There’s a prevailing theory that fear comes from our brain stem, the lizard brain we carry from our evolutionary ancestors. Its hard wiring for fight or flight is what causes us to be so afraid all the time, even in our cushy modern lives.
On one hand, this seems as good an explanation as any. There’s got to be some reason we get so adrenalized and have all these physical reactions to things, even though for most of us, our greatest danger is eating too many fries, sitting on the couch too much, and dying of heart disease.
It’s certainly true that I fear a lot of stupid things. But thinking about it, the lizard brain theory isn’t adding up.
I had an iguana named Peep. He had a true lizard brain, and I can tell you, he wasn’t afraid of making phone calls, and he wasn’t afraid of doing difficult things. I used to joke that he did my master’s degree homework for me. “Can’t” wasn’t in his vocabulary.
Well, ok, neither were many English words, but he wasn’t intimidated by anything. When he was about six inches long (including his tail), he climbed my all-metal baker’s rack, clear to the top. It was tall, it was slippery with nothing to grab; he climbed it anyway, through sheer strength and determination.
Later, when I got a cat, he came out of his cage once when she was around. Here’s a carnivorous creature probably five times his size, but was he intimidated? No. He walked past her, climbed up on the couch, and made himself at home. When she made moves to bat at his tempting tail, wiggling across the floor like a cat toy, he turned around and glared at her until she backed off.
If anybody tried to mess with Peep, he walloped them with his tail. End of story. He was determined, intrepid, and confident.
Clearly, it is not my lizard brain that’s so afraid of all this ridiculous stuff. So what is it?
I think I’ve figured it out. I was talking to my awesome business coach the other day, and he said I should start making connections with some bloggers who are bigger than me. I recently got over my fear of pitching guest posts by reframing it as “submitting pieces for publication” rather than “talking to people,” but here I was, back to talking to people! I felt a reflex gut reaction of fear and dread. But in that instant, I managed to slow my thoughts down long enough to see a mental picture of what I feared.
The scene was the inside of a school bus. I was in second grade. I couldn’t find a seat, and the driver started pulling away from the bus stop. I was in a moving vehicle but not properly seated–that’s dangerous! I was afraid I would die and started crying, and a bunch of older girls gathered around me and started laughing and making fun of me, calling me a baby.
Awesome. I don’t have lizard brain, I have second grade brain.
That incident is also the reason, up until a few years ago, I never cried if I could help it, especially in front of other people. During my divorce mess, I finally lost it and started crying in church, and to my utter amazement, my nice friends rallied around and comforted me. I guess if I had thought about it, of course they wouldn’t all get in a circle, point, laugh, and call me a baby. But I never thought about it.
Similarly, if I email bloggers who have more subscribers than I have, will they start laughing at me and making fun of me for trying to be cool like them?
Cara: Hi Leo. Can I be friends with you?
Leo Babauta: Ha ha ha ha! No! You’re a loser! I will karate chop you! And then I’ll call up all my cool blogger friends and we’ll all talk about how stupid your hair looks!
Shit. Maybe I should try Chris Guillebeau.
Cara: Hi Chris. Can I be friends with you?
Chris: What?! Uh, Noo-ooo! Try not dressing like a dork and maybe you’ll be unconventional enough to be worthy of doing my math homework one day. Meanwhile, as if!
Damn damn damn. (Who knew Chris was such a Valley girl?)
Cara: Hi Everett, or do you like to be called @Evbogue? Can I be friends with you?
@Evbogue: WTF? NO! You still have a tv, and you are clearly not a cyborg. You’re a fat, McNugget-eating, stuff-having lameass, and I will taunt you every chance I get!
Wait a minute, wait a minute! Did you just talk to me in more than 140 characters?! Gah! (storms off in a rage)
Completely absurd, right? None of these bloggers would act that way. (Well, except maybe @Evbogue–you never know what he’ll do next.)
Anyway, I know better than that. I emailed most of my heroes last week to send them advance copies of my book. A surprising number wrote back, and those who did were super encouraging and nice.
How to beat these ridiculous fears
Second grader brain can get you every time. But like most fears, knowledge is the key to combating it.
When you find yourself shrinking back from the idea of doing something, ask yourself why? Don’t settle for the facile answer that usually comes first, seek out the real answer. What are you afraid will happen? Describe what you’re picturing in your mind when you think of doing this.
Classic risk management techniques dictate listing the risks, with the cost of damages, probability, and cost to mitigate for each one. For things that are unlikely but catastrophic and cheap to mitigate, take action. For example, it’s not that likely that your car will catch fire, but if it does, you’re pretty much screwed. However, fire extinguishers cost about $25. Get one. Don’t let the risk of fire keep you from driving your car.
Most of our fears are way less serious than a car fire, though. Let’s see…
Talking to people.
Risk: people will laugh at me.
Cost of damage: zero money, a bit of ego.
Probability: pretty dang low, really.
Cost to mitigate: well, if you consider my usual mitigation method of hiding in my shell, way too high! But in reality, negligible.
Conclusion: talk to people.
Starting a business.
Risk: wasting a ton of time and effort, only to fail.
Cost of damage: $3000 for coaching, plus six months’ living expenses if I quit my job, minus all the fun I’m having and all the awesome stuff I’m learning. So, practically nothing, in a way.
Probability: The way I’m doing it, I’d say maybe 30%? I don’t think I’ll fail; at worst, it will take longer than I wish.
Cost to mitigate: a few extra months at the job, a bigger savings account, or connections to get a new regular job if it doesn’t work out. Bleh.
Conclusion: start a business.
The more concrete we can get with our fears and their relationship with reality, the better decisions we can make. In the end, fortune favors the bold. It’s way more interesting to try something, even if it doesn’t work out, than to stay on the sidelines. And that’s how you learn and grow.