The Three Fears Motivating Our Behaviour at Work
Fear goes to our very core. It is triggered when we experience any kind of pain or discomfort; our limbic brain is inherently wired to be on alert for any kind of danger. Safety is fundamental to our survival.
We’ll do anything to avoid feeling fear; it’s deeply uncomfortable – physically and emotionally. However, what we may not realise is the extent to which fear (and the ‘avoidance’ of the feeling of fear) influences our daily lives: it often motivates how we behave, how we react, how we dress, stand and talk; fear often drives our ambition, fuels our opinions and underpins our anger. And yet we are often completely oblivious to fear’s powerful influence!
Once we learn to look beyond our surface emotional reactions, we will see that almost every negative emotion and conflict we experience at work (or in life) are based on one or more of the following three most basic fears:
1. Losing Safety
The fear of the unfamiliar, losing control or being rendered powerless fuels our sense of insecurity. Being criticised or told we are wrong (real or imagined) triggers pain and discomfort – our sense of safety and security is threatened.
All too often we cover this feeling with either overt or covert rage. The indignation or rage we may express helps to give back the feeling of power and control we so much crave.
Covert indignation, commonly known as passive-aggressive behaviour (where hostility wears a mask of passivity), is the number-one source of problems found in most workplaces. Often seen as manipulation, procrastination or obstruction, underneath these behaviours lies a deep-seated fear of losing control or of being rendered powerless.
Life is insecure; safety is not a guarantee and total control is an illusion. The ironic path to security resides in the willingness to feel and accept the fear of insecurity itself.
Fundamental security develops and grows through the very willingness to be uncomfortable and to experience and stay with our fears, truly. When we ‘lean-in’ or surrender to the emotion and bring kindness to ourselves in the experience, there comes a dramatic shift, more than we could have imagined.
We are never taught how to be at home with ourselves. Most people will instinctively do anything to avoid the fear of aloneness by engaging in destructive relationships, participating in workplace gossip and exclusiveness, expecting attentiveness from those around us. Our demand for attention is in direct correlation to our neediness for someone else to assuage our loneliness and make it disappear, to alleviate our possible feelings of abandonment.
Included in the fear of aloneness is a related anxiety: the penetrative fear of disconnection. The more we relate to others from our fear-based neediness, the more we become disconnected from ourselves, our own hearts and the very people we are so desperate with whom to connect. Losing touch with our hearts creates deep disconnection.
We naturally want and expect others to take away these fears of aloneness and abandonment. However, true connection arrives when we’re prepared to concede that the fear and anxiety of aloneness is part of our own conditioning. We need to acknowledge its presence and sit with it; be willing to surrender to the deeply uncomfortable fears and feelings. We again deliver and experience kindness to ourselves with gentle admissions such as, “This is hard, this hurts.” We take responsibility for our own feelings, learning to self-nurture. We let go of the expectation that others should be protecting us from feelings and fears.
The more we face our own fear of aloneness and disconnection, the more we practise and receive true connection.
This fear may be the most pervasive and unrelenting of the three. Unworthiness is hidden in broad daylight, in meetings, in corridors, during discussions. It’s an underlying sense of general inadequacy: not good enough, fast enough, strong enough, smart enough.
Believing we’ll never measure up dictates so much of our behaviour. It compels us to prove ourselves constantly, excuse ourselves, justify our motivations and defend to our very core. It drives contempt; the insatiable need to put others down in order to feel better … just for a second! It even prompts some to stop trying altogether.
Our own self-judgement of worthiness is merciless and always lurking in the shadows. The fear of normal human errors such as making a genuine mistake in a presentation, getting something wrong, missing a deadline, appearing weak in a business negotiation, can trigger the dread of public shame and humiliation. The question is, what is really being threatened?
It seems it may well be as simple or as complex as our self-image. We feel a compelling need to portray ourselves as intelligent, capable, strong, calm under pressure, insightful, or whatever it is we want the world to see us as, or what we think we’re ‘supposed to be’. We do not want to appear as anything less because that would confirm our partially hidden negative beliefs of unworthiness.
We expend so much energy and emotion holding together the hologram we’ve created that we lose our true selves (beautifully flawed and real), we lose true intimacy in relationships and we lose our self-respect.
Ultimately, we all need to be willing to face the deepest, darkest beliefs we have about ourselves. Only then can we begin to discover the difference between a belief and the truth about who we are. We need to look willingly beyond the fiction of who we believe ourselves to be and connect with our true nature.
Please understand that, while the antidotes above sound simple, the path of true learning is rocky and the application hard. Most of us have spent years crafting our avoidance of fear, and for what we thought were good reasons.
A word of warning:
Knowing about our fears intellectually will not free us from their domination. Scientists tell us that fear is written into the cellular memory of the body, particularly into a small part of the brain called the amygdala. Every time this is triggered, we slide into a well-established groove in the brain. Until we can see our fears clearly we will continue to be oblivious to their powerful impact on our behaviours.
We all have habitual and instinctive aversions to fear, but fear itself is not the barrier. Once we are able to face our fears, and willingly let them in, they become a gateway to our authenticity.
Sources: Ezra Bayda Tricycle Teachings – Working with Emotions 2017, Brene Brown: The Gift of Imperfection 2010