Column: The fear of fear

Phobophobia is a phobia which is defined as the fear of phobias, or the fear of fear, which includes intense anxiety and unrealistic and persistent fear of the somatic sensations and the feared phobia ensued. Phobophobia can also be defined as the fear of phobias or fear of developing a phobia. It differentiates itself from other kind of phobias by the fact that there is no environmental stimulus per se, but rather internal dreadful sensations similar to psychological symptoms of panic attacks.

Here’s a brain twister: The fear of fear. As if it’s not enough to be afraid of something, especially since there are a lot of phobias to be afraid of.

Anyhow, if you are afraid of being afraid, make sure you still look good.

It sounds poetic, though, and like its positive-emotion twin cousin, “being in love with being in love”, it detaches the emotions from the actual stimulus, and takes the feeling to meta levels.

The most famous use of the expression can be found in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inaugural address in the middle of the Great Depression, on March 4, 1933 when he said, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

The key word in Roosevelt’s insightful and elegant sentence is “paralyzes.” That’s what fear of fear does to us. It makes us tentative and self-conscious. It makes us stop and think, and not in the good way. It makes us weak.

Instead of going with the flow, doing things the way we can, and trusting our instincts, we start to second-guess our actions. We get nervous and we overanalyze. In sports, that’s called “choking.”

A superstar basketball player misses a free throw with three seconds remaining. An unnamed hockey team – fine, Team Finland – loses a three-goal lead in the third period of a World Championship final. A swimmer makes a mistake in the final turn of an Olympic final. Not because they forget how to play or swim, but because they start to think, which slows them down. They paralyze.

On the other hand, when a skydiver realizes his parachute hasn’t opened, he doesn’t choke. He panics. He forgets everything he’s been taught about the situation, starts to do too much, and in the process, just the same, he, too, makes stupid mistakes.

“Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart,” writes Malcolm Gladwell, the author of “Tipping Point”, and “Blink”.

When a businessman, a leader, suffers from the fear of fear, he chokes. His decision-making takes time and he can’t even delegate. And then, determined to show the world that he surely is a man of action, he panics.

First he can’t act, and then he does too much.

First he (or she) doesn’t trust his (or her) intuitions, and then he’s too busy acting and doing things, and can’t hear his intuition anymore.

Intuition? Guesswork? Hunches? Gut feelings? Isn’t that … unprofessional?

Even if “charisma”, the word, has its origin in the Greek word charis (“grace”) and charizesthai (“to show favor”), and a belief that a talent has been granted by the divine, charismatic leaders aren’t simply born with it. And when they’re trying to make a decision about whether to invest or divest, they’re not just throwing darts on a board.

Sure, sometimes it’s a guess – what do we really know for sure – but it’s an educated one.

You are the leader that you are, thanks to all your experience in business, and all your knowledge of your company and your customers. That, together with your unique way of connecting the dots, makes you the leader that you are.

Sometimes you just have to listen to your inner voice, and trust your intuition. Close your eyes and just do it. (Who knew that the old Nike slogan packed so much punch into it?)

Because sometimes you just know. You know?

Have no fear.

(A column that ran in Profile)

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