“Love is what we were born with. Fear is what we learned here.” ~Marianne Williamson
As babies, we know nothing about the world. In the universe of an infant, there are no norms to follow, no rigid rules and regulations; no room for labeling or judging ourselves and others. We don’t yet know to disapprove of ourselves, and we’re curious to play, learn, and grow.
We are all born free spirits. Then our environment—our families, schools, religions, and political systems—shape the way we think and behave.
Fear is a learned practice. Children generally are not afraid of trying, failing, and getting up on their feet again. That’s how we learned to walk. When we made our first step, we didn’t call ourselves names or punish ourselves if we fell. We just got up and gave it another try.
As kids, we weren’t afraid to step outside of our comfort zone and try new experiences.
So why did we get so fearful as adults? What are we really afraid of?
1. The fear of imperfection
I often hear people talking about their need for perfection as a sign of virtue. In a society that generally evaluates human worth through how well we do things in life, some people even feel a sense of pride when they describe themselves as “perfectionists” or “workaholics.”
To me, perfectionism is a sign of fear. When I know I do everything perfectly, I'm untouchable. There is no room for others to correct me.
As a child, there were times when I was afraid of punishment after getting bad grades in school. Years later, as an adult, I developed an extreme need for perfection, especially at work. All my assignments had to be executed perfectly so none of my managers would have a reason to criticize my performance. At the time, that fear of authority was still present in my life.
People who struggle with perfectionism also tend to get overwhelmed because they avoid asking for help. They would rather look invincible and strong than vulnerable and “weak.”
Showing up in our vulnerability in front of others is a sign of authenticity. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s a beautiful human attribute, and it takes lots of courage to show what most of us have been taught for years how to hide.
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.“ ~Brené Brown
2. The fear of failure
I once read an article about successful people who were intentionally planning for failure. I found that fascinating and strange. Planning to fail? Who likes to fail?
No one enjoys messing up, but those people were using mistakes as much needed instruments to learn and grow.
Today I know that each time I am afraid to step outside of my comfort zone and try something new, that’s the fear of failure making decisions for me.
Each time I find myself stuck and afraid to take risks because I might fail, I ask myself: What's the worst thing that can happen? Could I cope if it did?
These questions help me realize that my life would surely go on, and that most mistakes wouldn't literally kill me.
“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one.” ~Elbert Hubbard
3. The fear of success
Sometimes, success is scarier than failure. When dreams look too good to be true, we get scared by our own greatness. Deep inside, we don’t see ourselves as enough, and worthy of love and success.
Whenever I make myself small or put myself down, I am acting on my fear, taking myself for granted, and forgetting to appreciate myself for my achievements. I’m thinking, “Anyone else could have made it” or attributing my accomplishments to faith, luck, or other people who gave me opportunities to shine. I’m focusing on my weaknesses or limitations, without honoring my strengths, gifts, and talents.
That’s how I operated in the past, for too many years. But here’s what I know to be true today: It wasn’t luck; it was me.
Sometimes in life, we need to acknowledge there’s been a lot of hard work and efforts behind our “luck.” And if we’re not yet where we’d like to be, we need to believe that we truly are worthy of what we visualize.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.” ~Marianne Williamson
4. The fear of being rejected
Being liked and included and feeling a sense of belonging to a community are basic human needs. We fear being left out and seek approval as a means to ensure this doesn’t happen.
I can recall many situations in my life when I did things I didn’t really want to do to please others, like going to a movie with someone on a Sunday when my body wanted to stay home and take a good nap.
I was a master of people pleasing and, to be honest, it wasn’t always because I wanted to make everyone happy. The truth is that I wanted people to like and approve of me. I expected them to give me the things I wasn’t giving myself: love, care, and attention.
Again, being loved is a human need. However, being needy is something different. I came to understand that people who are taking good care of themselves are less dependent on the approval of others.
Taking care of our own wants and needs is a necessity. When we make sure to keep our tank full and we treat ourselves kindly, we inspire others to do the same for themselves.
“I used to be a people-pleaser. Now I love them instead.” ~Cheryl Richardson
5. The fear of what other people think
Did you know that the fear of public speaking comes first among all kinds of fears? Even the fear of death comes second! Most people don’t feel brave enough to show up in their vulnerability in front of others because they’re focusing more on what people might think about them than on their performance.
I can recall quite a few situations in my life when I didn’t dare to ask questions, especially when there was something I didn’t know. I didn’t want to look less intelligent or even stupid.
Especially at work, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to openly admit that I didn’t hold all the answers and I still had a lot to learn. I wanted people to perceive me as an expert, super smart, invincible, and strong. I now know that every day brings new lessons in the school of life, and it’s more important to stay open to them than it is to be perceived as all-knowing.
Let’s be honest with this one: I’ve never met anyone who would love to hear they were ugly or stupid. We all need to feel validated. But in the end, all that really matters is that we fully approve of ourselves.
“When I seek your approval, I don’t approve of the me that’s seeking the approval.” ~Byron Katie
6. The fear of losing control
If there were Oscars for control-freaking, I would have surely gotten one! Looking back on my past, I recognize that I always wanted to have full control over everything and everyone. This comes back to the fear of imperfection.
During my former leadership position with a multinational company, the most difficult things for me to handle were decision-making and delegation—not only with people who were new in their roles and lacked experience, but also with co-workers who were very skilled and competent in their jobs.
Why did I struggle with delegation? Because I knew I was responsible for my team’s results, and I wasn’t mentally strong enough to bear any sort of failure on my shoulders.
Making mistakes would have scared me to death; that’s why I always needed a long time to brainstorm all possible scenarios that could go wrong when making important decisions.
The need to always control situations or other people is a major source of stress. It is tiring, frustrating, energy consuming—and pointless, since we can never control what other people do. Letting go of control is true freedom and a form of self-care.
“Be willing to stop punishing yourself for your mistakes. Love yourself for your willingness to learn and grow.” ~Louise Hay
7. The fear of what might happen in the future
If I spend my precious time overthinking and allowing my mind to create different scenarios about the future, I risk missing out on my life and the only reality that is: the present moment.
Most of the things we worry about never happen. They are nothing but the illusionary product of our mind.
It’s true, ‘bad’ things do happen at times, but they’re often blessings in disguise that make us stronger and wiser or show us the right path for us.
Looking back on my past, I recognize that I had to suffer in love so that I could understand what I wanted from a romantic partner. I had to become unemployed for a while in order to realize what I truly wanted from a profession and what would bring me joy and fulfillment.
Knowing that my painful experiences were actually gifts, and that I survived them, I’m better able to accept that what will be, will be—and no matter what, I can handle it.
“The best use of imagination is creativity. The worst use of imagination is worry. “ ~Deepak Chopra
I have stopped feeling guilty and ashamed of my fears. I’ve learned how to embrace them with self-compassion, as part of the package of being human. I know the primary intention of fear is to protect me from things that could hurt me. But I also know I don’t have to let my fears control me.
I am aware that I can always get mindful and pay attention to my thoughts and emotions. I make sure that I nourish my mind, knowing that I am the one creating my own world through my feelings, thoughts, and, actions.
“A miracle is a shift in perception from fear to love.“ ~Marianne Williamson
And now, I would like to hear from you. What scares you the most? How do you manage your own fears?