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Understanding Fear

If there is one thing we all have in common, it is fear. Fear is built in as one of the basic functions of the brain. It comes from a part of your brain that evolved first in reptiles – Martha Beck calles it your inner lizard:

“The entire purpose of your reptilian brain is to continuously broadcast survival fears – alarm reactions that keep animals alive in the wild. These fears fall into two categories: lack and attack. On the one hand, our reptilian brains are convinced that we lack everything we need: We don’t have enough love, time, money, everything. On the other hand, something terrible is about to happen. A predator – human or animal – is poised to snatch us! That makes sense if we’re hiding in a cave somewhere, but when we’re home in bed, our imaginations fixate on catastrophes that are so vague and hard to ward off they fill us with anxiety that has no clear action or implication.” (from Steering by Starlight)

We have this system in our head that’s running all the time, trying to keep us safe. It never stops. What makes the inner lizard feel most comfortable is when it knows its environment – the landscape, the routine, all the usual people, places and things – and nothing changes.

Status quo is good because it’s a known known. Exploring new territory, on the other hand, sets off alarms. This is the realm of unknown unknowns and what is out there waiting to ambush you???

My favorite description of fear is from Russ Harris’ book, The Happiness Trap. He describes it as ‘demons on the boat’.

Picture this: You are the captain of a ship far out at sea. Hiding below the deck are the scariest demons you can imagine, ready to torment you. As long as you drift aimlessly in the middle of the ocean, they stay quiet. If you turn toward shore, the demons surround you, roaring, baring teeth and claws, threatening to attack. Turn the ship back to sea and they back off.

That is how fear works. You stay within the constraints it deems safe and the demons leave you alone. But when you have new ideas, interests, or dreams? Staying within the constraints becomes boring, lonely, or miserable. And if you dare to turn the ship toward something new, the demons are right there again. In your face.

It’s so much easier to stay right where you are.

What’s interesting about these demons is that they can’t actually physically attack. They threaten. They make a lot of noise. But they can’t touch you.

Their power is in their intimidation. When you realize that, you can steer your ship wherever you want.

The demons will still gather round and do their scariest best to stop you. Fear never goes away. It’s always going to try to protect you, so get ready for the demons to appear.

And know this: you are the captain and you can keep steering in your new direction even when the demons dance around you.

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