How to Be an Expert Fear-Driven Person
a guide for the confused
It recently became clear to me that I’m a fear-driven person. I constantly avoid things I’m afraid of doing. If I have some project that could go in a variety of directions, I often steer it in a less scary direction—like, I make it less ambitious, or less risky. Though many of my decisions—like writing things that some other people would call brave or vulnerable—are superficially bold, they’re not that bold to me, I am just configured strangely. There are much bolder things that I’m not making, all the time. Also, for vague reasons, I am often afraid of talking to people, even people I like; I just don’t send the message I want to send, it doesn’t always seem right to say “hello.” And then I feel lonely without understanding why.
But I didn’t notice this for a long time, because I don’t feel fear frequently. And it’s weird to imagine that a dominant emotion in your life is one that’s not usually there. But this isn’t contradictory at all. Feeling fear is the mark of an amateur fear-driven person. Avoiding fear almost completely is what an expert fear-driven person does. Ideally, you should not even realize what you’re doing.
An amateur fear-driven person doesn’t try to achieve some large ambition, they just cower. But a professional fear-driven person tries, a little bit; that, after all, is less scary than never beginning, which is a truly torturous state. However, it doesn’t go much further than that. The attempt is half-hearted; there is no adjustment in the face of failure, no effort to categorically improve, an effort that would involve some self-confrontation. After all, it’s humiliating to fail when you’ve obviously put effort into something—better to sort of dither and then drift into something else. The expert fear-driven person says they really want to do something, but when they’re actually doing it, they act as if it’s a job at Starbucks they don’t care about.
An amateur fear-driven writer gets up, begins writing something scary, and then becomes petrified, imagining all of the people who will disapprove of them—so they close the document and feel bad. A professional fear-driven writer gets up, eats a large plate of tortilla chips, and, in a fog of carbohydrates, forgets what they were going to write. Or, through a feat of literary ingenuity, they tweak the scary thing into something cute and anodyne that will offend nobody. There is a nagging dissatisfaction that follows this process, but it can be drowned out by watching some long YouTube video, which, who knows, might make a great essay subject one day.
It can also be the case that, for the expert fear-driven person, the process of avoiding fear can look like the savvy consideration of alternatives. Before we so rashly jump into this difficult enterprise, let’s consider how we could use our time better instead. This search for the optimal decision can go on for months and can yield a great deal of superficial knowledge, which can even masquerade as hard-won expertise. For example, the expert fear-driven person might know a huge array of facts about various forms of exercise without ever having done any of them—because research just so happened to reveal that none of them were precisely right for the fear-driven person’s needs.
The expert fear-driven person often finds that they have nothing to say, or imagines that, in the past, they were full of passion, but now, in the present, are blank inside. This is true, in a sense. They have cleverly learned to integrate social desirability bias into their inner editorial process. Every day, a thousand yearnings, suspicions, and hunches creep across their mind, but anything a little aberrant is wiped out instantly. Moments of passion are brief, and the passion is expressed stiltedly; the important thing is to maintain control. They come off as agreeable because they bury their demands; sometimes, for this reason, their relationships are relatively frictionless until they mysteriously implode.
There are a lot of inner drives that are intense and can be repugnant: the longing for distinction, or the sour brightness of envy. The expert fear-driven person can head them off before they even present themselves, with whatever distraction or defusing mechanism is necessary; Twitter can handle most of the undesirable edges of the human personality.
The way out of this is infuriatingly obvious: learning to accept fear as an ongoing presence, even learning to invite it in, like a strange neighborhood dog that requires feeding. Learning that fear doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, it just means that you’re doing something more than the absolute minimum. Getting used to the taste of fear, how it sits just so in the mouth. This is corny and simplistic and feels corny and simplistic to say. But that, too, is a deflection—overcomplicating your problems, or thinking that you are above the common wisdom, is a classic scared person move.
An expert fear-driven person doesn’t typically end their life in ruin. Typically, total ruin requires really bold decisions: quitting your job to do something crazy or trying an injectable drug. Instead, a more casual kind of ruin is likely. You know—half-fulfilling social life, lots of TV, lallygagging through pastimes that used to bring occasional excitement but are now maintained for the mere sake of avoiding stillness and quiet. Something that can be mistaken for comfort if you squint at it.
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