You know what would be awful? Being chased to the edge of a cliff by a hungry lion. You’d be faced with a choice between two terrifying ends. How would you choose?
You probably wouldn’t, at least consciously. Even as you read this in perfect safety, with all the time in the world, you might not be able to choose whether you’d rather end up as a lead balloon or a chew toy.
But the most primitive parts of your brain probably have a preference. In the last moment, your reptilian brain would opt for whichever option was slightly less terrifying for you: jump or stay put.
Fortunately, we’re rarely faced with such a stark, no-win survival situation.
But feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place? That happens all the time. And those states can elicit similar, primitive responses. Fear is there, and people become fixated on it, or even unwittingly magnify it. When we’re preoccupied with, or frozen by it, we make bad decisions, or do nothing—which is also a decision.
In these situations, orienting toward our long-term well-being and reconnecting with our deepest, most human drives can help us break the tie and move forward.
When there’s a clear choice and we’re still afraid
Sometimes fear and stuck-ness appear even when we’re facing a choice in which one option is clearly best.
A longtime reader of mine, whom I’ll call Jill, recently wrote to me seeking guidance in the midst of a difficult situation. (She gave me permission to write about this in an article.) Jill has a young son who is dealing with some medical problems that required two minor surgeries.
She said that when the doctors were explaining the procedures and the potential risks, she was quick to accept them and authorize the surgeries. However, now the date of the surgery was approaching, and she was beginning to worry. Her son has asthma, and general anesthesia can be risky when you have that condition.
But the doctors had informed her that the risk was relatively minor. Plus, he needed the surgeries, no question, in order to avoid future health problems. She wasn’t considering calling off the surgeries, but she was wrestling with mounting fear and anxiety as the date approached. Quite naturally, right?
Often the best thing to do is scary. This makes fear an unreliable indicator when it comes to decision-making. You probably know this already, from doing good-but-frightening things yourself. What you may not know is that sometimes fear is an apparition.
Fear doesn’t necessarily mean threat
Let’s clear up a common confusion about fear (as eminent fear researcher Joseph LeDoux does more technically here).
Since threats and fear often appear at the same time, we come to think of them as joined together. That is, if we feel afraid, there must be a legitimate threat that we should move away from. But that’s actually not the way it works in our brains.
The human brain, like every animal’s, is adept at threat assessment. That occurs in the amygdala—our primitive, reptilian brain. When it detects threat, it energizes us with a physical response, like a racing heartbeat or aggression. It’s the fight, flight, or freeze response.
We don’t even need to be aware of a threat in order for our amygdala to pick up on it and react to it. We know this because being exposed to threatening things subliminally can produce the same reactions.
But those physical reactions in and of themselves are not fear. The emotion that you experience as fear is produced higher up in the brain, in the cerebral cortex. That part of your brain notices the physical reaction to a threat and then attempts to make sense of it, or justify it.
It reaches the conclusion to be afraid, to dismiss the threat, or acknowledge it and move forward bravely by drawing upon memories and potential futures, blended with beliefs about ourselves or the world. These are thoughts, and the thing about thoughts is that they are not necessarily rational or true. We can’t always believe what we think.
It’s this subjective aspect of fear that makes it so unreliable in decision-making. Often, when we face a fork in the road, both paths are frightening in some way.
It’s important in these situations to acknowledge your fears and then put them on trial.
Make the case for and against them, as a prosecutor and defense attorney might. You’ll see which argument holds more water, and then you’ll have a decision to make.
I’ll demonstrate with a story of my own.
Years ago, I had a career in business that was successful but unfulfilling. That’s actually putting it mildly. I was quite afraid that I was squandering my talents and my life, really, in the wrong line of work.
I’d spent years doing research and “experiments” in my own life that would later form the basis for the Right Life Project, but my day job remained the same. In the meantime, I moonlighted as a crisis line operator. I was testing the waters to see how it would feel to help people for a living.
Well, helping people felt much better—much more right for me—than investing in hotels. I’d already brought the other aspects of my life into alignment with my core self and, before long, it became clear that I’d need to do the same with my work life.
Leaving my finance career to help people full-time would give me the sense of purpose, and the satisfaction and freedom of living authentically, that had been escaping me as I sat at my desk.
But, on the other hand, I was terrified of giving up what I had. I enjoyed a life of material comfort and financial security, and (relatively speaking, these days) job security. I was being chased by the lion of stagnation and unfulfillment toward the cliff of the unknown. I was beset by fears that took the form of thoughts like:
“You only know how to do finance. Who are you kidding?”
“You won’t be able to help anyone.”
“You’re going to fail, and feel like a fool. And there won’t be any going back. You’ll have screwed yourself.”
The thoughts themselves were real and powerful, but were they rational? I did some reality testing.
Was it realistic to think that I wouldn’t be able to help anyone, and could only work in finance? No, I was already helping people on the crisis line, as well as people who came to me for guidance in my spare time.
And I realized that I was successful in business because of my smarts and work ethic, not because of a genetic predisposition to negotiating hotel transactions. I could deploy these strengths—plus others that I wasn’t currently putting to work—in a number of different directions.
I’d be firing on all cylinders in my calling, so the likelihood of complete failure seemed remote. And even if I did fail, if push had really come to shove, I could have always returned to the finance industry.
What about the fear of feeling like a fool? Well, I was making a well-thought-out decision, not a rash one. Plus, I respected people who invest their life in things they believe in. So, even if the going was tough at first, I’d probably feel proud of myself, not foolish, for pursuing my dream of helping people.
So, there was little evidence supporting my primitive fears of risk and the unknown. What about the fears of stagnating and wasting my life?
Well, those were pretty valid. How could I argue with the everpresent feelings of disengagement with my life as a businessman, and full aliveness as a helper? And the reality that if nothing changed, nothing was going to change?
So, yes, my primitive brain was detecting threats. But it turns out that only one set of fears—of being stuck in unfulfillment—were valid. The others were built on a weak foundation of insecurity and self-doubt, which crumbled when exposed to truth.
What you prioritize makes all the difference
Double-checking your fear-based thoughts is only half of the equation, though. The other half is determining whether there is something more important that you want to move toward.
My career change boiled down to a choice between avoiding the uncertainty of change, and moving toward long-term growth, freedom, and happiness. But enough about me. Let’s consider some other examples.
Some people are petrified of speaking up in a group of 10 people in a staff meeting, so they don’t. I’ve known people whose careers have ground to a halt because they made that choice.
Other people, like Adele, for instance, make careers of singing for stadiums full of people despite sometimes having crippling stage fright. I suspect she feels it’s more important to exercise her unique talents in her singing career than to avoid jitters.
My reader, Jill, made a similar decision. She decided to provide her son with the surgeries he needed for a long, healthy life, rather than avoiding the slim chance of complications. (He came through the surgeries with flying colors, by the way.)
It’s up to each of us—and no one else—to decide which part of ourselves to incline toward. And a decision isn’t just a thought, but a thought coupled with an action.
That action can be moving through difficulty to clear new paths outside of our comfort zone. Or it can be planting our feet, even as the vines snake up around our ankles.
Your core self as tiebreaker
The part to incline toward is your “core self”: your unique fingerprint of our uniquely human needs and abilities. Satisfying and exercising those makes us happy humans.
Those needs and abilities are housed in the higher-order, cortical parts of the brain; so is our ability to rejoice or suffer when they’re met and exercised, or not.
The meaning-making process that can produce or resolve fear happens up there, too. Your cerebral cortex is able to consider your long-term well-being as a human, and thus operates on an altogether different plane from your reptilian brain.
It’s your core self that wants to speak up in a meeting even if you’re nervous, so you can build confidence and competence in your vocation.
It’s your core self that wants to take your son for surgery even if you’re worried about it. To be open and honest with your partner in a relationship, even if you feel vulnerable doing that. To try new things that you may need to practice before becoming good at.
Your reptilian brain would prefer to veto all of these decisions, because they don’t feel safe, easy, and pleasurable right now, thank you very much. For that reason, fear actually can be a valuable factor in decision-making if you realize that the things you’re most afraid of are often the things your core self is cheering for.
So, you might say that the bad news of your quest for a meaningful, energetic, and deeply happy life—your Right Life—is that you’ll be tested repeatedly.
Over and over, you’ll face fear, and you'll be called to leave the comfort of the status quo. In fact, if it isn’t difficult and uncomfortable sometimes, you’re not doing it right.
There’s a lot of good news, though. For one thing, you’ll rarely regret taking the most difficult choice—and you can’t say the same for consistently taking the easy way out.
For another, exercising the muscles of the wisest part of you gets easier the more you do it. It gets addictive, too, as you develop a taste for the short-term joy of taking a stand for yourself in the long run.
You’ll be on the path to radical transformation, naturally converting fear to enjoyable suspense. And the next time you feel you’re being chased off a cliff by a lion, you might realize something that you’ve overlooked before: that you have wings.