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February 20, 2022

Three Kinds Of Fear And How To Be With Each Of Them

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People often ask us if fear is good or bad. (By the way, they ask the same about anger, sadness, joy and sexual feelings). Those of you who have been in this exploration with us for a while know that we’re not likely to call something “good or bad.” Those labels can be useful at early stages of development but they’re not useful as one develops into a more conscious leader. Instead of talking about feelings as good or bad we suggest exploring whether the feeling is occurring from presence or reactivity, from above the line or below the line. Any feeling can happen from above or below the line. 

For now, let’s look at fear. 

Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian (makes me wonder what I’ve done with my life!) is known for having said, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Wow. At some other time we’ll explore this, but he also once believed that there are three kinds of fear: valid fear, vicious fear and virtuous fear. His model has been useful to me over the years and it might be useful to you. In my experience his understanding also maps to the consciousness, or context, in which fear is occurring, e.g. above or below the line. 

Valid Fear

Valid fear is the natural, normal, necessary human response to perceived threat.

Valid fear is what a parent feels when they see their child running toward a busy street or an investor experiences as their stock underperforms. It’s what one feels when the doctor says, “We need to take another look at this. I’m going to order a few more tests.” 

Valid fear occurs in the body. It is chemical. The chemicals are designed to support the body to fight, flee or freeze. Thus it is natural, in our very nature. It is normal, in that, it is common, (almost) everyone experiences it. And, it is necessary; without it we wouldn’t survive very long. 

Valid fear is neutral. It is simply an occurrence, a phenomenon of consciousness. In workshops people ask us whether it’s possible to be “on the line (neither above or below)?” Our usual answer is “For now, just assume that you are one or the other, you’re either above or below, in presence or reactivity.” This supports people to ask the questions that lead to self awareness. But for this discussion, I would suggest that valid fear is “on the line.” It just is.

Buddhist teaching talks about the first arrow and the second arrow. The first arrow is what hits us in the normal flow of life; kids run toward the street, investments underperform, more tests are required. The first arrow is valid fear. 

The second arrow is how we respond to the first arrow. Our response to valid fear determines if it becomes vicious fear or virtuous fear. 

Vicious Fear

Vicious fear causes us to believe we are unsafe; fundamentally, existentially unsafe. It changes our perspective from one of basic trust to one of deep threat. Vicious fear is what valid fear becomes as it goes below the line. 

Just as valid fear is primarily a somatic reaction based on a chemical cocktail designed to enable us to act, vicious fear is first and foremost a condition of the mind. Vicious fear is a matter of our beliefs, our thinking.  If you deconstruct vicious fear you discover that at the core of all vicious fear is the belief: I/we don’t have enough. We’re lacking something

The occurrence (child running toward the street, investment underperforming, more tests needed) and the valid fear it triggers in the body are joined by the mind, by thinking. The mind believes that something important is or will be lacking. Something is being threatened. We teach that what appears to be lacking when we’re below the line and in the grip of vicious fear is one of the core needs of being human: approval, control, and/or security.  Again, we say appears to be lacking because it appears this way to our mind, to our identity. What conscious leaders learn and eventually know is that nothing is actually missing or lacking. This is at the core of the conscious leader’s deep work. 

When core needs appear to be lacking, vicious fear responds by driving us into our reactive patterns. Some reactive patterns are generalized and apply to all of us (blame, greed, deceit, etc) and some of our patterns are personal to each of us based on things like our personality and biography.

So, a valid fear arises; we get a call saying that a key client is talking to a competitor. Our belly clenches, the chemical cocktail courses through our veins, our breathing becomes short and rapid. All of this occurs in a split second. It often happens before we start thinking, before the mind even has a chance to create a story. 

This is the first arrow. This is valid fear.

The second arrow, vicious fear, comes on board soon after the first.
Our mind generates thoughts, stories, beliefs all tied to the core belief that one or more of our basic needs is being threatened. The beliefs can look like one or many of these:

  • Approval: the client is upset with us because we raised our prices. My boss will disapprove of me because I have the primary relationship with this client, they are my responsibility. I disapprove of myself (inner critic) because I knew I should have taken the trip to go visit them.
  • Control: I need to do something to change their mind (to control their thinking and behavior). I knew we should have addressed their concerns with the latest release of the product and made the changes (wanting to control something that was done or not done in the past).
  • Security: This could really affect my bonus. In fact, I could be the next one to get laid off because my utility to the team is largely based on my relationship with this client. My family is already tight financially, having two kids in private schools and buying the new house. How bad will this get?

When the second arrow fully penetrates we start spinning. We get reactive, our below the line statements, behaviors and beliefs take us over. We jump in the drama triangle in our own mind and with colleagues and family members. We are totally out of presence. 

There is a good reason it’s called vicious fear. It’s vicious. 

Conscious leaders train for experiences like this. Their training allows them to see vicious fear when it appears. They have devoted themselves to self awareness and to learning what their particular reactive patterns look, feel and sound like. One major difference between conscious leaders at the beginning of their journey and those who have spent years developing mastery is how long it takes for them to recognize vicious fear. Unconscious leaders and leaders new to practicing can take days, weeks and months to see the patterns of vicious fear. Some people’s consciousness is so dense and thick they never see them.

One of the goals of a conscious leader is to shrink the time between when vicious fear arises and when they spot it: to move this awareness from weeks to days to hours to minutes. 

I would even suggest that some people, very rare indeed, can interrupt the progression at the point of valid fear. In other words, they have so examined and released their core lacking beliefs and made presence such a sustainable home base for them that when valid fear arises the mind does not generate thinking that creates vicious fear or if lacking thoughts arise they are seen for what they are, just thoughts, and they are not attached to and believed. These leaders remain largely imperturbable and they don’t experience much, if any, reactivity. This is not to say that their body does not react in valid fear. Rather it is to say, the chemicals of valid fear simply release and with no limiting beliefs to attach to, the leader remains in presence. 

Virtuous Fear

Pascal’s last fear. Virtuous fear is a state of curiosity, wonder and even awe.

(More about awe in the addendum below). While vicious fear closes us down, virtuous fear opens us up. 

Conscious leaders learn how to shift from vicious fear to virtuous fear:

  1. Being with the valid fear: their body and its sensations, until the chemical cocktail and the attendant somatic reactions release; usually less than 90 seconds. 
  2. Meeting vicious fear with self acceptance. Vicious fear begins to soften and relax when we meet it with compassion. One breath that says to oneself, “Of course you’re scared. I accept you for being scared.”
  3. Checking to see if they’re willing to shift from vicious fear to virtuous fear. Taking responsibility, stepping out of To Me and into By Me to begin to source curiosity and wonder.

Pascal and conscious leadership make great inter-century bedfellows: Pascal mapped the territory of fear in the 17th century and conscious leadership models give us the tools to move from fear to trust. 


Want more? Read Jim’s exploration of the spiritual underpinnings of Pascal’s thinking: Spiritual Lesson: The Boat Won’t Sink and The Storm Won’t Last Forever

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