There is a saying that FEAR is False Expectations Appearing Real. Clichéd as it is, in common with most clichés it has much truth to it – at least in my experience.
So I’d like to round off this series of blog posts on fear by writing about the stories we tell ourselves, and how they empower us, or keep us stuck in fear.
To me, it’s fairly self-evident that the stories we hold to be true have a fundamental influence on our lives.
There is a vast array of information available to us at any one moment, but our conscious minds can only process a tiny subset of it, so our past experiences and cultural conditioning largely determine how we subconsciously choose to allocate our narrow beam of attention.
To put this another way, our brain is less of an organ of perception, more of an organ of prediction, and the predictions that our brain deems most useful depend on what has been either most rewarding or most threatening in our past.
And if the brain has to choose between rewards and threats, it will focus on threats. The brain’s job is to keep us alive, so it is especially primed to pay attention to what might kill us – or at least cause distress, harm, or humiliation. You can imagine how evolutionary biology selected for humans who pay attention to risks, and this has become wired into us as negativity bias.
Given our tendency to focus on the negative, and the brain’s predictive capabilities, it’s a short step to seeing how the brain can become overzealous at its job and predict negatives that are unlikely to ever come true.
Rational fears can be useful, letting us know that we need to pay attention to a risk or threat. But irrational fears can be limiting, even destructive, holding us back from living life fully. Our worry-wart of a brain can let its imagination run away with it, making up stories about what might happen and then allowing that story to get in our way – maybe even becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When I trained as a coach, we were taught to notice when a client is going into story – be that about a fear, a relationship, or something else that is causing them stress – and to bring it to their attention. We often don’t notice when we’re telling ourselves a story, because it seems really real. Yet it actually exists only in our imagination, and confirmation bias has emphasised the evidence that supports our story, while editing out any counter-evidence.
When I was on my rowboat, I noticed that when it really was all hitting the fan, I was too focused on doing what needed to be done to have time to be afraid. As the sailor’s saying goes, life’s easier in the storms. The fear mostly took hold when I was lying in my cabin at night, trying to sleep, imagining all the bad things that might happen.
Clearly, when alone on a boat in the middle of an ocean, it’s good to think ahead and to prepare accordingly.
But there’s a clear difference between sensible planning and senseless worrying. Over the years that I spent at sea, I learned to tell the difference between the two.
So now I spend most of my time on dry land, I try to recall this skill when I notice I’m feeling anxious. What story am I telling myself? Do I have evidence for that story? Is there another, equally or more likely story, that would be more supportive?
We all live in story, to a greater extent than we usually notice – the stories that are told to us by our culture, the media, our friends, our subconscious. Even massive social structures like the economy, or democracy, law, religion, or the scientific method, are stories that have no objective reality outside of human minds.
What are your stories? And what are your subconscious stories? Are they true? Are they really true? Could another story be more true – and more helpful?