Fear can get a bad rap. In the world of self-improvement as well as the spiritual zeitgeist, fear is the bad guy. There’s a lot of being told to be fearless. To choose love over fear. That fear is the enemy.
Well, yes and no.
It certainly can be a bad guy and your worst enemy but not always. Fear is there for a reason, it has its purpose and place. I’m all one for choosing love. That rarely sends you down the wrong path. But what if what you love hurts you and it’s that fear of losing what you love that imprisons you? Here, leaning into fear may save you. Then again, that leaning into fear is the opposite side of the same coin of choosing love, just a different type of love – self-love. But I digress…
Another ubiquitous focus these days is goals. Setting goals, accomplishing goals. Again, totally useful. But not always. Goals are positively orientated. Striving for them requires energy, motivation and perseverance. But what if that’s not where you’re at? What if where you want to get, or not get, orients towards the shadows?
That’s what really intrigued me about fear setting. Fear setting? I hear you. I too had always and only heard of goal setting, so I looked into it. Turns out, I’m very familiar with fear setting. I just didn’t know I was doing it. More on that later. But first, what is it?
Fear setting is about taking action by intentionally cultivating the terror of inaction. It’s a modern spin on a very old stoic philosophy called premeditatio malorum, or a premeditation of the evils. And like all things stoicism, it’s about surrendering to what is out of our control and strengthening what we can control.
There’s actually two distinct parts to this exercise. The first is about diminishing fear. The way Tim Ferris describes his process starts with a proposition beginning with, “what if I”. Once proposed, you then look to define, prevent and repair. You define all of the worst things you can imagine happening if you decide to take this new step. You then outline all the potential solutions to prevent or reduce the likelihood of these things happening. And finally, you project into the future the happening of your worst-case scenarios and plan what you could do or who you could call for help to repair the damage.
This is undoubtedly a useful exercise to prepare for the inevitable hurdles any course of action will eventually contend with. It’s great to decrease one’s emotional reactivity to setbacks because you’ve already emotionally weighed them, and thus as Tim puts it acts as a “safety net for emotional free fall”. It obviously works because it catapulted Tim into self-improvement superstardom.
It is however a very right brain approach, very analytical. Practical, logical. methodological. That’s not what I want to focus on because that’s often not where we are. More often than not we are emotional, scattered and unsure.
I want to focus on the second part of fear setting. The one that really dives deep into fear. The one where you can actually feel the fear and it’s that feeling of fear that propels you forward. Shrinking and simplifying, this is where you ask yourself – what is the cost of doing nothing? What is the pain of your inaction? What does your life look like in 6 months, in 1 year, in 3 years if you still haven’t taken the step you know you could, should or must?
And ultimately, I believe that distills down into one fear – regret.
Regret is a powerhouse of an emotion. Not only does it imprison people in their pasts, impeding them to live in the possibility of the present and the hope of the future, regret is proven to be the number one pain people lament at the end of their lives. Regret for not having taken risks. Regret for having worked too hard at the expense of family and friends and experience. Regret for having lived an inauthentic life. To regret is a terrible burden to carry.
It would take a master contortionist’s skill to do the mental and emotional gymnastics necessary to see my life as a failure. But I did it. Despite always over-achieving, always being successful and never struggling academically, athletically or socially, five years ago I stood up in front of my masters class in Amsterdam and told them I considered myself a failure. Being my high school classes salutatorian, one of the school’s best athletes and most popular kids, my Honours in Finance, my CA, my “star performance” at Deloitte, a second Masters Degree, I saw none of that as accomplishment. And it was because I lived deeply in regret. Regret for not having the courage to step off the well-trodden paths, pursuing my passions and forging a path of my own. Regret for so dishonouring what I truly needed my body became sick in rebellion. Basically, regret for being so afraid of uncertainty and failure I was paralyzed into chronic inaction.
Which is why I considered myself a failure. Because I finally understood that true failure will never be swinging and missing. True failure has and forever will be never swinging at all.
And ever since, no matter how big or small, I’ve decided to choose trying. To choose action over inaction, because I never again wanted to be haunted by the “what ifs”. It’s been that fear of not doing that makes doing easier.
Yes, fear can be your enemy, but it can also be a strong ally. Having known both sides of that coin, the truth is it isn’t a coin flip that dictates which side of fear shows up. It’s a choice. Fear can either immobilise you into inaction or it can be the fire underneath you that makes inaction untenable. It’s a choice between harnessing fear for you or letting fear harness you.
I wouldn’t be writing this today without fear. A few years ago I was vacillating on doing my ADAPT Health Coach course. Was it the right time? What about this? What about that? I was once again being disabled by fear. And ultimately it was the fear of regret that urged me into action. I couldn’t bear being another year in the future and not having done something I knew I needed to do.
So as we approach the end of another year, a symbolic time for reflection as well as resetting, maybe concentrate less on what goals you want to achieve and shift your attention to what inaction absolutely terrifies you. What’s that one thing that in 6 months from now, a year from now, that if you still haven’t even started it’s going to feel so loathsome, so gut wrenchingly pathetic that you just couldn’t bear it? Do you feel that pang of future regret? Good. Lean into it. Be afraid of it. Now use it. Channel that fear into action. Into the all-important first step.
But also remember this isn’t about accomplishment. This is about action. About trying. The result takes care of itself. And remember too the words of another Stoic philosopher – “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality”. It’s the fear in our minds that truly hold us back. Once we start actually doing something, it’s almost always immediately less scary and infinitely more manageable.
and start swinging.