism, the economy, global warming, rogue nations and retirement. Shall we shrink and hold back, or move forward and embrace what time we have left? It depends. I can’t answer that question for you. The answer is different for everyone. There are no easy answers. 

We must identify our catastrophic thoughts, question them and replace them with healthier, realistic thinking. We must accept ambiguity, recognize our self-defeating fears, take action when required, and immerse ourselves in living. The paradox is that sometimes the answer is to shrink and withdraw and other times it is to move forward and embrace. Then, what do you think? Is it true that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself? It depends….

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus