Fear Hides Here: Four Thoughts To Examine Closely Before Believing Them

reasearch Aug 22, 2019

By Shannon Thompson


In the world of performance psychology, fear is the primary foe. The examples of this are numerous and fairly obvious. Athletes can be afraid of performing badly at an important event, of becoming injured in a risky sport, or of letting their teammates down with a poor performance. Very similar fears are rampant within non-sporting domains. Executives might fear an important presentation, the failure of a risky initiative, or a disappointing performance review. Fear is present in relationships. We fear rejection when we pursue a love interest, and sometimes how our partner will react to a mistake, or perceived personal failing. Fear is everywhere in our lives.


A great deal of my work is centered around helping people overcome fear. Often fear of a poor outcome causes someone to alter their behavior so that the reality of a poor outcome actually becomes more likely. My job is to teach people how to recognize their fear, it’s effect on them, and to give them strategies to overcome it. 


Throughout my time of working with obvious fears, I’ve also noticed some more subtle ones. These fears hide in sneaky places, especially within interpersonal interactions. At first they seem minor, even inconsequential. Some lurk under the guise of common sense, or practicality. My purpose with this essay is to expose these fears, explain the consequences of succumbing to them, and offer some suggestions to overcome them.


 1. “I can’t help. If I do that for one person I’ll have to do it for everyone else.”

Perhaps you’re a teacher in a school. There are forty students in your class. Most likely the range of scholarly skills among your students spans a wide range. Some breeze through your class, and never request one extra moment of your time. Others linger with regular questions and requests for help. When one person is asking for a great deal of extra effort or time, concerns about your capacity can arise. You might say to yourself, “if I spent this much time with George, than I’m going to have to be available to all of them to this extent, which is not possible.” And, as a result of your fear that later requests could exceed your capabilities, you might refuse George the full extent of help that he needs.

But here’s the thing. Right now, George is the only one asking. To refrain from helping George because you’re afraid you won’t be able to respond to the others if they ask, is to fall into the trap of fear.


2. “I can’t share that, it's unprofessional.”

Recently, Rob, a friend of mine shared a story with me. Rob is a warm, sensitive, bright man. He is also a divorce attorney, and a highly successful one. He told me about a recent case where the circumstances were so sad that tears sprang to his eyes during a conversation. Rob explained that what one of the children had to say was so honest and touching, that the tragedy of the break-up of this family hit him really hard. Later, when Rob was alone with one of his co-workers, the co-worker told him that his tears were unprofessional. 

Rob was torn regarding what to think of his co-worker’s comment. “What kind of society have we become so that tears in response to the break-up of a family are inappropriate?” He asked me. Cleary,  Rob’s job is to provide the legal knowledge that his clients need to complete their divorce. Why should his expression of humanity through tears indicate any lack of professionalism?

My work involves very personal conversations. I’m selective regarding when I contribute stories from my own life, and which ones to include. However, I often include some. My reasons for sharing center around the fact that a great deal of human sadness and distress comes from feelings of isolation. Isolation can be experienced through impressions that one is alone in one’s struggle, or that one is the only person dealing with this particular flaw or issue. When a lawyer becomes tearful during divorce deliberations he is communicating that he is moved by the circumstances. His tears say, I feel you and I am affected by your situation. You are not alone. When I share one of my personal stories with my clients it is usually a story to highlight how I have felt similarly to how they feel. I want them to know that they have company, and that I have dealt with problems not unlike theirs. By sharing I am saying you are just a human, you are ok, and I understand. Relating to their experience does not undermine my ability to share my professional knowledge. In fact, I believe that creating a stronger connection makes my suggestions more likely to be effective. By sharing my story I’ve shown that I understand them, and I’ve strengthened their trust that because I understand their situation, my methods will be effective. The effectiveness of my work has been enhanced by sharing, and in my opinion this is very professional.


 3. The use of threats to drive change.

In the world of college athletics, high stakes moments are constantly arriving. The student athletes that I work with are regularly facing important competitions, tests, and major papers. The cumulative demand of all these achievement oriented pursuits is high. Often, I will watch an athlete struggle to keep up. Perhaps she submits an assignment late, or not at all. Perhaps she’s been up studying for too long and is too tired to swim, or run, or play to her best. Sometimes one moment of overwhelm can turn into a slide in numerous aspects of the person’s life, and several important responsibilities suffer.

The support team for our athletes is extremely warm-hearted. Everyone has the best of intentions. Often, when an athlete begins to slide several support staff rise up to try to motivate the person to increase her efforts. The motivation often involves leveraging fear in order to drive action. For example I’ve heard, “if you don’t get a B on that paper, you will fail the course; if you don’t pass the course you will be ineligible to play. If your GPA sinks to 2.6 you won’t be considered for grad school.”

Fear tactics motivate some people, but not the majority. When a person is in a performance slide they are well aware of what’s at stake. Worry over what’s on the line can consume their thoughts, making it difficult for them to focus on the task at hand. The distraction and overwhelm that the fear tactics can induce can make a quality focus impossible. Thus, fear tactics often undermine a person’s genuine desire to turn things around. 

No one wants to fail. I’ve found that a far better method to help someone stop themselves in their slide is to assure them that they’re going to be ok. This is the precise opposite of the fear method. I assure them that numerous students have been in their place, and there are always steps to recover. When people feel safe they can focus on a task, and it is precisely focus and one quality action after another that leads to strong outcomes. 

 Are you feeling pressure to excel in an area of your life? The example above is easily generalizable to countless scenarios. Perhaps you tell yourself “I had better nail this presentation or I’m going to get fired.” Can you feel tension and anxiety rise within you when you frame this circumstance this way? Instead, try “This presentation feels really important, but no one presentation defines me, and there are always steps to move forward even if it doesn’t go as I hoped it would. What’s the first step to preparing well for it?” Can you feel how the second approach is far more peaceful than the first? Within the second approach a person works within a perception of safety. Most people work best within environments that they perceive to be safe. 


 4. “I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

If there’s one thing that humans dislike, it’s the unknown. A great deal of our lives are centered around work toward outcomes. We hope to advance at work, or raise a healthy child, or improve our skills within a craft. Within all of these scenarios the outcome is unknown while we are working toward it. Sometimes, with the intention of protecting ourselves against disappointment, we will dampen our hopes regarding outcomes. For example, we might limit our vision for our professional advancement opportunities, or we might refrain from dreaming boldly regarding just how good we could become at a craft. We’ll even hope hesitantly for those we love. For instance I’ve had the odd parent ask me, “how can I explain to him what’s realistic?” with respect to their child’s grand athletic dreams.

In my mind, we should hope bravely. After all, we can’t know what is possible for us. Perhaps that beautiful dream is possible. Regardless, whether or not we attain the outcome we’re hoping for, it truly is the journey that shapes us. A dream enthusiastically pursued generally leads one down a more positive developmental path than one hesitantly pursued. A dream enthusiastically pursued is also more likely to be realized.


As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, fear is our primary foe. My hope is that you are now a little wiser to the thoughts within which fear can hide and limit your life.

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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