How Fear Limits Us

The following is an excerpt from the book On Becoming Fearless

How Fear Limits Us

Beyond the major moments of fear in our lives, there are many other times we sacrifice our personal truth to go along, be approved of, or just plain be “nice.” Because despite all our advances, there’s still a huge premium on women being “accommodating” and “team players” who don’t “rock the boat.” As Marlo Thomas once said, ”A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.” Or, as a friend of mine operating in the treacherous political world of Washington’s Beltway told me, “It’s good to be a team player, but you also have to know the difference between all of us standing together and all of us jumping off the same cliff.” If you let them, the hungry little gremlins of compromise will devour your soul bit by bit and come to dominate your life. They feed the fear of being left out, the fear that survival will be impossible outside the tribe. No wonder fear shoots through our veins, constricting our blood flow and shutting down our creative energy — we are in survival mode.

When we are in the grip of survival thinking, the dominant illusion is that once we vanquish the enemy facing us, overcome the obstacle in front of us, get over the next hill, life will be secure, free of problems, perfect. Then we will be fearless. Then we can start the life we’ve been planning on. But that long-awaited day never comes because there is always another enemy, another obstacle, another hill.

To live in fear is the worst form of insult to our true selves. By having such a low regard for who we are — for our instincts and abilities and worth — we build a cage around ourselves. To prevent others from shutting us down, we do it for them. Trapped by our own fears, we then pretend that we’re incapable of having what we want, forever waiting for others to give us permission to start living. Pretty soon, we start to believe this is the only way.

The most common response to this crisis of self is conformity: “The individual,” Erich Fromm writes in Escape from Freedom, “ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be . . . This mechanism can be compared with the protective coloring some animals assume.”

So, ironically, the woman who appears well adapted may be the one who has simply become most comfortable being governed by her fears, while the “neurotic” one is still gamely struggling to reach fearlessness.

Mastering Fear

Fearlessness is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s the mastery of fear. Courage, my compatriot Socrates argues, is the knowledge of what is not to be feared. Which is to say, there are things we should be afraid of — we want to stay alive, after all. We will never completely eliminate fear from our lives, but we can definitely get to the point where our fears do not stop us from daring to think new thoughts, try new things, take risks, fail, start again, and be happy.

Fearlessness is about getting up one more time than we fall down. The more comfortable we are with the possibility of falling down, the less worried we are of what people will think if and when we do, the less judgmental of ourselves we are every time we make a mistake, the more fearless we will be, and the easier our journey will become.

I remember once talking to my eight-year-old daughter before a school performance. She kept saying she had butterflies in her stomach because she was afraid to go on the stage. What if, I asked her, the butterflies were actually there because she was excited to go on the stage? She considered the idea. In fact, it became a little joke between us. ”I’m not afraid, Mommy,” she would say. ”I’m excited.” The more she repeated it, the more she believed it and the less afraid she was. Since fear is such a primal reaction, making the choice to move forward despite fear is an evolved decision that transcends our animal nature.

In the chapters ahead, I will provide a road map for achieving fearlessness in every aspect of our lives, a straight-to-the-point manifesto on how to be fearless. How to be bold. How to say what we need to say and do what we need to do in a way that has us embracing, not fearing, the reactions of others. Why speaking out is almost always better than silence. How to assess what’s holding us back from being our best, most honest selves and what we must do to change. Why the world will be a better place if we actively work for the things we want and believe in.

I have my own key to overcoming fear. I look for the still center in my life and in my self, the place that is not susceptible to life’s constant ups and downs. It doesn’t mean that I don’t lose my head and that I wouldn’t rather have success and praise than failure and criticism, but it does mean that I can find my way back to that center, that secure structure of inner support, so that all my negative emotions, and especially my fears, become opportunities to achieve fearlessness. If we can find that greater inner freedom and strength, then we can evolve from a fearful state of living to a state of freedom, trust, and happiness.

We have so much potential, yet we hold ourselves back. If my daughters, and women of all ages, are to take their rightful place in society, they must become fearless. This book is dedicated to them and to that goal.

Copyright © 2007 Arianna Huffington