President Franklin Roosevelt famously asserted, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." I think he was right, actually. Fear of fear probably causes more problems in life than fear. That claim needs a bit of explaining. Fear has a bad reputation among most human beings. Fear is not nearly as complicated as we try to make it. A simple and useful definition of fear can be an anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience.
Medical experts tell that the anxious feeling we get when we are afraid is a standardized biological reaction. It is pretty much the same set of body signals, whether we are afraid of getting bitten by a dog, getting turned down for a date, or getting our taxes audited. Fear, like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding if we choose to accept it of our psychobiological status.
There are only five basic fears, out of which almost all of our other so-called fears are manufactured. Those five basic fears are extinction, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and ego-death.
Think about the various common labels we put on our fears. Start with the easy ones: fear of heights or falling is basically fear of extinction, possibly accompanied by significant mutilation, but that is sort of secondary. Fear of failure? Read it as fear of ego-death. Fear of rejection? It is fear of separation, and probably also fear of ego-death. The terror many people have at the idea of having to speak in public is basically fear of ego-death. Fear of intimacy or fear of commitment is basically fear of losing one’s autonomy.
Some other emotions we know by various popular names are also expressions of these primary fears. If you track them down to their most basic levels, the basic fears show through. Jealousy, for example, is an expression of the fear of separation, or devaluation. At the extreme, it can express the fear of ego-death. Envy works the same way. Shame and guilt express the fear or the actual condition of separation and even ego-death. The same is true for embarrassment and humiliation.
Fear is often the base emotion on which anger floats. Oppressed peoples rage against their oppressors because they fear or actually experience loss of autonomy and even ego-death. The destruction of a culture or a religion by an invading occupier may be experienced as a kind of collective ego-death. Those who make us fearful will also make us angry.
Religious bigotry and intolerance may express the fear of ego-death on a cosmic level, and can even extend to existential anxiety. Some of our fears, of course, have basic survival value. Others, however, are learned reflexes that can be weakened or re-learned.
That strange idea of "fearing our fears" can become less strange when we realize that many of our avoidance reactions like turning down an invitation to a party if we tend to be uncomfortable in groups; putting off the doctor’s appointment; or not asking for the raise are instant reflexes that are reactions to the memories of fear. They happen so quickly that we don’t actually experience the full effect of the fear. We experience a micro-fear; a reaction that is a kind of shorthand code for the real fear. This reflex reaction has the same effect of causing us to evade and avoid as the real fear. This is why it is fairly accurate to say that many of our so-called fear reactions are actually the fears of fears.
When we let go of our notion of fear as the welling up of evil forces within us – the Freudian motif – and begin to see fear and its companion emotions as basically information, we can think about them consciously. More clearly and calmly we can articulate the origins of the fear, the less our fears frighten us and control us.