Written by Neelesh Rathi.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
Fear is, more than anything else — more than paralyzing, more than misery-inducing — fleeting, and then frustrating.
It’s frustrating because it’s fleeting.
Fear doesn’t last — the paralysis and misery don’t last — which means after it passes, for however long it stays away, we’re left frustrated with ourselves. Why did we let ourselves be so debilitated by a mere feeling? Why are we so weak? Why are we so fearful? Why can’t we be fearless?
But these are the wrong questions to ask. Fear is just a warning that we’re entering unknown waters, that we’re feeling insecure and should proceed with caution. Fearlessness is recklessly ignoring that warning, and fearfulness is an overwhelming feeling of insecurity that leads us to either refuse to proceed at all, or thoughtlessly proceed in the wrong direction. Ultimately, both grant fear control over our actions.
The answer, then, is to control how we react to fear. But, we have to cut fear off before it leads to paralysis and misery; despair is debilitating, and causes us to do nothing — certainly nothing helpful or productive. So ultimately, dealing with the emotion of fear requires detaching ourselves from our emotions and rationally addressing the root causes of our fears.
So, there’s good news and bad news with this method.
Good news: you only have to do it once. Recognizing the root cause of a particular fear requires some deep soul-searching and analysis of both yourself, and of the conditions that led your fear to rear its terrifying head. But a lot of fears are common, so there are others who have experienced them and can help you understand them. Once you understand a fear, each time it rears up again (if it ever does), you’ll already know what you’re really dealing with and why.
You’ll understand what you’re feeling, which will make it easier to make rational decisions because the confidence that comes with understanding keeps the worst of the feelings — paralysis, misery, despair — at bay.
But the bad news: this isn’t easy. When a tornado of fear is tossing up your insides and making you want to just curl up and tune out the rest of the world lest it gets even worse — it’s hard to be rational, to find your way back to Kansas. But it’s not impossible.
At the end of last semester, I decided, after weeks and months of agonizing (and prior to more of the same) to change my major. I went from Computer Science to Black Studies and it was — well, agonizing. Paralyzing. Misery-inducing.
However, the fear was easier to manage when I talked to people who didn’t share my fear; professors, other students, academic advisors, friends, parents, siblings — there were people who understood some of what I was going through, but weren’t blinded by all the fear I was experiencing. In short, they helped me think rationally in the middle of the fear.
Meanwhile, the bouts of fearfulness were interrupted by periods of calm — fragile calm, but calm nonetheless. All I had to do was take advantage: when the fear reared up, I dropped the subject and moved on to something that would calm me down; once I had a somewhat stable mindset and emotional state, I encouraged myself, and then dove into the root cause of the fear — leading with confidence and rationality, not my emotions. The despair made it difficult to make smart choices, so I waited until the despair passed before trying to tackle what was a difficult decision.
My fear isn’t completely gone now; it, along with others, still rear up. But I’m better able to manage the fears that I’ve analyzed and come to understand. Fear takes advantage of our emotions, and it manipulates them in ways we can’t control. So our two strongest defenses are to intercept burgeoning fears before they can balloon out of proportion, which is the point at which they become unmanageable and troublesome; and to control our reactions to fear when they do become emotionally destabilizing — paralyzing and misery-inducing.
Fear is a useful instinctive warning; it can keep you from making really bad choices without thinking — recklessness. But it must be engaged rationally, not just (and often overly) emotionally, because otherwise, it will lead to, instead of useful corrections, overcorrections — brought on by a desire to escape the misery no matter what — or no correction — paralysis.
So be neither fearful nor fearless.