Subtle Fear

By Rob Alvarez

The inexplicable forces that keep you from taking the plunge – signing up for your first marathon, quitting your unfulfilling job to pursue a dream, approaching the stranger across the room when every ounce of your being is urging you to do so – are what I call our subtle fears. They surface most viscerally when you stand on the precipice of a cliff about to leap into the clear, beautiful waters of Crater Lake 20 feet below and your feet are seemingly glued to the rock. You are not afraid of the water nor suffer from acrophobia, but the only thing that pushes you off the ground and into the deep, cold water is an 8 year old yelling, “Hey mister! What’rya afraid of?” Logically, there was nothing to fear. You watched dozens of jumpers survive the plunge mere minutes before, so what was that? Subtle fear. Most of us can relate to this feeling of helplessness. Our primitive instinct of self-preservation, confused in the context of the modern world, severely misjudges the level of actual danger we are in. The resulting anxiety impacts our decisions and actions, but we are often unaware of them. They can hinder decisions big and small, and cause us to miss opportunities. Yet we seldom notice them.

Therefore, being aware of subtle fears is very important, because even when our happiness equation has determined overwhelmingly in favor of one course of action, our subtle fears can lead us to procrastination, inaction, or, worse, misdirection. So we first have to acknowledge these subtle fears, then confront them. Easy to say, but hard to do, especially for me, who treats confrontation like a bushel of okra. In case that was not obvious, I try to avoid them – both okra and confrontation. Build a habit of self-triggering on hesitation or procrastination. That is, try to notice when you put something off or hesitate doing something that you have been wanting to do. Then ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” You can even pretend there is an annoying 8 year old next to you asking that same question.

In trying to answer that question, think of the worst realistic outcome of you taking that leap. Likely, you will realize that whatever it was you feared pales in comparison to what could be. Actor, comedian, musician, Jamie Foxx asks his kids, “What is on the other side of fear?” when teaching them confidence. The answer he leads them to is nothing. “Either you do or you don’t,” he says. Meaning when the moment passes, when you cross the other side of fear, whether you choose take action or not, you will find nothing. There is nothing on the other side of fear. Better yet, if you do take action, you seize an opportunity to achieve greatness, inspire someone, create a friendship, connect, make a difference, or experience something new.

Regularly practice answering these questions for yourself. Do not leave it to the moment before you have to decide whether to leap or not. For example, a friend has invited you to a party this Friday with his coworkers. You know you will have an opportunity to meet new people. Make the choice now that you will not let fear stop you. Of course, this requires practice. There is no magic switch that makes all anxiety disappear. However, the more you practice, the easier it will become. The eternal consternation at the edge of the cliff turns into a whim. Think about the last time you made an impulsive decision. How badly did it turn out? In any case, I’m sure you lived through it.

The best decisions I have ever made were on impulse. Choosing the college I would attend was done after a single campus visit. Flirting with and later seizing the opportunity to ask the beautiful person who I would eventually marry was not a resolution arrived at with any analysis. Moving from California to Delaware was not decided using a pros and cons list. These choices, however, were not made at random. I had already evaluated these scenarios in the past, such that, in my heart, I knew what the right decision was for me. When these open doors were presented to me, casting aside my subtle fears and walking through became almost easy.
We cannot totally rid ourselves of our subtle fears. I have and will continue to miss opportunities because of them. So will you. However, by analyzing these missed chances against the question, “What were you afraid of,” we better equip ourselves to capture the next one. Afterall, it is the leaps into the deep, cold water that make up a full life.

Part of the Fear and Happiness Series

Rob Alvarez

Rob is editor-in-chief of WeRunWithYou. He is also an operations manager at the Chemours Company, and coaches the Newark Charter middle school track and field team. His current interests include exploring leadership, organizational development, and personal well-being.

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