“Wherever the fear is, this is precisely the gift you have to give.” — Amanda Palmer
Fear is a language. It speaks through truth and lies. Fear can protect us, but it is not angelic. Fear impedes on our bravest actions, and yet, is not purely evil. Fear is a discourse of feeling. It weaves temptation with sinister self-doubt, and lifesaving clarity with cruel contradiction. Capable of so much, it is one of the most powerful emotions we have. Despite the difficulty we have to comprehend fear, it can become a valuable guide if we learn to recognize and understand its varying forms. My purpose in this essay is to teach you how.
When I train elite athletes on how to deal with fear, I begin by helping them to become aware of the signals of their brain and body. I teach them to pay close attention to their thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. Interpreted correctly, fear can help us to successfully navigate the challenges and opportunities in our lives. The more fluent we become in the language of fear, the more capable we are of rising to the occasion in the moments that count.
In this essay, I will go beyond what I consider to be a basic understanding of fear. By “basic” I mean the fear associated with being hit by a car, large heights, or robbery. I call this form, “survival fear.” Survival fear is an ingenious instrument of the nervous system. It is quick, thoughtless, and leaves no time for contemplation. For many people, most other forms of fear are mistaken for this one, which is why they are so rarely identified. After all, labeling all fear as survival fear has its benefits. Someone who immediately flees a situation with a hint of fear (whether or not fleeing is warranted), is more likely to survive anything versus the person who pauses to contemplate the fear. However, if a person wishes to curiously explore the complexities of life’s challenges, such as the labyrinth of learning, or the storm of love, it is necessary to engage and become fluent in other forms of fear.
We will begin by discussing “Yara,” a fear to follow. This is the fear a person experiences when they’re on the path toward a kind of— destiny. There is also “fear-at-true-limits,” which is the fear we feel when we’re about to go too far. Third, I’ll describe “fear-in-meaning,” the discomfort we feel when we’re engaged in a meaningful, but sometimes overwhelming mission. Finally, we’ll explore “authenticity,” the fear of revealing our most genuine selves.
Follow me friends, especially if you feel hesitant to do so.
Five years ago, while in a Mexican restaurant, my future was revealed. I’d just completed a running race through the Colorado Rockies. A group from Flagstaff, Arizona invited my teammate and I to enjoy nachos and drinks at the finish line. We hit it off. And when we parted, we received offers to visit Flagstaff again, and promises to keep in touch.
It’s rare for me to follow up on such offers, but this time was different. As I gazed out of the plane window, watching the mountains become peaked and frosted, I knew something important had changed. I felt a strange intuition that these Flagstaff people would be in my life again one day, and I was oddly compelled to visit them.
Four months later, coursing with irrational inspiration, I packed up and flew to Flagstaff. Still drawn to the town, I returned the following summer. And the winter after, on my way to graduate school in Philadelphia, I made another pit stop.
Throughout my early attraction to Flagstaff, I experienced fear. I felt out of sorts and self-conscious on my visits; I barely knew the people I met there. My family raised loving eyebrows at my sudden obsession with the place. All of this amplified the confusion and self-consciousness I already felt. The fear was strong, and circled around a suspicion that I was following a call important to my future. Eventually this caused me to leave Vancouver, my home.
Most of us in western culture are familiar with one definition for fear: An unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. However, this definition did not adequately describe the fear I felt as I followed my call to Flagstaff. I was drawn to a lesser known definition of fear, introduced to me by a classmate at the University of Pennsylvania. “That’s Yara!” my friend said after I shared my feelings with her. She went on to explain that Yara is a Hebrew word for another form of fear: to be in awe or reverence. “Yara is the fear you experience when you are on the path to your destiny.”
What does Yara feel like? For me, it is the awareness of a potential opening, a resonant, mysterious knowing that change is coming. Author, Arundhati Roy, adequately described Yara when she wrote, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” I could hear my new world when I left Vancouver. I was following blindly, one-step-at-a-time, but with each step, new ground was set beneath me.
Step-by-step, Yara accompanied me to the career of my dreams in Flagstaff. Yara was within me when I met Sean, CEO of Hypo2Sport, the company through which I now offer my services to athletes. Yara is beside me every time I present a new strategy to a team, or sit down with an athlete with whom I’m particularly close. Yara overwhelms me when I reach out with my most brave and kind offers, or my riskiest expressions of love. Although the road was rife with difficulty, it was also laden with the powers to overcome them. I will follow this fear again, and I encourage you to listen for the moments in which Yara is encouraging you.
Fear can be the driving force behind decision-making. Fear works closely with intuition and instinct, and can play a valuable guiding role when it comes to approaching complex situations. Learning to interpret forms of fear that you experience increases sensitivity to context, and aids in accurate decision-making. In particular, fear can signal us to act or to wait. We’ve highlighted how the presence of Yara is a sign to move forward – to act. There is another form of fear that advises us to be still. I call this “fear-at-true-limits.” This fear advises us to pause within a scenario. It works with wisdom, and requests patience.
Here is a personal example of fear-at-true-limits:
I see my craft as a performance consultant belonging to the “interpersonal arts.” Each athlete I speak with is unique. When I counsel them, I pay close attention to what I see, hear, and feel in order to decide how I will help them. Fear has a role in my decision-making. It tells me when to sing and when to be silent. With the presence of yara, I feel I should say or suggest something that I suspect might be helpful. “Fear-at-true-limits” asks for my silence. When I feel this fear I withhold my thoughts or words.
“Fear-at-true-limits” works together with wisdom. It demands your own self-awareness. I recognize these forces when I feel a quiet heaviness, and my peripheries sense a charge. Wisdom is the little voice that says “wait,” and the charge in my periphery is a warning. Do not reach out. Do not send that. Do not act. Right now this person needs your silence.
Fear-at-true-limits shows up throughout our lives. It might advise you to carefully look both ways at a crosswalk, or to withhold critical comments to your partner. Fear-at-true-limits has a keen sense for perfect timing. My growing ability to distinguish between the moments of yara and fear-at-true-limits is helping me to play a more effective role in the lives of others.
Yara and fear-in-meaning are strongly related. In fact, I think they are variations of the same fear. I see yara as a sharp, inspired call – usually at the beginning of a path toward a true calling. Fear-in-meaning, on the other hand, finds you once you’re well down the road. This is a particularly difficult form of fear characterized by a genuine proximity to the possibility of failure. When experiencing fear-in-meaning, self-doubt is often rampant, fatigue is frequently high, and the future might look uncertain. Something you love might appear to be on the verge of being lost. Poet, John O’Donahue, spoke of fear-in-meaning when he wrote:
The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you…
For me, fear-in-meaning might be the most difficult of them all. It brings up thoughts of painful failure and loss. The energy of Yara becomes a distant memory, and the perceptions of my own foolishness and inadequacies haunt attempts at hope. The pressing question here is how to tell if you should persevere or give up. When we’re caught in fear-in-meaning, we’re usually in too deep to simply give up. Often the road to quitting is just as messy and threatening as continuing on the path we’re on. This is fortunate though. It is within these long, dark stretches of toil that we truly learn and grow. This is the crucible that creates hope. Great stories are written from the trail of tears left in the dust of that darkness. And out of it, our most beautiful work emerges. O’Donahue continues:
What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn.
Are you exhausted and deep in fear-in-meaning? Are you wondering if you should persevere? How much love is left? That’s a question I ask myself in the midst of fear-in-meaning. How much love is left? If there’s any at all, keep going.
Authenticity is the practice of allowing your true self to show. There are few greater joys than when we feel able to do so, and few acts more terrifying.
When considering if I feel safe to show my more unusual qualities to others, I proceed slowly, like the way someone might tentatively entering a lake. I carefully test my reception. I consider how long I want to be in the water, and how deep I’ll dare to go. It is wise to be discerning with who we trust with our most authentic selves.
Offering someone vulnerable information about yourself is akin to that first step into deep water. Can you take it? Can they? Will the reaction be colder than you expected? Will the sea floor drop out from under you? Where yara is a driving force, and fear-at-true-limits is a restraining one, authenticity is raw exposure. To reveal your authentic self to someone, is to venture deep enough into trust until that your feet can no longer touch the bottom. It requires you to surrender to the unpredictable weather and waves. Sometimes our risks backfire. A riptide may drag you out well beyond your strength, or sharp seashells where you thought would be sand. But when you catch the right wave, when someone’s eyes meet yours with the recognition you’ve been craving, and the feeling is sublime.
Real connection only occurs when truth meets truth. These are the moments when one person’s authentic self meets another. We all crave real connection. Real intimacy and love. Ever- meaningful transformation occurs at our most raw center. This form of connection can be liberating for people, and is well worth the risk in my opinion. When we stop concerning ourselves with what others think of us, and spending energy on maintaining an image, we are more free to engage with the world and offer the gifts we’re meant to give.
Yara, fear-at–true-limits, fear-in-meaning, and authenticity are among many forms of fear. I want you to consider how your fear speaks within you. What is it telling you? When do you notice it? My hope is that through outlining my own language of fear, you have become more curious about your own. I also hope that you recognize that fear is not meant to be an omen of bad things to come. Rather, fear is meant to help us live life at its highest level. May you learn to understand—and not be afraid of— the mysterious and powerful voice of fear. It can lead you to miraculous places.
About the Author
Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
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