How Fear Holds Us Back (and How to Conquer It)
For most of us, fear—in all its forms, from slight hesitations to debilitating anxieties—is so present it feels normal. But as author and speaker Monica Berg explains in her new book, Fear Is Not an Option, we have the remarkable ability to excise irrational fear from our lives—and that practice is as simple as it is life-changing. Here, she walks us through some of the ways to dispel illogical fear and create a new, healthier, happier normal, exploring our relationship to fear (including what it means in the context of parenthood), and gives us tools to kickstarting the process of overcoming them.
A Q&A with Monica Berg
Why is mastering fear so important?
Fear is powerful enough to keep us from achieving our goals and living our best lives. It feeds stagnation and keeps us from taking advantage of opportunities. Many people are living in the self-made prisons of their own fears. A life lived without fear is not only something we all deserve, it is something that is completely possible for all of us, without exception. We don’t want to simply tolerate our fears—we want to eliminate them.
The foundation for my work as a guide and teacher always begins with my own experiences: I started practicing Kabbalah at age seventeen, and since then have had the opportunity to study its powerful principles and then watch as they inform–and transform–my life. Getting to share that with others, as well as watching their lives change as a result, is my greatest joy.
When is fear helpful?
As I see it, there are three types of fear: Illogical fear, healthy fear, and real fear—and the latter two are helpful. Healthy fear helps us discern safe situations from dangerous ones. It is a gift given to all of us, and typically manifests as a visceral, instinctual response. This is the type of fear we need for our survival and protection. For example, if you are standing on a high ledge, healthy fear kicks in and cautions you to step back. It keeps you from falling off the cliff in the same way it keeps you from placing your hand too close to a flame. This fear response arises from the physical world and warns us of actual danger.
Real fear is also based in reality but it is not the same as healthy fear—it’s not based on physical danger. Examples would be the fear of losing the people we love most, never achieving our dreams and aspirations, or even the fear of our own death. This fear exists in the truth that life is a terminal condition, and it’s based on something that is irrefutably real: Everything we do and everything we are has an expiration date. These manifestations of real fear may be existential, but they are just as valid because they are associated with real events like death, change, and pain.
“You can nullify illogical fear—it takes commitment and mental work, but it absolutely can be done. It sounds simple, but that’s the other thing about illogical fears: The only thing providing them sustenance is you.”
This fear can motivate us to grow, to push past our comfort zones, and to transform. The understanding that life is impermanent may be scary at times, but it is also fuels some of our greatest achievements and most powerful relationships.
What happens when we ignore fear?
I don’t think it’s possible to ignore fear. We can try to repress it, but that proves impossible in the long run. We can, however, ignore our instincts and our intuition, and this often results in missed opportunities, actions we aren’t proud of, or even physical peril in extreme cases. Anytime you feel fear, instead of ignoring it or trying to hide from it, acknowledge it and identify what is behind it. Identifying the fear and understanding why it has arisen is the first step in eliminating it.
What’s the relationship between fear and intuition?
Fear and intuition are intrinsically linked. We are all armed with powerful, intuitive responses to fear, and those should always be heeded. Intuition is what we know without knowing why. Just because we may not recognize the source of our intuition doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely accurate. Most of us have experienced intuition as certainty about things—perhaps inherently trusting someone you just met, or conversely immediately disliking someone you just met.
Often intuition is accompanied by an emotion, perhaps strong feelings of familiarity, or even dread. These messages come through in our feelings and instincts, pertaining to certain situations or people. This goes back to healthy fear; intuition is another way our brains and bodies communicate with us about what is safe and what is not.
How do you know when your fears are illogical?
You know you’re experiencing illogical fear when you are having a fear response to something hypothetical or totally non-existent. An illogical fear almost always follows a “What if…?” It keeps you worried, frantic, and insecure. It can hinder your experience of life in a variety ways and can lead to emotional distress, and anxiety disorders; it can manifest physically as well. For example, people who experience extreme fright can develop painful migraines just hours after being startled. Unlike healthy fear or real fear, this is the type of fear we want to work to release.
One woman I know was plagued by anxiety at night. She was recently divorced and found herself awake all night, often a couple of nights a week. She lay in bed, unable to sleep, with the irrational fear that someone was trying to break into her house. Every sound became the footsteps of an intruder. She spent hours paralyzed, too afraid to even get up and turn on a light. This was obviously debilitating, from the sleep exhaustion alone, never mind the emotional toll. She attended a lecture where I talked about fear not being an option. When you take away the option of fear, then you have to act. I asked her, “What steps can you take to stop your fear response?” She thought about it and three days later, spent $25 at Home Depot on door and window alarms—and slept like a baby. That was that: Now that her house was alarmed, she didn’t need to be.
Once you decide and follow it up with action, you can nullify illogical fear—it takes commitment and mental work, but it absolutely can be done. It sounds simple, but that’s the other thing about illogical fears: The only thing providing them sustenance is you. You feed the fear every time you give into it. You feed it, it becomes stronger, and its appetite grows. Once you make the decision to give your fears the boot, they no longer have a place in your mind, and, therefore, no place in your life. In the absence of the fear, your life will begin to unfold in incredible ways.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship to food, and fear?
The fear of the unknown was really the catalyst for my five-year battle with anorexia.
My first bout with anorexia was at age seventeen, when I ate almost nothing for an entire week. All of my friends were going away to college and beginning to live more independently. I was staying home for college, and up to that point, my parents had had strict parameters around when I could leave the house and who I could spend my time with. Although I know their overprotectiveness was born of the desire to keep me safe, I felt sad and left behind. Before five of my closest girlfriends left for college, we planned to spend a week during spring break in Hawaii. I was excited about the trip, but also felt the pang of nerves, and a feeling of dread. This was the trip that brought home to me the realization that everything was about to change.” But instead of working through that worry, I put all my worried energy into what I would look like in a bathing suit.
“Once you decide fear isn’t an option, you are left with only the choice to change—to shift your consciousness, or to take action. Think about it this way: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
I felt a mounting pressure. My issues with food never began as a desire to lose weight; I had always been a healthy and consistent weight. I was very active, and participated in gymnastics, ballet, and tap. But the feeling of needing to look a certain way, coupled with the feeling that my life was beginning to feel out of control, began to take its toll. At the time, I didn’t think anything of forgoing food; it was my body and I could control it.
How do you actually release fear?
There are many ways to release fear (I provide many tools in my book), but it really begins when you decide that irrational fear is no longer an option. Nothing happens in our lives until we decide; I have found this to be true consistently throughout my life. Once you decide fear isn’t an option, you are left with only the choice to change—to shift your consciousness, or to take action. Think about it this way: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Does your advice shift for women?
One thing that I find specific to women in my work with fear is what I call the Shame of Wanting. As women, we often don’t express our wants because we are afraid of appearing too blunt, too aggressive, too demanding, or too needy. It is, at its core, a fear of rejection and/or abandonment. But why is wanting something considered a bad thing? It isn’t a bad thing: It is the basic human condition, to want, to desire, to dream. We owe it to ourselves to simply ask. For women specifically, this can be incredibly difficult, given the fact that so many of us identify as caregivers, as nurturers, as do-it-all superheroes—but in actuality, this undermines our ability to be vulnerable.
Many women live their lives in one of two realities: One is caring way too much, and being afraid of what people think. Those who fall into this reality might be afraid to pursue the career they want, or to marry the person they want because their family wouldn’t approve. The other involves repression of true feelings—people who consistently make the choice to hold their tongue. They end up not living the life they want and, over time, they become unkind to themselves and those closest to them. Both realities lead to resentment. As we stew in a sea of unmet potential, time and time again, we negate what we truly want. We never allow ourselves to ask for it, because somewhere along the way, we adopted the belief that we can’t have it.
There is absolutely no shame in wanting things, nor in asking for them. How else can people know what to give you if you don’t ask?
As parents, we often place our own fear-based thinking onto our children. We make decisions, navigate life through our personal story, and project our fears—typically subconsciously—onto our child’s experience. Our children begin as fearless beings. We all do, in fact.
As my teenage children get older, they will venture further away from home. As much as I may want to retreat— to keep my children home safe— I don’t believe in living a life in fear. Anything can happen at any moment, but it’s a wasted life to fear the unknowable, to not participate in things you enjoy, simply because something might happen. If we live a risk-averse existence because of fear, we also live a joy-averse existence.
What are some tools for working through our fears?
One of my favorite tools is challenging fearful thoughts. It is one of the simplest tools to grasp, and fairly easy to apply: I like to use the example of my former elevator phobia; my fearful thoughts looked like this:
“I’ll get stuck in an elevator on the 48th floor where there’s no cell reception, my anxiety will cause my mouth to dry, I’ll be stuck for hours without any water, the air will be thick, I won’t be able to breathe, and it’s a long holiday weekend so chances are I won’t be found until Tuesday and now, the lights just went out…”
I’m sure we’ve all had a fearful thought spiral that is similar to this one! Challenging these thoughts looks like this:
Q: What around me currently contradicts this thought?
“It’s Wednesday, it’s not a holiday weekend. The elevator seems new and is running smoothly. I have a bottle of water in my bag.”
Q: Is there an action you could take if this situation were to occur?
“I could always call for assistance using the elevator’s own alarm and there is no indication that my cell phone won’t work. There are also people who love me who would notice if I was gone for long.”
Q: Is this thought fear-based?
“Yes, I can see clearly that I am catastrophizing. There is no evidence that what I fear will come true—and all evidence points to the contrary.”
Challenging your thoughts in this way gets to the root of the fear, and cuts off its life force. If your fear-based thoughts have nowhere to grow, eventually they disintegrate.
How does the kabbalistic perspective inform your approach and study of fear?
Kabbalah teaches that we have come into this world to grow spiritually and to make a positive impact on the world. Our inherent nature is at odds with growth—we tend to want to stay in our comfort zones. But that is not the realm in which we ultimately want to live: In order to transform ourselves and reach our greatest potential, we need to embrace discomfort.
If we always seek comfort first, we miss the purpose for which we came into this world. Through the application and embodiment of the wisdom of Kabbalah, we come to understand that challenges are opportunities for growth. It is through life’s challenges that we find its greatest gifts, but we need to know how to look for them, and, more importantly, appreciate them. Often we are faced with these challenges in pursuit of our most passionate goals, and fear is what keeps us from realizing and actualizing those goals.
Monica Berg shares her combination of wisdom and real-life awareness with talks found compelling to a wide range of men and women at different stages in their lives. She leads people to not only see how they can change, but also inspires them to get excited about a lifestyle of change. Monica Berg is the author of Fear Is Not an Option and serves as Chief Communications Officer for Kabbalah Centre International.