Fear gets a bad rap. While I believe this state of affairs isn’t entirely unwarranted, I also believe that fear is a powerful teacher which we should listen to whenever it pops up in our lives. This article argues that fear is a friend.
In a previous article I wrote I discussed what happened in my life when I switched from acting out of fear to acting out of love. You can read that here. In this article I will write about how we can harness our fear to achieve things we never thought possible.
By the end of this article, I hope you will attempt to welcome fear when you experience it, rather than run from it (which only makes it stronger). So read on if this is something for you.
Fear’s Bad Rap
“Fear is the mind killer.” That’s a which Paul Atreides repeats, the protagonist of the science fiction masterpiece “Dune” by Frank Herbert. Paul Atreides is a skilled fighter, politician and leader who has been trained in ancient techniques which calm his mind and sharpen his senses. Throughout “Dune”, whenever Paul faces a difficult challenge and experiences fear, he repeats the phrase to himself.
Then there’s “Fear cuts deeper than swords” which Arya repeats, one of the characters in “Game Of Thrones”, by George RR Martin. Syrio Forel, Arya’s dancing master, teaches her the phrase during their water dancing lessons. Like Paul Atreides, Arya, who is a little girl when she learns the phrase, repeats it to herself when she faces fear-inducing situations.
Then there’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” which was said by Franklin D. Roosevelt during his presidential inauguration speech.
In all of these phrases fear is placed in the role of an actor. Fear acts upon us. Whether it’s killing our minds, cutting us or making us afraid, fear is an actor which, upon entering the theater of our life, proceeds to hurt us in some way.
But There’s Something Deeper At Play
Fear erupts into our life with a telltale set of symptoms. Our breathing becomes fast and shallow, pulse accelerates and blood flows from our guts to our limbs, among many other changes. This is called the fight-or-flight response. Any and every human being who experiences fear sets of these physiological and biochemical changes within themselves. The fight-or-flight response is a fascinating subject and I encourage you to read more about it.
In the books I mentioned, when Paul and Arya experience fear, they repeat the quote they learned to themselves. They then proceed to do whatever it is they need to do in order to survive.
This is meaningful. It tells us that Paul and Arya are both aware that they are experiencing fear and yet they choose to act on the fear-inducing agent anyways. They repeat the phrase to themselves to put themselves in the right frame of mind before they face the challenge. It allows them to take a step back and realize the fear they are experiencing is not being caused by the fear-inducing agent itself, but by their selves.
I’ll explain how this works with a personal story of how I overcame a fear which followed me from the time I was a teenager.
My Fear Of Dancing
I’m going to be honest here. For the majority of my life I was totally incapable of dancing. This, according to my Mexican aunts and cousins, was an absolute travesty of manhood. A Mexican man must be able to dance. Otherwise he’s lame and all the girls ignore him. There is truth to this.
But I never learned how to dance as a child! Mexicans learn to dance via osmosis. Beginning in childhood, Mexicans go to parties where guests are dancing smack in the center of the venue. It’s loads of fun.
Children will always want to do fun things which they see other people doing. Have you ever seen two people dancing in rhythm with each other and the music? It looks like a blast!
So, naturally, Mexican children want in on the fun. They learn to dance by watching, imitating and receiving casual instruction from those around them. Children don’t care if they make mistakes, so they learn to dance effortlessly.
But once we become adults and we have been forced through a schooling system which teaches us to fear mistakes, it becomes harder to learn how to dance. Not because our ability to learn has decreased. But because we have learned to fear the mistakes we might make while learning how to dance.
We have become conditioned to judge ourselves harshly for making mistakes, and thus we believe it’s better if we don’t make any mistakes at all. So we don’t even try. And if we do try, we do it while drenched in a nervousness-induced sweat bath, which kills our ability to learn anything whatsoever (fear is the mind killer).
For the record, trying and failing while experiencing fear is always better than sitting out.
How I Learned To Dance
This is was what happened to me as an adult who desperately wanted to learn how to dance. As a young man in Mexico, whenever I was at a social event where dancing was happening, I would just sit down and watch others dance from afar. I wanted to dance! But I was so afraid of making a fool of myself that I chose to sit down instead of partaking in the fun.
Whenever I did muster the courage to ask a girl to dance, I ended up getting nervous and sweaty and revealing my complete dancing ineptitude. I would then sit down and not try again.
This was how it went for the majority of my young adult life.
Until one day, my mom told me that she wanted us both to learn how to dance. She had never learned either, even though she had wanted to. So she signed us both up for dancing classes. I agreed happily, thinking it would be a great idea.
At The Dance Studio
I no longer thought it was a great idea.
The studio was a large rectangle of about 30 by 8 meters. It was filled with instructors, who were engaged in teaching individuals (mostly men) how to dance cumbia, salsa, or bachata, all Latin American forms of dance.
As soon as I walked into the studio I felt the fear. I knew that this was going to be tremendously difficult. I had created such a hard shell of judgment around myself that before I had even taken a step I had already set myself up for failure.
What was the worst that could happen? It was just dancing! Yet fear was already killing my mind and cutting my body.
We signed up at the front desk and we began our class. My mom went off with a male instructor and I was assigned a female one. Her name was Valeria, she had long brown hair and a calm, determined face. Valeria asked me to put my right hand on her waist and to hold her right hand in my left. She put her right hand on my shoulder.
This Was Enough To Get Me Sweating!
We started doing the basic step for cumbia. I made mistakes, yet Valeria patiently walked (or danced) me through the steps. We continued doing this for a couple of minutes before she left to help another student, she instructed me to keep doing the steps on my own, to get the hang of it.
This was the process we followed over ten classes. Valeria would come to me, teach me a little more, dance with me for a few minutes and leave to allow me to practice on my own. I would make all kinds of mistakes while dancing with Valeria; I would lose the rhythm, forget the next step, mess up a step, step on Valeria’s foot, there was no limit to the number and types of mistakes I could make!
Whenever I made a mistake Valeria would smile, sometimes openly laugh, and we would start over. I would feel a tad embarrassed.
Like this, slowly and surely, I began building up a sense of rhythm and learning the basic steps to cumbia.
This didn’t mean it was easy for me. Before every class I felt like not going. I felt like I’d rather do anything else with my time other than learn how to dance. I felt this way even though I wanted to learn! I wanted to remain in my comfort zone.
It wasn’t the dancing which put me off going to class to learn how to dance.
It was the fear.
Fear Dissolves Away When We Face It
Over the course of my ten dancing classes at the studio the fear lightened slightly, but it never went away entirely. My mom and I concluded our dancing lessons and decided to call it a wrap, as I was leaving Mexico City to go to the Czech Republic.
Then about 9 months later while I was living with my partner Petra in the Czech Republic. She told me she wanted to learn how to dance jive.
So she signed us up take jive lessons.
The moment Petra and I started learning to dance I felt the old fear return. But it was different now. It was lighter. I also felt the fear in Petra, who wanted to get everything perfectly right from the beginning and feared making mistakes (she had been through the same schooling system I had).
Maybe it was because I was dancing with Petra, whom I trusted entirely. Or maybe it was because I already had some experience with dancing in Mexico. It was probably a combination of both things. But I no longer felt as terrified of dancing and making mistakes as I had before. So I was able to lead us in jive, still feeling fear, but not one which drove me to ineptitude.
And the more we danced together, the more the fear weakened.
Until it dissolved away entirely.
And now we can both dance whenever we feel like it and we do not care at all if we make mistakes in front of others. Before the COVID restrictions were imposed we were learning how to dance swing and were loving every moment of it.
Fear Blocks The Way
I want to end this article with the following idea: fear is a guard. Fear protects us. We experience fear when we perceive that something is a threat to our life. Sometimes fear is warranted, like when we’re standing at the edge of a cliff or facing down a rattlesnake in the California outback.
But many times, I would say most times, fear is not warranted, like when we’re learning how to dance, or giving a speech in front of an audience.
When we are sure that our life isn’t at risk and we feel fear we can be sure that the fear we are experiencing is the guard in front of the gateway of self-discovery.
Walk Through The Gate!
That guard is standing there, looking all imposing and threatening, when in reality, it is devoid of any real substance. The “imposing” guard really has inflatable biceps and a rubber nightstick. The guard’s apparent substance comes from our thoughts.
If we choose to make the guard of fear into something it isn’t, an insurmountable obstacle, then we will forever be locked out of the realm of self-discovery. We will never know what we are capable of, what we can accomplish or learn, if we choose to take the guard of fear seriously and turn away when we encounter it.
That’s Why We Can Treat Fear As A Friend!
Take it from a person who always wanted to dance and never did because he took the guard of fear seriously. Sometimes, fear might be perceived as so big and powerful that it might be necessary to step back and face the fear in a low-risk environment. Like learning how to dance with a patient and skilled instructor.
When we take the time to analyze our fears and break them down into their component parts (I feared dancing because I feared making a fool of myself in front of a girl), we can take steps to minimize the risk of facing the specific part which makes us afraid (learning with a patient instructor, rather than a strange girl).
We don’t have to face our fears in one fell swoop. We can take little, controlled steps, like I did with dancing, until the fear is revealed as what it has always been.
A guard with inflatable biceps and a rubber nightstick.
So what activity makes you feel fear? Is there something in your life which you would love to do, but you keep yourself from doing it out of fear? If there is, What are you going to do about it?
To our wealth and success.