You’ve heard the expression “follow your fear.” It’s the sort of advice we usually nod along with when we hear it and then immediately disregard.

None of us enjoys doing the things that scare us: having that tough conversation, going for that thing that seems out of reach, or deciding to do what we really want to do.

We worry about looking foolish, losing everything, disappointing ourselves, or disappointing others. We have these worries bouncing around in our heads because we fear we won’t get what we want, and worry is our mind’s way of helping us avoid pain.

We think that going for something we truly want and not getting it would be more painful than never going for it at all. At least if we don’t try, our logic follows, we can allow ourselves to believe that we could have that thing if we ever decided to pursue it.

When I was in my early teens, I was ruled by fear. I’d been a fearful child, and by the time I was 15 or 16, I had not grown out of this yet. I didn’t pursue the friendships or the relationships I truly wanted. And I generally behaved like a wallflower because I believed that not being noticed was better than embarrassing myself.

Then, when I was 17, my mom died suddenly. She was my rock — my role model — and this shook me to the core. My mom had been unstoppable. She was smart, confident, and stubborn. She had never shied away from a challenge in her life, and yet she could not avoid death. I got it in my teenage brain that death was IMMINENT, and so I thought I’d better hurry up and do all those things that I wanted to do before I was also dead.

Around that time I got this necklace that said “no fear.” I wore it almost every day, and “no fear” became my personal mantra. I kissed the boy I liked who would never kiss me first. I tried my hand at drinking and some light teenage shenanigans. Everything seemed to work out for me, and the bigger the risk I took, the bigger the reward I found.

By the time I was 18, I believed I’d made a great discovery: If I just ignored my fear, I could push past it like I was walking through the seemingly solid brick wall at Platform 9 ¾.

Pushing past a brick wall and finding the wall to be an illusion was an invigorating lifestyle change for a reformed “good girl” heading off to college. When you suddenly begin to operate as though fear is just an annoying distraction, you start to believe there are no consequences for your actions. You begin to do a lot of stupid shit that could get you into trouble rather than striving for meaningful growth.

As I got older though, I mellowed. I sort of wish this story took a more dramatic turn for the sake of the narrative. I was never arrested or hospitalized. I never pushed my fear too far. I just developed a healthy respect for fear and learned to work with it rather than ignoring it.

The more I examined my personal motives, the more I began to notice a deeper internal resistance under the initial pang of primal fear. It was a more sophisticated form of fear, and it was this deeper, complex fear that taught me how I was wired.

Usually our deep fears center around our deepest emotional needs — needs we FEAR will not be met. These needs include things like security, love, status, and power. If we fear that our actions could cause one of our deepest needs to be taken away or left unfulfilled, we will talk ourselves out of just about anything. We might think of ourselves as gutsy individuals for skydiving, drag racing, or drinking too much, but when we begin to examine those big life changes we’re avoiding, our deep fears begin to talk.

  • Leaving a long-term relationship that was “just okay” ignited my fear that I would never find real love.
  • Thinking about quitting my day job was scary because it challenged my need for financial security.
  • Pursuing nonfiction projects like a book and podcast made me worry about losing my status as a fiction author.

If you ask yourself what decision you are avoiding and why, you will begin to get in touch with that deep fear that’s tied to your most primal needs. These are the needs behind your every move. And when you begin to identify what those needs are, you will learn the motives underlying every decision you make.

A job is never just a job. A house is never just a house. A project is never just a project. If we are afraid to do something, it’s because we are afraid of losing something bigger.

But here’s the good news: When we take the big risks and test those fears, we begin to realize how unshakable and resilient we truly are. When we take a financial risk and lose, we may look around and realize that we are still standing despite our failure. When we take a leap for love and find our feelings unreturned, we discover that we have more love around us and within us than we ever knew.

Only by challenging our deepest fears can we ever experience real freedom. This is how we learn the extent of our personal power and develop lasting courage.

Photo by Muzammil Soorma

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