The Fear Virus

There are two reasons why someone doesn’t succeed at something – failure, and fear of failure. That’s it. Of these, fear of failure is the real destroyer of success because it stops us from even trying. At the very least a trail of failure shows a history of attempting to achieve something, no matter how much carnage was left in the aftermath*. The real destroyer of success is not trying at all, and this finds root in the fear of failure.

The problem with fear is that it is a virus. Before we go too far it should be noted that not all viruses are bad, or at least, some are beneficial. For example, Edward Jenner (not associated with the Kardashians) discovered that milk maids who contracted cowpox did not contract smallpox. I’m not saying contracting cowpox is a good thing, but unlike smallpox, cowpox is rarely fatal and helps the body build an immunity against smallpox which is a much worse disease. Cowpox has a benefit. Fear acts in much the same manner, working like a virus of the mind. On the one hand it is fear that keeps us alive, and although it isn’t pleasant to experience it, there are benefits. Fear is the reason we look both ways before we step into the road to cross the street, or the reason we don’t hold a metal pole to the sky in the thunderstorm. Fear, in the right circumstance, is a good thing that keeps us alive. In fact, it is a critical component of our survival instinct. On the other hand, just like cowpox, fear can be devastating if left untreated and allowed to run amok taking over our whole body.

It is therefore important to consider ways to see the signs that fear is taking over so we can manage the symptoms, and help build an immune system to keep fear in check. A few years ago I had Fifth Disease, and it was probably the most painful experience of my life. To this day whenever my body is fighting a sickness I get pains in my wrists as my body is letting me know it is under attack and fighting back. My mind also gives a few little tells when it is under attack from the fear virus, it makes excuses. Not big ones, just enough to make me question whether my plans can actually succeed.

“If this goes wrong the consequences will be grim… I should just take the safe route.”

“I don’t have the skills for this.”

“I don’t have the tools for this.”

“I don’t have any support from anyone for this.”

Like Arnold J. Rimmer, B.Sc. S.Sc., I jump from one reason to be hesitant to a handful of reasons why I should quit before I start. Before long I am convinced the original plan was not going to work and I achieve nothing – Fear wins. Another scenario is that I start something but the initial results are not promising and the virus starts talking.

“This won’t work. You’ve wasted enough time on this.”

“It’s not good enough, quit now before it all goes wrong.”

However, there are some things we know we should do when we are sick, and there are ways we know we can help our bodies avoid getting sick to start with.

Here are three ways to fight back against the fear virus:

1 – Accept it is there. Fear isn’t bad, it is necessary. It keeps us alive, protects us from harm, pain, death, and should be a voice of reason for those decisions that really aren’t that clever. Don’t ignore fear, listen to it, it may have something of value to offer, but don’t let it have the final say. When fear speaks there are other members on the decision-making committee who also have a voice – Reason, hope, optimism, self-esteem, caution, adventure… Don’t let fear have the final say.

2 – Build up an immunity. In 2012 “Fearless” Felix Baumgartner became the first man to break the sound barrier without a vehicle when he jumped out of a balloon from the stratosphere, reaching speeds well over 800mph. Afterward, Baumgartner had this to say,

“When I was standing there on top of the world, you become so humble, you do not think about breaking records anymore, you do not think about gaining scientific data. The only thing you want is to come back alive.”

Baumgartner didn’t simply get up one day and decide to do this, he trained for it. He had jumped out of planes with a parachute many, many times before. He took baby steps at immunizing his fear, but they were still steps and he just didn’t stop walking. One of the things I like about NLP is a mind-hack where a future memory is created. You think of where you want to be in six months, a year, five years or a specific goal, then you work backwards imagining the steps it took to get there. When you have “seen” the path you took to achieve your goal you work backwards and take those steps in real life. Each new steps is a step out of the comfort zone, but not so far that you can’t still keep the previous step as a touchstone to let you know you’ll be OK. Each step you take, each time you are able to combat a slice of fear, you are building your immunity.

3 – Probably the most obvious – Don’t be around sick people unless you’re the doctor. You wouldn’t get close to someone with the flu if you were trying to be healthy, so why let someone sick with the fear virus near your mind? Don’t do it. I’m not saying drop your friends or avoid your family, just be careful how much exposure you allow to the fear virus. Some people are more contagious than others and fear can be a wholly debilitating sickness. If you know you are going to be around someone who is contagious with fear, immunize yourself first.

Ultimately the fear virus is beaten by maintaining a focus on the steps you need to take to meet your goals, and keeping your mind on positive outcomes. Stay positive. This isn’t some cheesy middle-manager thing where you believe perception is reality, (perception is simply a view of reality and it may be very far off reality), or chanting a mantra of “what you believe – you achieve”. This is just fluff and garbage people write on pictures of mountains to make money. Accept reality, know the challenges, and know when the virus is taking hold. Fear has a rightful place at the discussion table, it is one voice among many others. Build up your immunity by slowly exposing yourself to things that give it life, and ensure you have people around you who can keep you grounded in reality, and support you as you move forward. As Peter Gabriel says in the song Darkness:

“When I allow it to be,
It has no control over me,
I own my fear,
So it doesn’t own me.” (Gabriel, 2002)

* I am not advocating reckless carnage or irresponsible behaviour, or that all carnage is the result of a noble cause, simply pointing out that a history of trying to achieve something will leave a trail.

Picture Credit – Dave/UKTV

Picture Quote: Naylor, D. (Writer). (2012, November 08). The Beginning [Television series episode]. In Red Dwarf. Cardiff, UK: Dave UKTV.

Peter Gabriel. (2002). Darkness [CD]. Box: UK Peter Gabriel.

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Categories: Goals, Hope, Mental Health, Mental Toughness

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