Mapping my own fears to this framework
Over the past year, I’ve spent more time thinking about fear than I did in the first 35 years of my life. In hindsight, many of my decisions and habits (which ultimately brought me a lot “success,” by traditional benchmarks) were fear-based — completely unbeknownst to me.
Fear seems like a taboo topic, especially from the vantage point of privileged male. We crave logic and control — yet the reality of life is its impermanence and our inability to control much that we seek.
I gravitate towards frameworks, as they abstract away much of the noise, giving clarity to complex topics. Great writers and teachers (a group that I am not a part of) are able to distill these teachings into simple and relatable components, which led me to reflect on the chart above.
I thought it would be a fun (yes, my definition of fun is pretty warped these days) exercise to think about what that hierarchy looks for me. So I’ll begin with the fear(s) that I cannot relate to, working my way up to the ones that ring true every single day in my monkey mind.
Mutilation (least dominant fear)
I’m not really feeling this one, but it probably needs a definition itself. Life would undoubtedly change were I to lose limbs or become blind/deaf, but many of these feel vain or surmountable. And while they would constrain my ability to live the life I want to live with my loved ones, I feel much more protective of my brain and “knowledge” than certain physical experiences. There is also a sort of acceptance that with aging much of this will occur naturally.
As I write this, I am realizing that it’s not black and white. Mutilation shows up in “extinction” (if am unable to work, then my family and I will suffer) and ego-death (how will others perceive me if, if I look different).
Autonomy (second least dominant fear)
This feels closely related to Mutilation, as it implies reliance on others to take care of you. So many of the same arguments above are still applicable. For me personally, I’ve felt the Autonomy fear manifest itself with respect to “work.”
Specifically, I’m really enjoying the freedom and autonomy that I currently am blessed with. An office close to home, the ability to participate in my daughter’s activities, my own dress code, and work hours. I also enjoy the autonomy of not having to be accountable to clients, investors, or colleagues.
(I would note that this comes at a high “cost” as well, notably loneliness and lack of scale for your ideas).
I cringe thinking about a return to a world where I am tethered to my BlackBerry, forced to use Windows, and have countless internal meetings to attend. This is where I see the Autonomy fear kick in — with a slight caveat, there’s likely some Ego-Death interspersed there.
I’ll evaluate this from two perspectives: the past and the present.
In the past, I was a very shy, skinny, and nerdy kid, who lived a very sheltered existence. For much of my pre-college life, I had a deep sense of separation, mostly that I would end up alone (i.e. never find love) for the rest of my life. I think that this is partially pubescent teenage angst, that in many ways I outgrew — but the traces of this are still very present in my everyday life.
Currently, this fear is around losing loved ones — daughter, wife and nuclear family. It might sound strange, but I don’t actively fear this, but as we all age (and put bluntly, the rate at which death appears continually increases) it does constantly hum in the background. I guess the the separation is not as scary, as I feel like I would “just deal” but the fear of grief overpowers.
That being said, I don’t actively think about plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and other more “random” forms of separation. One part of me says that it’s a just part of the randomness of life and the other that given one can’t control outcomes so why “fear fear itself?”
Ego-Death (second most dominant fear)
Now here’s where it gets spicy. Here is where lies failure, aging/decreasing physicality, maintaining status and much much more. Much of my adult life was seeking to control all of these. This is one of the reasons why I worked so hard, was relentless on a pursuit of self-improvement and always challenging myself physically. More bluntly (and shallowly), I wanted to win the game of life, whatever the hell that means.
Much of my current journey has been shedding this fear. The labels and expectations from others, but also the pressures (and ensuing judgement) that I put on myself. At first I wanted to “prove” to people what I was capable of as an entrepreneur. And don’t get me wrong, this feeling resurfaces often (usually when I tell myself that I want to build a consumer-facing business) — but I also have a much better dialogue with this ambition, and am more intentional about the way in which I want to live my life.
Extinction (Most dominant fear)
I’ve consistently written about my fear of being broke and my own death. Let’s evaluate each one.
My fear of being broke is smack-on one of extinction. It is a genuine fear that something will happen (either bad decisions, but more likely exogenous events, like Mutilation) and I will be unable to provide for my family and we will be broke and homeless.
While nothing is impossible, this dire scenario is virtually impossible. For starters, I have various types of insurance. But more pragmatically, I am employable and live modestly (but still expensive, by non-NY standards) and no debt. I think the fear here is more that I would be forced to take a job that isn’t consistent with how I want to live my life and I would be either unhappy (Autonomy) and/or ashamed (Ego-Death).
It’s really important to notice this, as it’s probably the case for most readers of this post.
Let me re-state: Most of us (i.e. “privileged readers of Medium”) will not become extinct. Full stop. We may have to take a job that doesn’t suit us and/or be embarrassed about it, but it is critical to notice that these are VERY DIFFERENT FEARS.
And my own “so-called fear of death” — well it’s closely related to extinction, but if I peel it back a bit, it’s more “the fear of not having lived a meaningful life.” Which is clearly not extinction and likely Ego as we typically let others define what meaning stands for. This is why it’s paramount for each individual (and family unit) to define success on their own terms.
It’s an uncomfortable argument, but if I am addressing a privileged audience, it’s pretty safe to say that the extinction fear is off the table. As we move up the ranks of privilege (and in parallel, Maslow’s hierarchy) our fears move up in “enlightenment” to those in our own minds. And if we can discern and converse with these fears, then what a great first step in unshackling ourselves from the debilitating fear of fear.