There’s a persistent societal view that places bravery on a pedestal while painting fear as an emotion to be overcome or suppressed. Philosophical perspectives dating back to Aristotle have labelled courage as a virtue, laying the groundwork for a cultural narrative that casts fear as morally inferior. As Nelson Mandela aptly put it, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” This widespread viewpoint inadvertently suggests that those who experience fear are not just dealing with an unfortunate state of mind but are also lacking in moral fibre.
Yet, this viewpoint leaves little room for the complexities of human emotion and experience. Not all fears can be simply categorised as irrational or unnecessary. Many arise from very real threats, such as life-altering illnesses, economic instability, or the loss of loved ones – challenges that can neither be avoided nor easily conquered. Instead of asking whether we’re brave enough to face such fears, a more nuanced question might be: How can we manage these fears constructively?
Living alongside fear
For most people, fear is an inescapable part of life’s landscape. If that’s the case, shouldn’t the conversation shift towards coexistence rather than elimination? One pathway to this coexistence is acceptance. By acknowledging our fears and letting them exist within us without overwhelming us, we move towards a state of emotional balance. This detached tranquillity allows us to continue living our lives despite the presence of fear.
If the idea of acceptance sounds overwhelming, there’s another option: coexistence. Think of fears as those annoying neighbours who always play loud music; they’re disruptive, but they don’t necessarily need to define your existence. Learning to live with your fears is a step towards emotional resilience, giving you the freedom to experience other emotions and engage more fully in life.
The community aspect of fear management
Fears are not solely personal experiences; they are shaped and nurtured within the wider context of our communities. From our early attachments in childhood to our interactions as adults, the fears we cultivate are often a reflection of the larger society. That makes fear management not just an individual task but a collective responsibility.
The societal tendency to label someone as “brave” can often be a disservice. For instance, consider families dealing with chronic illness. Assigning the label of bravery to such families negates the complexity of their emotional landscape, which often involves a delicate balance of fear, hope, despair, and courage. By acknowledging only their courage, we inadvertently dismiss their very real fears, denying them the opportunity to process those feelings in a healthy way.
Fostering a climate of emotional authenticity
The cultural narrative that encourages us to be brave at all costs can result in unhealthy coping mechanisms. When fears are routinely met with dismissal or shame, it sends a clear message: Your fears are intolerable and should be avoided. Such an environment is antithetical to emotional well-being and can lead to chronic stress, anxiety disorders, and even physical health issues.
Contrast this with a culture that validates emotional expression, including the expression of fear. In such an environment, people learn that their fears are not only tolerable but also manageable. They feel less isolated and more connected to their community, fostering a collective sense of emotional resilience.
The science of fear management
Mindfulness practices and somatic regulation offer scientific backing to the idea of managing fear through acceptance and community support. Research on mindfulness has demonstrated that the practice is not an isolated, individual endeavour. It is inherently relational, rooted in foundational relationships that allow for the expression and validation of emotions, including fear. Similarly, somatic regulation, which involves the use of physical contact to manage emotional states, shows the role of interpersonal relationships in making fears manageable.
Practical steps to foster a “fearing well” culture
If we aim to build a society that values emotional authenticity, there are several practical steps we can take:
- Educational initiatives. Integrating emotional intelligence training into educational systems can help young people recognise, understand, and manage their emotions, including fear, from an early age.
- Community support systems. Establishing community support groups where people can share their fears without judgment can go a long way in normalising the experience of fear.
- Media representation. A more nuanced portrayal of fear in media can help to break the cultural narrative that positions bravery as the only acceptable response to challenges.
- Public health campaigns. Government and healthcare organisations can run campaigns educating the public about the importance of emotional well-being, including the management of fear.
- Workplace reform. Companies can implement comprehensive emotional wellness programs, emphasise psychological safety, and encourage open communication about fear and vulnerability in the workplace. This can empower employees to bring their authentic selves to work.
Redefining the value of fear
The traditional dichotomy that sets bravery against fear is not just outdated; it’s actively harmful. As we navigate an increasingly complex world filled with existential threats, both personal and collective, it’s time to reframe our understanding of fear. Far from being a sign of weakness or moral deficiency, the ability to fear well could be our most underrated virtue. So, the next time you feel gripped by fear, remember: It’s not just okay to be afraid – it’s human. And sometimes, that’s the most courageous thing of all.
Robin Davidson, PhD is a clinical psychologist and author of “The Courage to Fear: Redefining Bravery in the 21st Century”.