What Fear Can Teach Us About the Stories We Tell Ourselves

What Fear Can Teach Us About the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Man in the ocean

It’s 1819, your boat has capsized, and you and 19 of your shipmates are 1,000 miles from the nearest sanctuary of land. You have three options to save yourselves: find the nearest islands 1,200 miles away–islands rumored to be home to cannibals– risk deadly storms and find your way to Hawaii, or take the longest journey towards South America and potentially starve to death before reaching land.

Each option strikes fear into your heart. Which do you choose?

These were the real fears that the men of the whaling ship Essex had running through their minds as they watched their ship sink into the ocean. And while history tells us what they eventually decided, it is in the choices they didn’t make, that we can glean an invaluable lesson about fear, the stories we tell ourselves, and the way they can impact our daily lives.

Come along as the novelist Karen Thompson Walker helps us look at our own tough choices in a new way that will feel like a leap of insight we can use every day.

We know how fear feels, but I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about what our fears mean.

-Karen Thompson Walker

When was the last time you made a decision based on fear, either about the unknown future, the outcome of a decision you have to make, or a place you’ve never been before? Did your wild ideas about what could happen cause you to change your decision-making? Or, have you been avoiding an important conversation or life change because of your fear of the imagined repercussions? 

In her incredible talk on the TED stage, Thompson Walker helps us see the root of so many of our fears: imagination. In our unique ability to imagine the future, we tell ourselves stories that come to shape our reality. Fear not though, if we come to understand our fears as the stories we tell ourselves, we can begin to make better decisions, and start to listen to those stories with a more critical eye! 

Watch the full TED talk here:

What fear can teach us | Karen Thompson Walker

Which Choice Would You Have Made?

Would you have stayed away from the one that incited the most vivid fears? Or go with the closest option? 

It makes you think about how often we let irrational fears that stem from the stories we tell ourselves lead us to bad decision-making.

How often do we make choices based on the scariest outcome we can imagine, even though that possibility has terrifically small odds of actually happening? We do it in our families, businesses, and communities. It seems to be a leap our brain performs automatically.

Take a look at the following photo. What’s the story that jumped into your mind about what’s going on there?

Image: What Fear Can Teach Us
Source: Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

Are you telling yourself a negative story, perhaps something a bit fearful? 

It’s an impulse that is irresistible, isn’t it?

Well, actually, this is our 11-year-old daughter sitting by a campfire in our backyard, pouting a bit because we wouldn’t let her have a 20th marshmallow! 

Oh how the stories we tell ourselves could be changing the way we approach every situation.

Here’s more so you can understand how this plays out in our own lives…

First, we have to acknowledge that fear is an entire system of brain pathways, and one of the most important responses that have kept humanity from going the way of the Neanderthal. Yet today –  when we do not have to fear a saber-toothed tiger behind every tree – we are still telling ourselves that a critical level of danger may be right around every corner.

In our modern lives, our stress is social, ethical, and financial, but our brain elevates these challenges to that same fear center as a possible saber-toothed tiger attack! 

Here are a few examples: 

How often do we have difficult family situations that need attention, but we avoid wading in because we are imagining the worst possible outcome? Do we even consider that the other person may react gracefully or they might be relieved to have had the conversation too? 

How often are our business decisions based on avoiding the worst possible outcome? If we create a work environment that is entirely “Risk Conservative,” very little that is meaningful and new gets done. 

Should you be asking for a raise, but you are telling yourself all kinds of scary stories about how your boss may react? If you are a good employee, why would they react badly?

Most importantly, have you ever told yourself a scary story ahead of time that caused you to pass up a good opportunity?

Turning Fear Into a Helpful Motivator

Since watching this TED Talk, I have thought of “the cannibals on the island” that the sailors imagined. How making a decision based on this wild, and unfounded fear led them to choose the most dangerous, least likely to succeed choice to stay alive.

Their decision to act on the most emotional, vivid story they told themselves nearly killed them all. This has often made me stay with the facts when making decisions instead of making choices with fear as a motivator.

If you need a simple practice to help you decide if fear is becoming a motivator, think about a choice you have ahead that you have made scenarios for time and time again. How emotionally charged are the possible outcomes you are envisioning?

Now take the most emotionally charged ones and set them aside. And for the remainder, stop and ask yourself how likely that particular outcome actually is. 

Have a great week… and watch out for the stories you are telling yourself.


This article was first published on Goodness Exchange and is now being shared here in partnership with Mindvalley.

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Goodness Exchange