Seeing the best in life's challenges

The Gift of Fear

on January 31, 2012

A friend gave me this book by Gavin de Becker sometime in 2007.  I know it was then because I finished reading it while visiting friends in Alameda that fall.

I was initially a little hesitant about the book, because the title seems to say that fear is a good thing, and I happen to think overcoming fear is really important.  But what I found, is that this book provides a really good analysis of the subject.  Some of what we call fear is extremely important to us, and some can be very counter-productive.

The scenario described in the beginning of the book, from the perspective of a young boy facing a scary situation, is really powerful.  De Becker has a seemingly natural ability to remained detached and unemotional when examining situations that would evoke powerful reactions from most people.  He has taken this ability and turned it into a very successful business, a “consulting firm that advises at-risk individuals on situations that might escalate to violence.”

(About the same time, I read the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  There were some interesting overlaps in content, and I still sometimes forget what was in which book.)

The book points out that certain fears are good for us.   They help us to survive.  These are the bad feelings we get in our gut, when we are experiencing a situation or interacting with a person.

It also lists behaviors to look for, that are warning signs of impending violence.  To me these were recognizable signs of manipulative behavior.

Society teaches us rules, what we should and shouldn’t do.  Unfortunately, we are not taught to listen to our instincts or to trust ourselves.  In particular, many women are taught to be nice, to get along, not to create conflict no matter what.  Women, especially when it comes to interactions with men, learn to ignore their instincts and fear signals.

We’re talking about our built-in “shit detector” as a friend of mine calls it.

De Becker also talks about the fears that are not useful to us.  The fear of something that MIGHT happen or the expectation that bad things are coming — this is not useful fear, it is really anxiety and worry.  And anxiety and worry only distort our ability to take advantage of the gift of true fear.

For me, becoming more aware about the differences between real fear, and worry and anxiety is really helpful, especially in how I decide to raise my kids.  I’m a huge fan of Lenore Skenazy and her book Free Range Kids.  (That’s another topic I’ll have to write about…)

De Becker’s analysis is directly applicable to how we teach our kids to protect themselves.  The “helicopter” parents, who do everything to try to protect their kids from what MIGHT happen are really full of anxiety and worry, not true fear.  Unwittingly, they cripple the very children they are trying to protect, by teaching them to be anxious and worry about possibilities, rather than empowering them to recognize true fear by listening to their instincts.


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