Is Fear of the Unknown Dictating the Direction of Your Life?
When I was very young, like many children, I went through a stage of being afraid of the dark. But instead of being afraid of what may be lurking under the bed, it was the closet that commanded my attention. I can recall lying in bed, riveted by a shadow that I had never noticed before. I lay there for what seemed like hours (probably only minutes) staring at the shadowy figure – too afraid to know what it was, but also afraid to not know. Eventually, I conjured the courage to rise from my bed, walk to the far side of the room, and nervously turn on the light.
Of course I am no longer afraid of the dark, but the experience of navigating the darkness, not knowing what the light would expose, is a feeling that remains familiar: the fear of facing the unknown. I have since learned to harness that fear, preferring to pull back the proverbial curtain (as Toto did in the Wizard of Oz) in order to expose and face whatever is there. One of my friends aptly refers to this as “walking through the fear.”
The Known vs. The Unknown
Learning to manage fear is important because, if not managed properly, it can hinder you from making decisions that help to bridge the gap between the known and unknown. How? In general, for most of us, safety, comfort, and security are much preferred over an unknown negative possibility. Therefore, we often don’t like to venture outside of our comfort zones, preferring instead to cling to what is familiar.
A common example of this can be observed when we are too afraid to forge a new path toward a personal goal simply because we fear what may lie ahead, preferring to stay in unfulfilling, but familiar circumstances. In fact, fear of the unknown is a primary reason many people do not make an effort to do things such as further their education, move to a new city, or start the business they’ve always envisioned.
When faced with confronting the unknown, we often attempt to buy more time before we act by going through numerous “what if” scenarios, a tedious process of imagining every possible outcome. It’s a non-productive activity that gives the illusion of active problem solving when in fact it keeps you frozen (with fear), forever pondering what MAY happen – and essentially doing nothing. Furthermore, frequent worrying in this manner can easily give rise to anxiety, fear’s close cousin.
Am I Truly in Danger?
The primary role of fear is to detect and respond to danger and, from an evolutionary standpoint, it is essential for survival. When we recognize danger, fear kicks our sympathetic nervous system into gear, which prepares our body to either confront or flee from it. However, when this natural response is activated in response to perceived or imagined threats, it’s not purposeful in those situations. Managing these perceived threats then becomes a matter of recognizing when the emotional self has taken charge of the rational self.
There is a German proverb that says, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.” At some point, my younger self figured this out and made a choice not to be held captive by the unknown. I told myself that I could lie in bed and worry forevermore about the shadowy figure, or I could take a walk through the darkness to shine a light on the “threat” so that I could make the unknown known.
Approaching and conquering fear of the unknown allows us to dispel the imagined, unlikely worst-case outcomes, replacing them with confidence in our ability to overcome unknown situations. And the more we challenge ourselves to do so, the more courageous we become to approach similar fears in the future.
Continuing to worry about what may or may not exist keeps us entrenched in a state of not knowing, thus perpetuating the fear. Fear has a way of feeding itself, and eventually can become larger than it realistically needs to be. But if we can learn to “walk through it,” we can then transform it into a growth opportunity.
What happened with the shadowy figure?
Once I turned on the light, I found the shadowy figure to be a Disney umbrella standing on end, projected as something larger, due to the shadow created by the moonlight shining through my window. I smiled and heaved a sigh of relief. I then turned off the light and settled back into bed, somehow knowing that I would never again be afraid of shadows.
“Many of our fears are tissue-paper-thin, and a single courageous step would carry us clear through them.”
- Can you recall any experiences during which you learned to conquer a fear?
- Are there any areas of your life in which fear of the unknown is holding you back?
Öhman, A. (2008). Fear and anxiety: Overlaps and dissociations. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.) Handbook of emotions (3rd Ed.) (pp. 709–729). New York: The Guilford Press.