Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at email@example.com and read more How to be Human here.
What’s the best way to handle fear?
There is no “best” way to handle fear. I mean, maybe there’s a best way for you, or a best way for me, but there’s no single across-the-board best way. That’s not always what people want to hear, but being human isn’t a simple, straightforward process. It’s also not a competition or a series of optimization exercises, so I don’t want anyone thinking if they aren’t good at the “best” way to handle fear they’re somehow failing.
But obviously there are better ways to handle fear.
Fear is an innate feeling, one of the most fundamental feelings we’re born with. It is natural, almost everyone has it; it’s a very human thing. More than that! It’s a very animal thing. Fear is partly emotional, partly physical, and it’s a response that helps us survive. This is why I don’t like it when someone says “Don’t be afraid!” in response to someone else’s fear. I know the intention is good — it’s a way of saying “this thing isn’t actually bad or scary, you’re okay” — but it’s a little like saying “don’t be sleepy!” and “don’t be angry!” So the first part of dealing with fear is to remind yourself that being afraid is totally okay and normal.
It’s also necessary to remember that fears come in a wide range of flavors. Fears exist along a sort of spectrum, with “rational” at one end and “irrational” at the other. Technically, fears fall into one bucket or another, but to me (admittedly a sociologist and not a psychologist), it can seem a little more complicated than that when you’re thinking through your fears. Rational fears are of the “I am afraid because I am in danger and something or someone threatens my well-being” variety, like living in an active war zone or with an abuser, or being approached in the dark by someone you immediately know is going to hurt you. Irrational fears, also known as phobias, are of the “I am afraid of a situation or a thing that is not present or is intangible” variety, like fear of public speaking or spiders, of death or of the unknown. To call them irrational is not to say they aren’t real but to acknowledge the “rationality” of an intense emotional and physiological fight-or-flight response to something that does not currently pose a danger or isn’t even dangerous at all.
Fear is partly emotional, partly physical, and it’s a response that helps us survive
My guess is you want to focus on the more irrational side of fear, which is what I want to do, too. This is “how to be human” not “how to react when someone is threatening you with bodily harm.” So when I say “fear” from now on, I’m talking about that whole side of the spectrum, the one without a clear and present danger.
As humans, we gather all manner of fears throughout our lives. Sometimes we learn to be afraid of something, because we’re taught or conditioned to fear them, or because we experience something very traumatic. We’re also influenced by culture, society, religion, and so on. You can see how fears shift and change over time. For example, the fear of disease and germs meant most people in medieval Europe rarely bathed — the idea was that dirt in your pores helped you block disease — whereas the modern fear of disease and germs is so anti-dirt there’s a massive industry dedicated to anti-bacterial cleaning products. As it turns out, some dirt is good but so is some hygiene, but you try telling that to our entire clean = good culture at this moment in history.
At the heart of a lot of our irrational fears are stories. And I mean that very literally: they are stories in the deepest sense of the word, narratives we tell ourselves over and over again about a thing that happened and what it means, why we avoid a situation or a type of person, why we are the way we are and there’s no changing it. A lot of these stories are like a pair of sweatpants I’ve had for, I don’t know, about 15 years. To call them sweatpants is generous, since right now they’re a waistband barely attached to a pair of conjoined fabric legs. Why haven’t I thrown them away, you ask? It’s not because they’ve got sentimental value. I’ve bought new sweatpants in recent years, ones I like a lot better. The truth is I keep them out of habit, because they’re there and they’ve seemingly always been there and why question it?
A lot of my fears feel like these sweatpants. I’ll march right over to the dresser, pull them out, and throw them on, not for a second stopping to ask “hey, why am I still wearing these terrible things? What if I just threw them away, right now?” Those are the two key questions at the heart of my approach to fear: why and what if.
At the heart of a lot of our irrational fears are stories
Here is a tiny little example, one that not surprisingly involves yoga. When I was 15, I got a pair of rollerblades (feel free to laugh, it was 1990 and I was probably also wearing striped Girbaud shorts that looked like this). I used them exactly once because within a few minutes of gliding gracefully down my street, I fell really hard and partially dislocated my shoulder (it’s okay, you can still laugh, this is a ridiculous way to hurt yourself). My shoulder has never been the same since. It’s popped out many times, and I’ll spare you the stories of one time when I had to pop it back in myself.
Now, you’re probably thinking this caused me to develop a fear of rollerblades, which is a delightful phobia to consider. But no! Many years later, I became afraid of inversions and arm balances in yoga. Sure, my fear is partly rational, because I could pop my shoulder out again and have to deal with yet another strengthening and healing process. Except the kind of yoga I do has made me stronger than I’ve ever been and has showed me that most poses require you to be strong not just in your arms and legs but in your core. Like, in your abs but also in the center of yourself! And I started to recognize that my fear wasn’t just about my shoulder. It was about not being strong enough, about falling down, about doing it wrong, about how you even get into that pose and I would never be able to do it. About failing. But addressing all of those things was so much worse than saying “My shoulder might come out! I can’t do this.” I never asked why I was afraid, I just kept saying “I can’t do this” in response to the thing that scared me. So my fears had hardened into a thing. An obstacle.
One day my teacher told us to go to the wall and do an inversion, a forearm balance, and my brain immediately went “well, I can’t do that.” Like, my brain pulled on its shitty torn-up sweatpants, the ones that say you’re afraid right on the butt. In that moment I stopped and asked myself, “Why not? Why am I afraid? What if I can do it?” I remember it very distinctly, because I could feel a physical shift in my body when I said “I dunno, maybe I can do it.” Did I succeed right away? No, but I did eventually, and now I can do a variety of forearm balances at the wall. After a while I even started practicing handstand on my own — I still can’t kick up all the way without an assist, but I try. I’m still a little afraid of it, so I keep saying why and what if. Sometimes I say “what if instead of the scariest thing you treat it as the most fun thing?” It might sound corny but the other day I did the first part of an arm balance called astavakrasana (this is what the full pose looks like, but I’m not there yet) and when it happened I involuntarily shouted out “Oh shit!” in class out of sheer surprise and delight.
I don’t think every fear is one that will be resolved with a joyful “Oh shit!” I have a lot of fears that make me so sad and angry, especially when I think about how long I’ve had them and how many things they’ve kept me from doing in my life. Many of those fears do not have fun upside down resolutions. But I can still ask why and what if. I can still throw those horrid sweatpants away, one pair at a time.
Many years ago my dad said something that I’ve always treasured. He said that talking about the thing that scares you the most helps it becomes less terrifying. It’s no longer something you can’t voice or name, no longer something you have to deal with alone. Fear loves to be a secret. It loves to hide and be a disembodied voice that rises up from the darkest corners, telling you the same story over and over.
Why? What if?
One more thing: fear is not yours alone. Learning to more effectively handle fear requires being able to acknowledge other people’s fears, too. I’m not telling you to say “well, this person’s about to punch me, I bet it’s because they’re scared of something too.” This is not about having compassion for an abuser or oppressor. Some people definitely choose fight over flight in response to fear. But we’re all afraid and vulnerable, sometimes rationally and sometimes not. We’ve learned many fears over the course of our lives. We all act out of fear in ways that can be very harmful to ourselves and others, but a better way is to ask why and what if before we act. Imagine if people were able to do more of that together. Imagine what would change.
Happy New Year.