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HOW BIG IS YOUR FEAR?

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When we are afraid of something, that fear can become bigger and more overwhelming than what, in reality, the actual threat may be.

When people with a fear of spiders are asked to draw the actual size of a spider they had just seen, those people on average draw the spider a full 50% larger than its actual size. When people have a fear of heights, they will tend to see the distance as higher than it actually is.

What kind of things are you afraid of? Fear is a natural and necessary emotion. It tells you that there is danger, or potential danger, and that you should become more vigilant, narrowing your focus to search for, isolate, and avoid or escape the danger.

Sometimes what we fear is not dangerous at all. We can feel fear at expanding opportunities, or new situations, or exciting experiences.

Sometimes switching the word “excitement” for the word “fear” can be a clarifying and liberating experience. For example, from: “I’m afraid to start this new job;” to “I’m excited to start this new job.

Fear and excitement can feel very similar. Try switching the two the next time you feel afraid of something good and expansive. You might just discover some excitement there that you had overlooked.

Sometimes living well – in terms of personal satisfaction and moral integrity – requires us to do things that we fear in spite of our fear; such circumstances are what courage is made of.

Being afraid of things from time to time is part of life. It is normal, healthy, and can sometimes offer you the greatest opportunities to grow in resilience, success, and wisdom.

Being afraid all of the time is not so good. If you are always or often afraid, you carry a constant sort of background noise of stress and vigilance with you; and that can be tiresome at best, and debilitating at worst.

One danger of such anxiety is that, if you are on alert all the time, the emotional “noise” from your state of vigilance can blind you to the more subtle cues of actual danger in the world.

For example, somebody who means to do you harm may do many of the things that a friend might do: They might be helpful, they may disclose details of their experience, they may be friendly, they may ask for a small favor.

Except that the person who means to do you harm will do these things in a time and place, and in such a manner, that if you are alert for the subtle signs, you would know are out of line.

If you are a young lady carrying groceries to your car, and a male friend sees you and comes over and helps you with them, even though you really don’t need any help, that can be a nice and a good thing; if a total stranger comes over to you and offers to help you, even though you don’t need any help, that is a sign of danger.

If you then politely refuse the help, and the man gives you some details about why he could tell that you needed help, or tells you some personal information that over-explains his behavior, he is clearly refusing the line you have drawn, and is – through his actions – telling you that you are in even greater danger.

In such a situation, if you are somebody who is anxious about potential danger a lot, you might begin to rationalize your feelings and perceptions, questioning your own judgment about this friendly fellow, who just wants to help, and isn’t it nice in this day and age that somebody would think to be so chivalrous… and decide to ignore your faint warning bells, because you know that you often overreact, and see danger where there is none…

This is where a lot of people become victims of crime. In their chronic hyper-vigilance they have a hard time distinguishing the more subtle danger signs; and their attempts to reason through their fear can allow them to accept or allow truly dangerous situations to unfold. (See Gavin de Becker’s invaluable book The Gift of Fear. De Becker offers a list of danger signs at the end of his book that are must reads for anybody wanting to be effectively – as opposed to anxiously – vigilant.)

Here is another thing to consider. If there are things that you are afraid of – whether they be spiders, or heights, or being out in the world – remember that the size of the actual danger is likely much smaller than your perception and feelings about it.

Use this knowledge to cut your fears down to size. The next time you see a spider ask yourself, from a safe distance, how big it actually is. Get a ruler and check it out (well, maybe after you kill it), and then while you’re at it you can use that same ruler to measure how big you are, and have some sympathy for the poor thing who is so tiny compared to the monstrous critter it is faced with (you)… as you step on the itsy-bitsy thing.

Exposure to what is feared is one of the most effective antidotes to fear. If you are able to be in the presence of a spider, or whatever else it is that you are afraid of, and can do so safely and at a level of emotional intensity that you can manage, your fear will decrease over time.

Use this principle with whatever your fears may be. Look for the objective danger: the size, the height, the number of people in the crowd…. And look to know the objective signs of actual danger, and pay attention to and respect your own perception and instincts about such danger, so you are prepared to respond to it effectively.

You may find that the Goliath you thought you were up against in your mind turns out to be a manageable size after all.

But carry your sling with you just in case.

~

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