2019-02-28
Kathryn McCallum/Flickr.com

Most advice today tells you that you need to be fearless and never let fear touch you. The implication, of course, is that fear does nothing but hold you back from your goals. It is true that too much fear can paralyze you, but fear can be one of your greatest advantages and best teachers if you are able to listen to it without either dismissing its warnings or allowing it to control you. Fear is not your enemy. In fact, animosity is the last thing fear should evoke, and you should never hope to truly be rid of fear. True fearlessness would not be the blessing that conventional wisdom claims. Instead, it would be a terrible curse because you would lose all the benefits that fear, oddly enough, provides for you.

Fear protects you.

Fear is one of the most basic emotions in existence. Sentience is not required to feel it, and it is arguably the hardest emotion to discard. This is for a reason. The first and most basic purpose of fear is to keep you alive. Fear is meant to warn you of when there is a hungry lion stalking you in the grass or to keep you from accidentally tumbling off the edge of a cliff by trying to peer over the side. Fewer people need the adrenaline rush of the fight-flight-freeze reflex today than your ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors, but that does not mean it does not still serve a valuable purpose. Disasters still occur, and the physiological reaction of fear still enables people to survive. Terrified people swept away by a raging river can use the adrenaline rush of fear to fight their way to the surface. Those cornered by a neighbor’s aggressive dog can find the energy to scramble over a fence or up a tree. People trapped in a crashed car or burning home can ignore the pain of their own injuries in order to haul their child from the wreckage. 

In addition to saving yourself, fear can help you avoid a potential catastrophe or help those who are hurt. Fear sharpens your senses enabling you to avoid danger or find those who need help. Fear is also the root of the infamous gut feeling that says something is wrong. Listening to that instinct when dealing with a stranger or situation that might otherwise seem normal can help you avoid danger.

Fear indicates change.

Fear is meant, first and foremost, to keep you alive. As such, you are naturally afraid of things that are unfamiliar. To the primal hindbrain that controls fear, an unfamiliar situation or place means that you do not know if you are safe or if you need to be on the lookout for angry wolves, venomous snakes or treacherous ground. This instinctive wariness can serve its original purpose if you go camping in an unfamiliar area or get lost in a new city at night, but it can be frustrating when you find yourself with sweaty palms on your first day at your new job. 

Do not look at nervousness in the face of the unfamiliar or unknown as a weakness. Instead, use it to confirm to yourself that you are branching out into something new. Familiar is comforting. New is scary. As such, fear is an indicator that you are dealing with change, and you must be willing to deal with change if you ever hope to grow or pursue your dreams. Fear indicates that you are taking a leap of faith. 

Fear teaches you about yourself.

Fear can be a very simple emotion, but it can also reveal more about you than almost anything else. Assuming you are not actually facing down a hungry bear, the root causes of fear are not always abundantly clear. Why does your friendly new boss scare you to death? Why are you afraid of commitment? Why are you scared to ask for help? What is actually frightening you in such cases is not as simple as “the bear is going to eat me.” The causes of most fears in modern times are more complex. As such, really exploring your fears can teach you an enormous amount about yourself. Next time you are afraid of something, ask yourself, what are you really afraid of and why?

Fear increases your preparation.

Fear is a survival instinct at its most basic level.
When you are afraid, your body and mind do whatever they have to in order to keep you alive. This can translate to either a frantic rush of motion as you inadvertently punch the friend that thought it would be a great idea to jump out of the bushes to scare you or to more drawn out, methodical actions. If you know in advance you are going to be doing something scary, your brain does what it can to give you the best chance of success. In ancient times, this would mean making sure to pack extra provisions for a long and dangerous journey. In modern days, this means reciting your reasons for asking for a raise for several minutes before talking to your boss. If you are confident, you are more likely to wing it. When you are afraid, you take more careful preparations. Ironically, those preparations both lead to you feeling more confident and increase your likelihood of succeeding in your endeavor.

Fear reminds you what is important.

Fear does not appear in situations that are meaningless. It may seem like it sometimes, but fear only appears when you feel like you have something to lose. You may wonder why, then, you are terrified of public speaking. You do not really have much to lose, do you? Your fear, however, says that you do.
You may not actually be afraid of the crowd of people, but you may be afraid of putting insecurities on display or making a fool out of yourself. What you fear is losing people’s regard. Similarly, you do not care about letting down complete strangers. You are afraid, however, of letting down family or friends. This proves that they are important to you.

Fear forces you to grow. 

Fear tells you where your comfort zone ends. Many people would be happy to never push those boundaries. After all, the comfort zone is, as the name implies, comfortable. If you never push your limits, however, you will never grow. If you are not at least a little bit afraid of something, it means that you are not truly stepping into something new. Fear is an indicator that you are growing. Nothing that makes you grow comes without a little fear, and you will not have truly grown until it no longer scares you.

Fear makes you stronger.

Fear has always been associated with strength and courage. There is a reason for that. Those that can face their fears are always seen as stronger than those who cower away, and there are a thousand quotes stating that courage cannot exist without fear. All of this is true. What the inspirational quotes often leave out is exactly what facing a fear does for you. There is nothing more satisfying or personally triumphal than successfully staring your fear in the face. Confronting a fear without shying away is the ultimate personal victory. It is how you grow, and it makes you stronger. After all, if you could face this fear, why would you not be able to face another?

Fear is often seen as a negative emotion, something to be gotten rid of at all costs. In many ways, however, fear is your greatest teacher. It constantly tests you, pushes you and tells you when you have become complacent. It helps you survive adversity and grow when it is peaceful. Fear is not a wall holding you back. It is a mountain waiting for you to scale it. The choice is simply what you do. Do you walk away, or do you climb?