Never strive to eliminate fear from your life – fear is healthy!

Published March 21, 2016   Posted in How to Think

If there is one thing that these insipid self-help seminars teach us, it’s that fear is somehow holding us back. Fear is like a bottleneck that stands between us and our goals, and the elimination of fear enables us to reach those goals.


Removing fear allows us to achieve the impossible. Without fear, we can walk across hot embers (aka, “fire walking”) without flinching or shards of glass without a single cut to the bottom of our feet.

Having no fear means we are free to explore our world with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind, leaving us with no other choice but to kick so much ass in virtually every facet of our life. There isn’t anything that we can’t do.

Get the hell out of my way, fear! You suck. I’m awesome.

Except for one thing…fear is one of the healthiest emotions in existence and one that humans have used for thousands of years to stay alive. It keeps us safe. It gives us confidence. In many ways, fear is empowering.

We want fear. Fear is a critical element to our very livelihoods. What we don’t want is for fear to overtake our lives.

The key is to control fear, not eliminate it

I wrote in my shitty happiness piece a few weeks ago of the virtues of not giving a shit about the trials and tribulations of life that we consider being “problems”. The fear of charging full steam ahead after your dream job, asking for that promotion or, hell, quitting your full-time work for a lifetime of early retirement happiness all fits nicely into this category.

We learn in self-help seminars that once we eliminate our fears, we create an environment ripe for success. But, that is not always the case.

Fear is healthy.

After all, fear keeps us from creeping a little too close to the edge of a cliff. Fear also stops us from walking straight into the middle of an out-of-control mob in the street while yelling at the top of your lungs that they are all full of shit. You’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’ doing something stupid like that.

Fear keeps us from quitting our jobs without a viable alternative. Healthy fear is akin to reason and sensibility. It is one of the most natural emotions that any living creature possesses.

The self help-inspired “we can achieve the impossible!” fantasy is neither a safe nor healthy state of mind. In fact, it can be downright devastating. Fear keeps us from attempting the impossible.

That said, it is true that many people do have an unhealthy relationship with fear. The fear of failure is a powerful emotion that legitimately keeps us from reaching our full potential. Even the fear of success stops many of us from elevating our careers, hobbies or goals.

It’s true, some people let fear sabotage their lives.

The solution should never include the elimination of fear. Instead, fear needs to be controlled so it does not become unhealthy. A belief in these “I can do anything” fantasies often create unrealistic expectations about life and can very often destroy our ability to properly reason and approach our lives with a sound mind. Worse, this belief is only temporary anyway, just like losing weight through pills and radical diets instead of sensible lifestyle changes and exercise.

Fear is good, but it needs to be controlled. How do we do that?

How to control your fears

Let’s use early retirement as our example fear. It is only natural to be fearful of quitting your job – especially without any intention of getting another one. Will my savings actually hold up? What if the stock market tanks? What if I under-estimated my expenses? What if a hurricane levels my house and forces me to start over? What if…what if…what if…

Controlling your fears can be broken down into three basic steps:

1. Understand that we cannot control everything – Despite our best (and worst) efforts, there are circumstances in life that we cannot control.

2. Determine the risk that you are willing to accept – What if things do not work out as you expected? What are the consequences?

3. Make a yes/no decision and stick to it – there are no “maybes” – Once a decision has been made, we no longer have fear. Fear is very much connected with anticipation, and the longer that we anticipate, the longer we feel a sense of fear.

Perhaps better said – the quicker we make a decision, the sooner we achieve fearlessness.

Once we accept the fact that we can’t control absolutely everything in our lives, we begin to open up our minds a bit more to charging forward with goals that might seem fearful, especially early retirement. We cannot control the stock market. We cannot control getting sick or suffering expensive medical conditions. Sometimes, we are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It happens.

If we let this fear control us, we’d never leave our homes. We would never drive a car (okay, THAT might be a good thing), scuba dive, skydive, jet ski, ride a motorcycle or anything else outside of sitting on our couch and taking in another episode of The View (is that show still on?).

When we understand that things happen, our ability to manage our fears becomes much easier.

We also understand that things can go wrong, and if they do, what happens? Can we recover? Are there safeguards to help us when things do not go exactly as planned? In early retirement, passive forms of income is a popular safeguard. The ability to downsize into a smaller and less expensive homestead is another. How about reigning back our lifestyle for a while by cooking at home more or canceling our premium HD cable television service?

The more risk we are willing to take, the easier it gets to overcome fears. And likewise, safeguards help put our minds at ease. But remember, our fears are what build these safeguards. Healthy fears keep us sane.

And lastly, being undecided is like tossing gasoline on a bonfire. It only makes things worse, and fear tends to grow in intensity the more we let it fester within us. Luckily, making a decision and sticking to it has a powerful way of eliminating our sense of fear. The decision has been made. We’re going for it. I’m retiring in a year come hell or high water, damn it. It’s done.

In other words, we are taking control of our minds during this process.

Bringing it all together…

Now, let’s put this together and apply it to our early retirement scenario. Naturally, we are fearful of the unknown. There are all kinds of what ifs involved and we can’t know exactly what the future is going to bring us. We can’t control what the stock market is going to do with our investments. That is okay. After all, nobody can control what the stock market does with their investments, so I’m in good company.

I am willing to accept risk in early retirement. Hell, I have to accept risk. Retiring at 35 is a risky endeavor. My safeguard, built through healthy fear, is flexibility and a willingness to work camp a bit more, reduce our expenses or even pick up some part-time work every now and then. It’s cool. I also know that nothing is permanent. If things REALLY go to shit, we park somewhere and find some work. Big deal.

If things don’t go exactly right, I find a way to make them right. Opportunities abound in this country and nothing is ever permanent.

Lastly, the decision has definitely been made. I’m done by the end of the year. I don’t care what the market does. Let it crash. I’ll buy cheap stocks. Let it rise, I’ll bask in the glory of capital gains. Whatever it does, I’m good, because I have made the decision to retire. No more maybes.

For us, early retirement is not cloaked in fear.

We know the risks. We have prepared the best we can. The decision has been made and we will try our very best to make it happen. Boom – done. It really is that simple.

Oh, one last thing. Fire walking is a common ritual with thousands of years of history, and walking across embers – which are poor conductors of heat – is a very easy thing to do.

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21 responses to “Never strive to eliminate fear from your life – fear is healthy!”

  1. Fear is a fabulous motivator. And helps us err on the side of conservative rather than diving into risk all the time. And yes, that is a super creepy picture!

    • Steve says:

      I agree, Maggie – it’s one of the best motivators that exist in my humble opinion. In a very real way it keeps us all honest and on the straight-and-narrow. Sometimes, we humans need that! 🙂

  2. amber tree says:

    Fear is everywhere! Nothing is safe or sure or for granted. That is indeed basic fact of life we need to accept.

    In some cases, we can deal with it very well: our health is one such an example, driving a car, having a so called stable job.

    And then there is the fear we have more: Is it safe to trust the 4pct withdrawal rule, is it safe to change job (my mom ask me that each time) is it safe to go freelance (ongoing discussion with my wife).

    So, kudos to you for making the jump! mine is planned for 2029

    • Steve says:

      Wonderfully stated, and I agree completely. The reality of life is nothing is guaranteed, and those who refuse to accept that do so at their own peril.

      Congrats for establishing your escape date. It’s a truly awesome goal to work towards!

  3. Learning to let go of what I can’t control is huge for me. I’m slowing working on shedding some of my perfectionism, as I blogged about last week 🙂 It’s a constant battle, though.

    • Steve says:

      It was a huge thing for me as well, Penny. Especially right out of collage, I had a very strange sense of “I need to control everything”, and that very seriously clouded the way that I looked at life. It’s a constant battle, for sure! 🙂

  4. Chuck says:

    I’m a big fan of this quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

    “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    I’ve always interpreted that as meaning that we shouldn’t seek to eliminate or avoid fear. The trick is to learn to control it and use it to our advantage. As you said, it’s been essential to human survival and there’s a very good reason that we still have it.

    Excellent post.

  5. James says:

    Great topic. No doubt that fear can be a useful tool. My experience has been fear helps me with my focus. It helps to identify what the issue/problem is and identify potential courses of action. The lack of fear, or a challenging environment, has the potential of taking away the edge, making someone too fat and too happy.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, James. I can definitely see where fear can help keep focus and shooting towards a reasonable and achievable target. Excellent point.

  6. I like this, fear should be recognized, acknowledged, appreciated, interpreted, etc. Just see it’s relevance and not be paralyzed or controlled by it.

    Harness it and use it, or move forward in spite of it.

    Great Article

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Steven, appreciate your kind words. Hardness and use it, absolutely. Those who don’t do so at their own peril. Thanks again for reading!

  7. Such a good topic! The thing I struggle the most with is that I like to take on all of these fears so that I can always be super prepared for basically anything, and can have as many contingencies in place as the situations warrant. BUT, it’s tough to face that stuff head-on without also sort of wallowing in the fear itself. A balance I’m still working on!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks ONL! It’s very true that this is all a balancing act. I can definitely tell that you are a very prepared person and want to make sure your bases are covered. Nothing wrong with that! My wife is the same way. I probably need to work on covering MORE of my own bases. 🙂

  8. Love this post, Steve! I agree. Fear can be healthy but often people let it grow uncontrolled into limiting beliefs. I wish our school system taught our young ones more about emotional intelligence in general and strategies on how to overcome fears that limit our potential.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Michael. There is a lot that I wish our school system taught our youngsters. This is one of those things. Basic compound interest is another. 🙂

  9. I loved it Steve.

    You captured the basic premise and challenge we face in pulling the trigger already and just retiring!

    • Steve says:

      Yup, it’s that level of anxiety that keeps us from jumping. But with very few exceptions, we tend to appreciate the fact that we jumped in the end. 🙂

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