“Fear is the mind-killer.” This is a quote from one of my favorite novels of all time. Dune by Frank Herbert is a science fiction novel that is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year. I love it because it is a highly philosophical text that deals with environmentalism, feudal society, and religion in a palatable, understandable story. But the simple declarative sentence that fear is the main obstacle we face has always stuck with me. The quote is powerful; it is motivational. It is also wrong. Fear is a good thing. Everyone has fears; it’s healthy and keeps us alive. The sentiment of the quote still works for me, but I would edit it to replace fear with negativity. Negativity is the mind-killer. Negativity, not fear, is the biggest detriment to attempting anything new.
Fear is an evolutionary response to keep us safe. Why are we afraid of the foaming, barking dog? Because rabies is bad for our health. Why are we afraid of running red lights? Because we could be hit by oncoming traffic. But as it is part of being a human, it is not a perfect process. We are constantly overcoming fear to enjoy life. Fear is a factor in the risk portion of the risk/reward calculus that governs our everyday existence. We typically divide fears into rational, irrational, and chemical imbalances. For this article, let’s stick strictly in the realm of rational and irrational. For me, the difference between rational and irrational fears usually comes down to negativity. I shy away from something because I’m sure it won’t work out. I’m sure the outcome will be negative.
For example, my first Counterpoint Tactical System belt test was at Iron Mountain camp in 2010. I stood in front of forty or so strangers with other blue belt candidates that I had met for the first time the day before. I was nervous. I was afraid of failure. Was this fear rational? Yes, it was entirely possible that I was not prepared enough to move onto the next part of the curriculum. I was afraid of being embarrassed. Was this fear rational? No. No. Absolutely not. The fear of embarrassment is based on the assumption that others will view us negatively. In the case of fear of failure, a clearly defined condition for success and failure was available, and it was defined externally to me. (Though I believe no one actually fails a test if they learned something from it.) The fear of embarrassment was internally imposed by me, and on top of that, it was in direct opposition of the evidence of my time at the camp. The people I met were generous and kind. They were supportive in helping me prepare; so, why would they view me any differently? This fear was irrational because of those factors. One fear is driven by standards, and the other was driven by negativity.
Negativity is our true enemy. Negativity is the voice that tells us we’ll fail before we even begin. Negativity is thinking that they’re all gonna laugh at me. It is a mindset that is imposed internally. This mindset is brought about by how we talk to ourselves. We all seem to know that our mind listens to what we say, but do we really understand what that means? Our brains pay attention to what we say, and when we say something enough, we believe it. If I make a mistake, there is a world of difference between saying, “Well, that was dumb” and “Well, I’m dumb.” One describes a moment in the past or an action. The other statement describes me in an on-going manner. The good thing is that words matter. We can use words to combat negativity. The quote above from Dale Carnegie is the best process for fighting negativity and fear that I have yet come across. Asking yourself what’s the worst that could happen is necessary but only partially correct. Accepting that outcome takes control back from the fear. You are not a bystander but an active participant. Then you can get to work on improving your position from that outcome.
To continue with my example from Iron Mountain, I asked myself what is the worst that could happen. Well, the worst that could happen is that I fail the test. This was easiest to accept. Progress requires risk. The worst that could happen would mean taking the test again in the future. Accepting that meant more training time with my friend. The worst that could happen is that everyone laughs at my failure, but so what? Accepting that outcome became easy because it meant the group wasn’t one that I could be a part of. Hopefully, you see that by saying these thoughts, the rational fears seem reasonable, and the irrational one presents itself quickly. If people who didn’t pass their test were laughed out of the system, then there wouldn’t have been as large a crowd testing at camp or even at camp itself. It was negative thoughts about the others that created the fear, not any actions or comments from the actual campers. The process of continually asking yourself what is the worst possible outcome and can you live with it makes fear and negativity easier to deal with. It frames the rational fears in terms of consequences and shines the lights on irrational fears.
Next time you are hesitating, ask yourself if it’s fear that is holding you back or is it negativity? When you hesitate ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen? Explicitly list the worst. It will shine a light on what is rational and irrational. Even list things that you may not believe. Like in my example of listing that I could get laughed at. I knew that wouldn’t happen, and I listed it anyway. The act of saying it showed how ridiculous it was. Exposing the irrational fear removed unnecessary stress. During the test, I was able to focus on the skills that I had. The fear of failure brought out my best performance up to that time. By removing the negativity, fear became a motivator.