Fear is a bad advisor.
Actually, that’s a statement I don’t fully agree with.
There are plenty of situations in which fear is a great advisor. If you hear gunshots around the corner, it’s usually a good idea to listen to your fear and get away from them.
So I guess, more accurately, I should have written “Anticipatory anxiety can often lead us towards behavior which is conducive to unfavorable results.”. But that doesn’t make for a very catchy quote to start with.
Now that I snuck in that sentence anyway, let’s dig in 😉
What Is Anticipatory Anxiety?
Anticipatory anxiety is feeling a high level of fear about a potential future event.
The word “high” is the essential nuance here.
It is normal (and even healthy) to be concerned about potential futures to some degree. It’s also usually a good thing to take that into account when making decisions. For example:
- You worry about future health problems. You improve your diet and lifestyle habits to prevent them.
- You worry about a potential economic crisis. You put your money in specific assets to guard against inflation and depreciation.
- You worry about getting arrested again. You decide to stop running around naked on the street every time you get wasted.
These are all decisions which are advised by fear. But the fear is at such a low level that you barely even feel it. They are smart decisions. They increase your chances of having a great life. Well done, kid!
Now let’s look at these same 3 examples and see what happens if we crank those fears up a notch:
- You worry about future health problems so much that whenever you’re not doing something to prevent it, it becomes unbearable. You train with high intensity every day. You are always dieting restrictively. After years of being overtrained and underfed, you develop many health problems.
- You worry about future economical crises so much that you always seem to see the next one coming. You invest or save 80% of all the money that you make. Now you effectively live on only 20% of your income. Which means your lifestyle is affected to the same degree as if your money had dropped in value by 80%.
- You are so worried about getting arrested for indecent exposure, that you decide to take 0 risks with it. Every time a delicious human invites you to get naked with them, you stubbornly refuse to remove even your jacket or gloves. Just in case they might be an undercover cop.
As you can see, it’s not just that having intense fears about imagined futures can lead to results which we won’t like. It’s that the actions we take when we let that fear guide us, often leads to the exact results we are trying to avoid.
This is a bit counterintuitive (and delightfully ironic), so it’s important that we learn to spot those patterns.
Self-Fulfilling Fears In Your Daily Life
While the examples given in the above paragraph were a bit extreme, they served to help us expose the patterns.
This type of destructive behavior caused by anticipatory anxiety is actually common occurrence in most of our lives. It’s just hidden in dull, day to day moments. Which is why we don’t see it.
- We carry something which we’re worried about dropping / breaking. This fear makes us more shaky, so we drop it.
- We’re worried about getting sick. So we sanitize everything and lock ourselves away from every one. The lack of exposure to germs gives us a weaker immune system and the increased stress levels impact our health.
- Someone does, feels or thinks something which they believe their partner/friend/boss will disapprove of. So they hide it (either by lying, denying or simple mission). Later when this person finds out, they are much more displeased by the act of hiding than by the thing that was hidden.
- People who are afraid of confrontation will often discuss their interpersonal problems with third parties instead of the person they have a problem with. Eventually that person will confront them about being “back-talkers”.
- People who are afraid of rejection will choose not to put themselves in a position where someone else might reject them. As such they reject themselves. For example: By deciding not to talk to someone they fancy to avoid potential rejection, they effectively reject themselves as a partner for them. The rejection and shame they feel when making this decision is often worse than what they would’ve felt if the person actually rejected them.
We could go on listing examples of these, but that’s not necessary. The point is to notice the pattern:
Whenever we are so afraid of a potential future that we can’t bear NOT taking action to prevent it from happening, it’s time to stop ourselves. Because the ones advised by such an emotional state, tend to be the ones which set in motion the self-fulfilling prophecy.
How to Recognise These Patterns In Yourself
Obviously, if we were aware of these patterns, we wouldn’t engage in such behavior all the time. Yet we still do. So like most of us, it’s likely that you are doing it to some degree and are unaware of it.
One thing that hinders this awareness is that when we take such unhelpful action, we feel like we did something to “solve the problem”. This relieves our anxiety in that moment.
Later, when the situation blows up in our face, it’s not always obvious how the two are connected. It may seem like we had nothing to do with it.
One thing that has helped me a lot to become aware of these patterns in myself is:
Whenever I “randomly” find myself in a situation which just totally sucks, I ask myself:
How am I complicit in creating the conditions I don’t want?
I take a piece of paper and I write a bunch of potential answers. Usually at least 5 to 10.
Because the first ones tend to be kind of “dummy answers” where we try to trick ourselves by writing something which satisfies our need for an answer. The next ones may be answers in which we try to show ourselves how we’re taking responsibility by coming up with some things we could’ve done to prevent it. But these answers don’t reveal the underlying fear. That’s why you have to keep writing.
Eventually, you’ll discover you were trying to avoid a certain future, and it lead you to the very action which created it. You may not reach that conclusion the first times you try it. But keep practicing.
When I do get there, I often notice that the irony of the whole situation makes me feel joy, rather than guilt or shame.
So What Can We Do to Prevent This Dreaded Future Then?
If you are currently trying to avoid a potential future, reading this article may make you feel like you’re in a catch 22.
“So you’re saying that if I try to avoid this thing, it will make it happen? But if I don’t try to avoid it, won’t that also make it happen?”
Maybe. The future is uncertain. By which I don’t mean you should be fatalistic about it. I just don’t wanna lie to you: The thing you worry about may indeed still happen.
The point is also not to never do anything to avoid it from happening (remember, a certain level of concern is normal and healthy).
But when you catch yourself in a state of intense fear about it, you can start by taking a few deep breaths.
Then, remind yourself about these 2 things:
- “The fact that the future is uncertain, means that the thing I worry about is also uncertain. It is very possible that it won’t happen anyway, regardless of how much I do or do not worry.”
- “When I take decisions and actions while feeling this level of fear about it, I actually increase the chances of it happening. “
Let those 2 sentences sink in, and then firmly make the following decision:
“My first priority should not be to prevent this potential future from happening.
My first priority is to reduce the amount of fear and anxiety I feel.
Only by reducing this feeling to an acceptable level, can I turn fear into a good advisor for me.”