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How fear can keep us from being our best selves
In the 1970s, renowned geographer and psychologist Roger Hart observed children in a small Vermont town as they went wherever they wanted, playing with friends and exploring their neighborhoods. At the time, Dr. Hart was a graduate student looking to learn more about how children explored and used their environment. Years later, he followed up with these children, who had turned into grown adults with children of their own. When he asked them about their experiences as youths, these men and women reported never being afraid or worrying about their safety. Yet these same kids, now parents, when asked about their kids, reported making sure they knew where their own kids were at all times. What changed? The world is certainly not the same in 2023 as it was in 1974, but clearly this shift is not the sole result of rising crime rates, especially not in affluent and relatively safe areas such as Vermont.
In the video clip from Dr. Hart’s work, which you can see above, these kids are having the time of their lives playing on a dirt mound. Where were the adults you might ask? They were probably at work or at home. It was one of the many things Dr. Hart learned from his observations - kids need time outdoors, in protected spaces, and parents need to give them the space to be kids.
I think about this body of work a lot. I think about my own family and how I would be with my kids running around town without me knowing where they were. In reflecting on this work, my own life, and even our society, I keep going back to the role of fear. Fear that something could go wrong. Fear that someone could get hurt. Fear of the unknown.
What creates fear for us? Where does it come from? The answer is varied: It comes from our own thoughts and emotions, certainly, but also from social and cultural programming. Fear infiltrates our lives and impacts us without us, sometimes, without us even knowing. Perhaps it was how we were raised; perhaps it was an experience that we don’t want to relive. Whatever it is, sometimes we are not even aware that fear comes in when we least expect it. Of course, like many things, there are two sides to the story. Fear can be good, too. Knowing how to tell the difference is key but being raised in a culture of fear limits one’s engagement with the broader world and others; this limits our ability to explore, create, and flourish.
Of course, everyone has a story of fear—whether it’s an anxiety-based social fear about the first day of school or a new job or the spine-tingling chill of walking home on a pitch-black night and hearing a rustling from the bushes. Fear, can come in response to things that are truly fearful, such as traumatic events, as well as in response to things that we really have no reason to fear at all. For example, when I was a kid, there was nothing I dreaded more than testing for my next belt in taekwondo. And the strange thing was, I loved taekwondo. I just didn’t love the tests, but even bigger than that, I really didn’t love Master Chu, who terrified me. My fear was totally irrational, and it made a huge impact on my performance (and my relationships).
In other situations, fear can be a great motivator. We can channel our fears into preparation. We fear failing a test, so we study hard. We fear living in a less than ideal house, so we work extra hours to afford to move. Legendary NBA head coach Greg Popovich talks about the consequence of “appropriate fear,” which is part of the philosophy he shares with his world champion players. “Appropriate fear, basically, equals respect for your opponent,” Popovich says. “Don’t take anything lightly. Nothing comes easy. A little bit of fear is motivating. It doesn’t mean you’re scared. It means you’re smart.”
What do we do when fear becomes a bit too much for us to manage?
Smile at fear: Thich Nhat Hanh is attributed with saying: “Every time your fear is invited up, every time you recognize it and smile at it, your fear will lose some of its strength.” I love this idea of tackling fear head on and not avoiding it. Smiling at your fear is one way to do just that. While it’s a bit obvious, fear doesn’t improve or go away if you don’t address it. In fact, if we ignore it, fear becomes a major roadblock that we have to cross if we are serious about making progress in our lives.
Be nice to ourselves: One of the most damaging ways to address your fear is to beat yourself up over why you can’t just get over it. We are hard enough on ourselves as is - being afraid of something and not being able to get past it does not need to be the gas on an already burning fire. No matter what thoughts you have about yourself (good, bad, or ugly), remember, you are so worth taking care of! Breathe. Take a moment for you.
Get outside: There’s such power in being in nature. While that alone will not solve all our problems, it does give a space to process, reflect on whatever may be causing us fear, and maybe even come up with a plan. Use those moments to go deeper into what’s driving your fear and what you can do about it. Movement matters as does nature. A recent systematic review highlights how “physical activity should be a mainstay approach in the management of depression, anxiety and psychological distress,” and we already know the power of nature on our mental health.
Talk it out: Sometimes the best way to process how we feel is with someone else. Find a friend, a loved one, share with them what you are afraid of. Being heard is an extremely powerful intervention unto itself. While the person you are talking to may not have all the answers, it’s better than keeping all your emotions inside. And if you see your inability to manage your fear leads you to a place of being disconnected where you don’t feel like talking to others helps, seek help from the experts that are out there.
Regardless of how you define fear or how it should be studied, it’s one of the most basic human emotions. Pay attention to your fears - process them out - take care of them and don’t let them rule you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”
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