The Role of Fear In Our Life

Jan 06, 2022

Human behavior is fascinating, complex, and not easily understood. Or is it? As a Board Certified & Licensed Behavior Analyst, I've worked for more than ten years studying, researching, analyzing, changing, and assessing human behavior. From all of that experience, aside from the obvious fact that human behavior is fascinating, I have learned that to understand the 'why' behind specific behaviors, one need not look very far (or too deep).

You see, there tends to be this habit of categorizing human behavior alongside deeply fascinating and mysterious subject matters such as the sea and outer space; While said topics are understood to the degree of our current knowledge, human behavior, if you know what to look for, doesn't require the same level of inquiry. 

At the root of all behavior is some desire or need to move away from aversive stimuli, and toward pleasurable stimuli.

Said otherwise, as humans, we prefer to avoid things, people, events, and conditions that aren't enjoyable, and we prefer those things, people, events, and conditions that we do find enjoyable.

Seems obvious, right? That's because it is. What isn't as obvious is the fear that underlies particular behavior.

As humans, we often fear:

  • Being judged
  • Outcomes we can't avoid
  • The unknown
  • Our ability
  • Intimacy
  • Vulnerability
  • Risk
  • Results we are unsure of
  • Each other 

The list goes on.

Our fear is often linked to behaviors that can be, to others and ourselves, troubling, annoying, frustrating, hurtful, or nonsensical. Here are a few examples:

Avoiding: Humans avoid in all types of ways. We avoid each other, we avoid the things we know we need to do in order to live a healthy & fulfilled life, we avoid our own feelings, and we avoid difficult conversations.

A recent example in my practice comes to mind in which a mother avoided taking her young child to the Neurologist for an evaluation in fear of the outcome.

We avoid paying bills, canceling subscriptions, and similar tasks related to financially responsible adulthood. In our avoidance of these things, we face the consequences such as late payment fees, wasted money- all adding shame to the load we likely carry.

We avoid our feelings, asking for help, and investing in coaching- things that if we otherwise took time to explore, ones life would greatly improve having done so. The excuses we make are never-ending. As an example, the most common excuses I hear are financial excuses, time constraints, and the inevitable, "I have to talk to my spouse first".

*I'd like to highlight as an aside that I am indeed aware financial constraints are very relevant for many people. Given this, I offer scholarships to many individuals based on financial need.* 

For many others, this is only but an excuse. Afraid of what we might find if we dig deep into our own psyche, the excuses we make to avoid understanding who we are better and why we do what we do is deeply tied to fear. Fear that presents us with a harsh but liberating truth, "Have I been the one in my own way of living a satisfying and fulfilling life this entire time?". 

"Ghosting": A common behavior many are familiar with, especially the younger generation. That is, showing interest in a romantic partner and then, for whatever reason ignoring them, ultimately never to be heard or seen from again. Rather than communicating that one may not be interested in an individual or no longer wishing to continue seeing them, this behavior is the behavior of choice.

 

Distracting: Humans should be considered professional distractors. In many ways, distracting and avoiding could be thought of as one and the same. Distracting looks like engaging in some other behavior, as opposed to the one we know we should be engaging in during that moment.

We distract ourselves from getting tasks done by cleaning, calling someone, running errands- all the while convincing ourselves those things are equally important. Yet, as we know, humans make decisions based on emotion, and later, we reason those decisions with logic. We distract ourselves from turning inward and facing our feelings, your internal world. In doing so, moving further away from self-understanding and closer to disconnection, drug addiction, isolation, and dullness.

Further, we say hurtful things to others (and ourselves), we lash out rather than communicating our internal experience in a way proportionate to the situation, we overwork and dedicate our lives to a career lacking connection and satisfaction. All of these behaviors, in some way, can be attributed to fear.

It should be made clear that this isn't always the case- the behaviors mentioned throughout this article could be maintained by some variable other than fear yet, it is my understanding from my professional experience, a deep dive into the research, and my personal experience that often times- an element of fear is involved, even if its presence is small. 

What if we gave fear a seat at the table? What if running and turning away from fear, we welcome it the way we do more pleasurable emotions? In doing so, we accept rather than resist. We use fear as information rather than an arbitrary experience we're determined to outrun. It's not so much fear that is the difficult part- it is our relationship to fear.

Yet, fear will always be there- this, I can assure you, and because it's here for the long haul, it seems a better use of our energy and time to welcome it, maybe not as a long-term guest in the house that is our mind but, a guest just like any other; A guest we allow to come in through the front door and out through the back door- a guest we don't allow to stay for coffee. In this approach to fear, we treat it as any other emotion, and because of that, we have a better ability to manage how we choose to relate to fear, as opposed to fear choosing how it will dictate our life.

 

 Go well, Alicia

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