Fear, fearlessness and courage

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Mark Twain has been quoted as saying, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”

Fear is one of the most basic emotions.  Some people even think that all emotions can be reduced down to just two, fear and love.  Fear is vitally important, because it tells us there is something wrong or threatening.  It helps us to stay safe from things that might harm us.

However, sometimes we are scared in situations which aren’t life-or-death threatening, and this holds us back from doing the things we want or need to do.  Sometimes fear leads to other emotions which mask it, such as anger.

That is where Mark Twain’s quote comes in.  It’s often implied that courage is the same as fearlessness, but I think that is a mistake (and so, apparently, did Mark Twain!).  Fearlessness would be not feeling afraid at all, and what one person is fearless about could cause terror in someone else.  This might be due to past experiences or traumas, or learning from early caregivers about what is to be feared.  Courage is a quality that emerges when you feel afraid, but move past it to do the thing you want to do anyway.

If “being courageous” isn’t the same thing as not being scared, then it’s possible to feel courage and act bravely while still being scared silly!  You might dismiss compliments on your courage and resilience by saying, “yes, but I was so scared…”.  That is giving you far less credit than you deserve, and overlooks the strength you showed in overcoming your fear.

Often the best way to move past fear is by exposure to the thing which scares you.  You might feel able to do this by yourself, or you might want support and guidance.  For example, graded exposure therapy can be very helpful for phobias and OCD.  Major airlines offer “fear of flying” courses, and London Zoo’s “Friendly Spider Programme” offers an excellent course for arachnophobes.  Please note, these types of therapy are supportive and compassionate.  At no point would you be forced to do anything you’re not yet ready to.

What induces fear in you?  What does it hold you back from?  How would you like to move past it, and are you giving yourself enough credit for how you manage your fear?


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While reading a book recently, a particular section really caught my eye.  It challenged the idea that procrastination is “lazy” – suggesting instead that is is fear holding the person back.

Procrastination is something that a lot of people do – it’s a common experience to the point where there are huge numbers of jokes and memes on the internet (surely humankind’s greatest procrastination tool!) about it.

However, I thought the book made a really good point.  When you find yourself avoiding or holding back from doing something you know you need or want to do, it can be very useful to ask yourself why.  If you do start the task, what is it you think (or fear) might happen?  What will starting, working through, completing the task mean to you?

The book went on to explain the model of procrastination as a form of perfectionism and fear of failure – after all, if you don’t even start a task then you won’t risk not doing as well as you had hoped or wanted to.  The pressure to produce something brilliant, wonderful, perfect first time can cause a paralysing fear…  and procrastination.

The links above might help you work out what is causing your procrastination – and then you might feel more able to tackle it.  Tools such as breaking a task down into a series of goals or to-dos might help make a task seem much more manageable.

The other side of the coin is that it may not be fear of failure that is holding you back, it may also be fear of success.  What might success mean to you?  What do you fear it might mean to the people around you?

If you can understand where your resistance is coming from, you might find it much easier to confront and tackle it.  Counselling can help with these feelings of stuckness if you want to explore them therapeutically.