Feel the Fear

I perceive that fear is becoming pervasive and increasingly intense around the world. When I share this perception with others, I often get the response: “What fear? I don’t know many people who are afraid.” That’s part of the problem. The fear is often not visible unless we know where and how to look for it. Why is that the case?

Emotions are suspect
As I’ve written elsewhere, our institutions are organized on a scalable efficiency model that views emotions as deeply suspect. In these institutions, it’s all about mindset and heartset is ignored. Emotions are a distraction – the key is to memorize the process manual and execute flawlessly and efficiently. If you express emotions, you’re viewed as weak, especially if you express emotions like fear or anxiety. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most of us make a concerted effort to keep the fear we feel deeply hidden, lest anyone else find out.

Fear is often expressed through other emotions
We may not express the emotion of fear itself, but we often express it through other emotions that are less suggestive of weakness.

Anger and hatred. Have you noticed the increasing amount of anger being expressed in populations around the world? Anger is often a manifestation of fear. If you feel you’re being threatened, it’s natural and understandable that you’ll feel anger towards those you believe are threatening you. In a world where emotions in general are viewed as weakness, anger is sometimes viewed as a sign of strength. It shows you’re willing to stand up for yourself.

Rigidity. People who feel fear are often driven to find something that they can tightly hold onto and count on in a world that is perceived as increasingly threatening. That’s a major reason why we’re seeing the growth of fundamentalist religions and political extremism – a growing number of people find these to be a comforting refuge from fear.

Defensiveness. If we feel fear, we are often likely to become more defensive, viewing the slightest slight as an attack and feeling the need to defend ourselves before the situation becomes even more threatening.

Stress. Who doesn’t know people who are experiencing growing stress? Stress is often a by-product of fear, especially if we feel we’re in environments that don’t allow us to express our fear. Now we have to hide our fear as well as deal with the events that are producing the fear.

Boasting and narcissism. If we’re experiencing increasing fear, a natural human reaction is to compensate by focusing the attention of others on what we’ve accomplished. I don’t know about you, but I have a definite sense that many of us use social media to share the amazing places we’ve been and people we’re spending time with in an effort to reassure others that we’re doing really well.

To be clear, I’m not saying that these emotions are exclusively a manifestation of fear, but they often are. When we encounter these emotions, we just might want to explore beneath them to see if we can find fear.

Hopelessness and passivity. As fear gains force, we can often move to feelings of hopelessness and passivity, a feeling that there’s nothing we can do to change things. It’s not about us; it’s just the way the world is. We drop out or, at best, we focus on taking care of those nearest to us.

Loneliness. Loneliness is becoming pervasive in many parts of the world. While many factors can contribute to this feeling, certainly one is an underlying emotion of fear. If we’re living in fear, we’re less likely to connect with others and simply try to fend for ourselves, while feeling isolated and without support.

What’s driving the fear?
So, if I’m right that more and more of us are experiencing growing fear, why is that happening? There are certainly many reasons, but my research suggests that we are in the early stages of a Big Shift that is generating mounting performance pressure on all of us. No matter what our credentials and track record in the past, the pressure is mounting to get even better faster in the future. It’s totally natural that we would feel fear in that kind of world, especially if we were taught that getting the right degrees and pursuing the right jobs would ensure our success.

This mounting performance pressure isn’t just about economic pressure and the ability to earn a living. It takes many different forms, including an accelerating pace of change where things we could rely on in our lives – values, norms, practices, etc. – suddenly are no longer there.

But, it’s not just mounting performance pressure that’s driving the fear. There’s also a growing realization that our institutions are not equipped to help us respond to the mounting performance pressure. In fact, there’s a sense that our institutions are making us even more vulnerable to that growing pressure. That’s one of the key reasons that trust in all our institutions is rapidly eroding globally.

Feeding the fear
If mounting performance pressure isn’t bad enough, we have a growing set of forces that are determined to feed that fear. More and more politicians are resorting to threat-based narratives to mobilize the population: the enemy is coming to get us and we’re under attack, we need to mobilize now and resist. These threat-based narratives amplify and reinforce the fear.

And there’s more. Our mass media (and social media) are increasingly focused on the terrible things that are happening in the world. Wherever there’s an earthquake, a terrorist attack, a wave of crime, an epidemic or some other disaster, we can count on it dominating the media. We have to look long and hard to find any good news. That also feeds our fear.

The negative impact of fear
If we allow fear to dominate our emotions, we’re at risk of unleashing a vicious cycle that can lead to an increasingly dysfunctional world. Fear cultivates a set of cognitive biases. First, we tend to become more risk averse – we emphasize the risk of action and discount the rewards that can come from action. As we become more risk averse, we tend to shrink our time horizons. We only focus on what we can do in the short-term because there’s more risk out in the future. As we shrink our time horizons, we fall into what economists call a “zero-sum” view of the world. If we’re only focused on today, there’s a given set of resources and the only question is who’s going to get them – you or me? It’s a win-lose view of the world. And in that kind of world, trust erodes quickly – you may seem like a really nice person, but I know at the end of the day only one of us is going to get those resources, and I want to be sure it’s me.

And these cognitive biases can unleash a vicious cycle. The less trust we have, the more risk averse we become and the more we shrink our time horizons which further erodes trust, and on and on.

My own experience is that some of the “strongest”, most successful people that I know will, in the privacy of their offices, express great fear when in the company of someone they trust. Overcome the fear
Seeing the fear is just the beginning. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the fear is unjustified. Fear is a very natural response to mounting performance pressure. I’m also not suggesting that the fear can be eliminated. What we need to do is to find ways to overcome the fear and cultivate other emotions like hope and excitement that can motivate us to make the changes necessary to address the mounting performance pressure.

How to see the unseen
So, what can we do about all of this? First, we need to see the fear and recognize how pervasive it is becoming. If the emotion of fear is so deeply hidden, how can we learn to see it? Well, we might start with ourselves. Many of us have become so deeply embedded in scalable efficiency cultures that we’ve become adept at disconnecting from our own emotions. Perhaps some deep inner reflection might reveal that we actually have fears that have been growing over time. If we’re unwilling to see and confront that fear within ourselves, we’re very unlikely to see it in others.

Once we see it within ourselves, it helps to share that recognition with others. In scalable efficiency cultures, there’s very little trust and if you come across as someone who is unwilling to acknowledge your own fears, others are going to be very reluctant to share this emotion with you. On the other hand, expressing vulnerability and acknowledging your fears can help to build trust and open up others to share their emotions with you.

Here’s the paradox. The same Big Shift that is producing mounting performance pressure for all of us is also producing expanding opportunity for all of us. But to realize that expanding opportunity, we’re going to have to transform all of our institutions, moving from a scalable efficiency model to a scalable learning model. If we’re driven by fear, we’re unlikely to invest the effort required to drive that transformation.

We need to find ways to focus on that opportunity and to motivate ourselves to come together in ways that can help us overcome our fear and address the challenges that stand in the way of achieving that opportunity.

Bottom line
We live in a world where emotions are suspect, especially emotions of fear. More and more of us are experiencing fear, yet that fear often remains deeply hidden, even from ourselves. We need to acknowledge that fear and commit to finding ways to overcome it. If we remain in denial, we risk being consumed by that fear and missing the growing opportunities that can help all of us to achieve far more of our potential.


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