There’s so many things I haven’t done because of fear. There’s even more that I did after months or even years of procrastinating. Quitting an old job or starting a new one, asking someone out or breaking up, starting a new project or saying no to someone asking for a favor. At one point I spent entire 6 months with no other job than to write my bachelor’s thesis–and didn’t even properly start it at that time.
This is pretty irrational, because, frankly speaking, in none of these situations I was in actual danger. Even though I felt terrified, there was never a real threat of physical harm. Quite the contrary, I would more often walk alone and drunk at night in the most suspicious neighborhoods than start a new project where success wasn’t guaranteed.
Somehow a slight chance that I might fail, or someone might criticize me, or I might come across as an idiot to someone, or that someone might never like me again, was enough to keep me frightened and paralyzed. In that moment, in that situation, I didn’t get to rationally analyze what are the actual odds of my life going completely astray. All that I knew was that the world was ending, because it felt so, and I’d better run away from whatever is causing this as fast as I can.
This is a feature, not a bug
In prehistoric times when our emotions evolved, every suspicious sound could signal instant death. No one could possibly survive on their own, so maintaining your social status was crucial to not becoming some leopard’s lunch. If death is right behind every corner, you’d better be flooded with emotions so strong you need to deal with them in an instant. Those who didn’t might not have had too many chances to reproduce.
The fear of being alone, rejected, or ridiculed isn’t bad on its own. It’s a great tool that helped us survive through the most challenging times of human history. But like every tool, it works perfectly well in some situations, and terribly in others. Our social instincts weren’t designed for modern workplaces, schools, or social media.
While you’re getting all pumped up, your palms become sweaty, and your heart starts beating faster, it’s hard to see this is just a legacy system all firing up when it’s not needed anymore, like a broken car alarm that turns on whenever someone passes by. Again, making it hard to reflect on this is also by design. If the fear didn’t grab all of your attention and narrow down your vision to the issue at hand, you could ignore the signal and come back to whatever you were doing–and soon become someone’s lunch.
This doesn’t mean we’re at its mercy
The more I practice mindfulness, the more often I’m able to pause in any kind of situation no matter how frightening it feels, take a step back, and observe it all from a distance. If I’m particularly self aware at that time I might even remind myself how fear is a great tool that served my ancestors so well over the millenia, but the most important thing is to reflect on whatever is happening right now.
Is the world really ending? Am I going to be abandoned forever and left to die alone? Am I in danger that could cause me serious physical harm?
In almost every situation, the answer will be no.