By Leo Babauta
Every problem you or I have (and they are many, small and large), is rooted in fear.
For some, that might seem obvious: the question is how to beat the fears. For others, it’s not so self-evident: why are my financial or relationship or procrastination problems caused by fear?
Let’s tackle both questions — the Why and the How.
First the Why: think about each problem you have, and then think about why you have the problem. Or why you aren’t able to solve it.
A few examples:
- Procrastination: you probably fear failure, or the discomfort of doing something hard, or your fear missing out on something important (why you check email & social media instead of doing the hard task).
- Debt: There are many possible causes, but often you’re spending more than you make because of a shopping habit, or a fear of letting go of some of the comforts you’re used to. The shopping habit might be caused by anxiety (fear that something you want isn’t going to happen) or loneliness (fear that you’re not good enough) or wanting your life to be better than it is (fear that you’re not OK as you are). Letting go of comforts (like your morning Starbucks, or your nice house or car) can be difficult if you fear discomfort, fear that you won’t be OK if your life is less comfortable, fear that others will judge you if your house/car/clothes aren’t as nice.
- Relationship problems: There are obviously lots of possible causes (including that the other person has major problems, though you should always look at yourself as well) … but some fears that cause relationship problems include fear of letting go of control (causing you to want to control the other person), fear that you’re not good enough, fear of abandonment and other trust issues, fear of not being accepted, fear of accepting the other person (actually this is a fear of control problem).
- Can’t exercise: Again, lots of causes, but some of them include: not enough time (fear of letting go of something else that you’re used to doing), exercise is too hard (fear of discomfort), distractions like TV and the Internet (fear of missing out, fear of discomfort).
- Can’t change diet: Same as exercise really. Although there are also often emotional issues, in which case the fears can be very similar to the ones that lead to the shopping habit and financial problems.
- Aren’t doing work you love: You maybe don’t know what you want to do, which means you haven’t committed to really exploring (fear of failing), or you know but haven’t taken the plunge (fear of failure), or fear that you’re not good enough.
- Stressed about work/school: You have lots to do, but the amount isn’t the problem. The problem is you’re worried about getting it all done, which means you have an ideal (I’m going to get it all done on time, and it’ll be done perfectly) and you fear that this ideal won’t come true. So the fear is based on an ideal, but the ideal isn’t realistic. You won’t get it all done perfectly and on time. No one does. Accept the reality, that you’ll get some done, to the best of your ability, and if you fail you’ll learn from that, and that’s how the world works. No one is perfect. The ideal doesn’t exist.
And so on. All other problems are some manifestation of what’s going on in the above examples.
Fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear of letting go of control, fear of being alone, fear of abandonment, fear of discomfort, fear of missing out, fear that you’re not OK as you are or your life isn’t OK as it is, fear that some ideal won’t come true.
And these all boil down to the same fear: fear that you won’t be OK, that you’re not good enough. A lack of trust in yourself, and in the present moment.
So what do we do about it?
How to Deal with the Fear
I originally titled this section, “How to Conquer the Fear”, but this is the problem. We see fear as an enemy, to be defeated or it will defeat us.
It’s not. Fear is us. We are human beings in a world of constant change, and this is scary. We are afraid that we won’t be OK in the chaos of change, that we will fail, that we will be judged, that life won’t turn out OK.
The fear is a part of us, and therefore we shouldn’t try to “destroy” it. It can’t be destroyed, because while we can dissipate one particular fear in one particular moment, we’ll still have fears after that. All our lives. It’s not something that can be eradicated — it’s a basic part of life.
So what can we do?
- We can be aware of the fear. When we are struggling, suffering in some way, be aware that fear is stopping us. Look into what the fear might be.
- Then we can accept the fear. Don’t feel bad about it, don’t try to crush it, don’t wish it weren’t there. It’s a part of you. It’s a part of life. Accept it.
- Then we can see how the fear is hurting us. And see how that hurt is self-caused. How we can let go of the suffering by letting go of the fear.
- We can think rationally about the fear. Actually give it a little space, and consider it. What’s the worst-case scenario? Would you basically be OK? (The answer is almost invariably yes — maybe life wouldn’t meet your “ideal”, but you’d find a way and be OK.)
- We can be grateful for who we are, and what life actually is (as opposed to what it’s not, or what we’re not). Appreciate ourselves, and others, and life at this moment. We can be grateful for the opportunities that this moment has brought, rather than fearing the change it represents. For example, a loss is an opportunity for reinvention, doing something hard is an opportunity to create or do good in the world, and change is always an opportunity for learning and growth.
- We can return to this moment, and see that it is perfectly fine as is. There is no ideal when we’re seeing this actual moment and accepting it for what it is. If there’s no ideal, there’s no fear. If we don’t have an ideal of some kind of success, we don’t fear failure. If we don’t have an ideal of what we should be, we don’t fear that we’re not good enough. If we don’t have an ideal of what someone else should be, we don’t get angry at them.
This is a process of awareness, acceptance, seeing the pain, finding gratitude, and being in the moment without an ideal.
It can be done. And then soon after, another fear will appear. And we practice again.
With this practice, we can work with the fear that’s causing our problems. We can accept it without letting it stop us. And this practice, because we are alleviating our own suffering, is an act of self-compassion.