Fear, Self, and Thriving


Noticing, knowing, and understanding are the source of wisdom. Wisdom is a special kind of insight that informs good judgment and guides right action. This “wisdom effect” holds for almost anything in our field of experience, even (or especially) the things that evoke fear and cause us to question ourselves.

The wisdom and insight that arise from noticing-knowing-and-understanding may be implied in Nietzsche’s words, “what does not kill you, makes you stronger.” It is even more explicit in the less dramatic language of our own John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In any case, the specific turn of mind that enables us to generate this insight stems first from a distinct attitude. It’s one of “looking with fresh eyes.” It steps out of and shakes off the negative mood and attitude that travel with fear. It frees us to see what the fear is about. It’s an attitude of dispassionate curiosity.

The Guest House 2.jpg

This attitudinal turn of mind (not mere intellect) is aptly described by the Persian poet, Rumi, in Guest House. He suggests that we treat all “unexpected visitors” (feelings and concerns) as guests. We are to welcome even our troubled feelings as messengers, for “each has been sent.” They come bearing purpose and meaning.

For many, fear is among the most poignant of debilitating feelings, especially when we awaken to its grip upon us in the morning. Our immediate thought is, “How unbearable. I must get away from this, gain control over it!” The flight response. Of course, it does not work, at least not for long.

Welcoming Fear (the leap of faith)

Especially when our fears and worries become recurrent and disruptive, we must ask ourselves “What have I got to lose by welcoming them as guests who may have a message for me?” In the mere asking the possibility of an attitude shift emerges. It’s aims is humble: “Let me simply see what this is really about. That surely will not 'kill' me, to invoke Nietzsche, and perhaps I’ll learn something.” Rather immediately the feared object becomes bearable as an object of reflection.

What’s happened affectively? Moments earlier fear possessed me, bodily, mentally, emotionally. Now, as it’s transformed into an object of reflection, it softens into lower-intensity anxiety. And as I begin to examine it, it reveals itself more fully. I notice prejudgments, assumptions, and beliefs, many of which now look rather exaggerated and out of proportion, that explain the alarm I felt. In this new light, their absolute facticity and truth become suspect.

The self I was then – overwhelmed, in jeopardy – turns out to be a momentary “state” of being. The tragic, ill-fated trajectory I imagined was only one possibility. I may properly feel challenged by the issues and concerns that emerge from reflection, but I may also find reason to frame them differently, to address them rationally, and to seek help to support my efforts. We discover that a big part of the intensity with which fears register is attributable to the cloak of secrecy that hides them.

The fearful, worried self is often a self in isolation – even if others are physically nearby. When fears grow and are concealed as a regular means of coping, we lose perspective. We may find justification for buffering and re-framing a challenge that might otherwise overwhelm those we lead. However, we can err in overestimating our personal capacity to bear such worries, and we can underestimate the capacity of others to cope and help solve our problems.


By mindfully opening ourselves to experience, we’re better positioned to notice, know, and understand. Noticing concerns registration, it’s our sensory capacity to recognize what registers as noteworthy. It includes that which deviates from the familiar, manageable, bumps in the road. We feel it before we know it. But when we notice what we feel, we can immediately treat it as something important to know, to specify for what it is. And as we come to know it in this way, understanding (of implications) deepens.

In arriving at this changed relationship to the feared object, we recognize our malleable capacity for adaptive learning, growth, and development. Our narrative self is anchored in a stock of knowledge. It projects our intentions and conditions our perceptions and actions. Vital self, on the other hand, is much less obtrusive, it's who we are as a live, experiencing subject. It is us as we awaken and evolve in the face of new demands and challenges, and as we discover the limitations of the narrative self.

In this way, vital self thrives and narrative self is continually updated – “Every morning a new arrival.” The settled ways of knowing and understanding (narrative self) provide stability and continuity until they don’t. At that point, we may find that we come up short on ways to adapt. In its more acute form, we feel this moment as fear. It may not feel like a welcome guest initially, but as we notice it rather than act on a flight response, it will tell us what we need to know and understand to thrive.