Fear: Using the Word Matters

While the modern medical name for the feeling produced by a new challenge or large goal is stress, for countless generations it went by the old, familiar name of fear. Even now, I've found that the most successful people are the ones who gaze fear unblinkingly. Instead of relying on terms like anxiety, stress, or nervousness, they speak openly of being frightened by their responsibilities and challenges. Here's Jack Welch, the past CEO of General Electric: "Everyone who is running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear: Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?" Chuck Jones, the creator of Pepe le Pew and Wile E. Coyote, emphasized that "fear is the most important factor in any creative work." And Sally Ride, the astronaut, is unafraid to talk plainly of fear: "All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary."

I was puzzled why so many remarkable people preferred the word fear to stress or anxiety. The answer came to me one day while I was observing physicians in the course of their training. I was following one of our family-practice resident physicians through the course of her day in the health center, seeing children and adults for the wide variety of maladies that bring people to a primary care physician. I noticed that when adults came to see a physician and talk about their emotional pain, they chose words such as stress, anxiety, depression, nervous, and tense. But when I observed children talking about their feeling, they talked about being scared, sad, or afraid.

It's my conclusion that the reason for the difference in word choice had less to do with the symptoms and more to do with expectations. The children assumed their feelings were normal. Children know they live in a world they cannot control. They have no say in whether their parents are in a good mood or bad, or whether their teachers are nice or mean. They understand that fear is a part of their lives.

Adults, I believe, assume that if they are living correctly, they can control the event around them. When fear does appear, it seems all wrong–so adults prefer to call it by the names for psychiatric disease. Fear becomes a disorder, something to put in a box with a tidy label of "stress" or "anxiety."

This approach to fear is unproductive. If your expectation is that a well-run life should always be orderly, you are setting yourself up for panic and defeat. If you assume that a new job or relationship or health goal is supposed to be easy, you will feel angry and confused when fear arises–and do anything to make it disappear.

Excerpt from One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer via Todd Sattersten.

Some wise men believe fear is the mindkiller. That could be. I prefer to think about fear like Mike Tyson did: it's like fire, something that can cook your food and heat your house, or it's something that can burn down your house and destroy you. Either way, per the excerpt above, I think using the word fear is important — that's what it is, and it's not going away.

8 comments on “Fear: Using the Word Matters
  • It’s the adult nature that loves sober labels to avoid sounding sinful. They prefer to emphasize how critical a task that they have been assigned and its earth-shaking consequence… “Stressful” sounds less confessional, conveys a meaning that (s)he is dealing with nothing short of fissile material and certainly is not “fearful” while at it.

    Adults recognize and read too much into stuff, presage outcomes, picturize remote scenarios and wrestle with “what will others think of me”. Children just act. They don’t pretend. If (s)he sees a snake and mistakes it for a rope, they just pick it up.

  • Interesting. There is a lot here.

    I wonder if the “circle of control / concern” distinction plays into this. If something is outside our circle of control, we are more comfortable using the term “fear” or at least “worry,” but if we think it is inside, we tend to use “anxious” or “stressed.” Does this play into confidence? We feel the pressure of the situation but avoid terms like “fear” because we want to express (to ourselves and others) that we have confidence that we can deal with it, even though we are “feeling the pressure.”

    Of course, children have a relatively small circle of control (especially with modern parenting), so this is why they are more comfortable with the terminology of fear.


  • I always thought of myself as being afraid. Then I went to a shrink who said, “Do you feel anxious?” She’d noticed that I was tapping my fingers as we talked. Suddenly I realized that all those articles about anxiety were talking about me. It helped me find more useful psychological literature to cope with it. I still think of myself as fearful, though, not anxious. But meditation helps either condition.

  • It seems a little unfair to imply that a person is successful because they are able to overcome fear and are comfortable with not being fully in control.

    The successful people you mentioned did in fact have some level of control over their situations. They were either persons who were respected in their fields or they worked in environments where failure was seen as a necessary step in paving the way toward success.

    Real fear, the type that everyday people experience, is physically draining and squashes creative thinking. It doesn’t matter if you call it fear, stress, or anxiety, it’s real and is not always the fault of the person who experiences it.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *