Mastering Fear

Coaching / Cognitive Positive Psychology / Hope / Positive Psychology

Fear is terrifying! Fear serves a vital purpose, and can be an incredible motivator. The motivational properties of fear were discussed alongside hope in the two faces article, but fear deserves a stage all to its self, and needs to be understood and defined if it is to be mastered. Fear, whilst being useful – can lead us to despair and the state of freezing. We have all heard of the fight or flight response, but the freeze response is far more common…

Lets take a journey into fear…



There are five fears that we all share and that are the origins of all other types of fear:

Extinction – The fear of death, of ceasing to exist

Mutilation – The fear of damage to our physical body

Loss of Autonomy – The fear of the loss of control either explicitly or of the circumstances, such as being imprisoned, enveloped, immobilised etc.

Separation – abandonment, loneliness, rejection, Isolation

Ego-death – the fear of shame, embarrassment, loss of integrity relating to our sense of self.

The above fears could all be considered as primary fears that seem to be inherent within all of us very naturally and without a huge amount of cognitive thought. Many other fears are labelled in complicated ways, and yet they stem from simple origins.

An example would be a common phobia in the form of fear of heights. This is essentially the fear of extinction with the cause being a fall from height. Jealousy is another example of a very common fear which originates from the fear of ego death and our own sense of worth being devalued when compared to that of another. When you explore the concept of fear further, you realise that fear exerts a massive influence over many parts of our lives, and contrary to its original use within a survival context, it can actually stop us from moving forward to avoid the feeling of fear from being created. We essentially start to fear the fear! Manifestations such as not asking for a raise at work, avoiding social situations where we may actually move forwards, through fear of fear all originate from fear of ego death.


When we considered the five fears that we all share, perhaps there are also five hopes that we share which are the polar opposites of the fear, sharing the same basic roots and origins:

1)           Living – The hope of life and existing

2)            Health – The hope of health and vitality

3)            Autonomy – The hope of freedom

4)            Connectedness – being connected to others

5)            Ego – the goal of being proud and having self esteem



When you look at the table below, it can be seen that for each one of the fears that we all share, and the fears from which all others stem, we can see that there is a hopeful counterpart. Each counterpart is the direct opposite of the other and it is difficult to think of a hope or fear that does not stem from this root! Perhaps if another hope was discovered, it would also give rise to a counterpart fear and vice versa…




In summary, we have primal fears that we all share as human beings, and we have primal hopes. These primal hopes are the opposites of the fears and therefore the link is demonstrated very clearly in the table above. The primal hopes above exist because of the primal fears and they are actually the primal fears through a positive perspective. They are one and the same, just a different perspective and aspect of the fear, just as the fear is an aspect and different perspective of the hope. If we fear the loss of autonomy, we therefore demonstrate that we do not want to lose the autonomy, ergo – we WANT autonomy and therefore we hope for this. Are hope and fear simply want and want not’s? If we fear separation then we therefore want to be joined and connected and this is therefore a “hope”.


Perhaps one of the biggest differences between hope and fear is the fact that fear tends to motivate us to act far more rapidly. An example would be whereby we hope for health, but this hope doesn’t tend to motivate us to go and see a dentist or doctor preventatively. As soon as we are faced with illness, we will rapidly go to the doctors and take action. We therefore react to our fears rather than our hopes. It is an interesting question: “How much better would our lives be if we reacted to our hopes rather than our fears”? Perhaps some people actually do and perhaps this is what separates those hopeful inspirational achievers from the fearful reactive masses. “We hope vaguely but we fear precisely”, and this means that just as fear focusses and narrows, hope opens and broadens the mind. We need to experience fear an element of fear to experience hope, and yet if we give in to this fear, and live in a state of fear – it can crush us. We should therefore aim to live in a state of hope and hopefulness.


Science has gathered evidence of primary and secondary emotions and positive and negative emotions. The science suggests the separation and evidence due to the different neuro-psychological origins and, so far, fear is considered to be a primary emotion which does not require cognitive intervention and processing, and hope a secondary one requiring cognitive processes. This argument can be challenged by considering that whilst there are primary fears, there are also fears that are born of cognitive processes which can be demonstrated in the creation of phobias and the potential for the cure of these phobias by psychological interventions. There is a solid argument therefore for both primary and secondary fears. If this is true, then hypothetically, there is also an argument for primary and secondary forms of hope.

It is suggested that fear as a primary emotion will override hope as a secondary emotion in times of extreme perceived threat, and that this emotion is activated spontaneously and based on past and present affective experiences (LeDoux, 2003). The emotion of hope, however, requires complex secondary cognitive processes based on deliberate thinking and positive affective components (Snyder C. R., 1991).  Snyder suggests that hope has a rationality to it, and that it is felt when a positive goal is expected. The limitations with this approach, and indeed the counter argument is suggested where hope is felt in the yearning of relief from negative conditions (Lazarus, 1999). Perhaps Snyder’s theory on hope and the affective components of goal directed agency and pathway thinking suggest a complex cognitive process which contains both positive and negative components. The negative components may involve the individual’s perceptions of the potential struggle, size of the issue and the weight of their own abilities in contrast and this “weighing up” may result in a positive or negative estimation of ability to reach the goal. In the positive form, hope can spring and in the negative form, fear can emerge. This is where the argument becomes dichotomous, however as in the most extreme negative form, whereby the weight of the individuals own will and “agency thoughts” and way forwards “pathway thoughts” is dwarfed by and no match for the weight of the issues, one would expect fear of certain defeat to be the victor, and yet, hope can emerge victorious and completely irrationally!


This is where hope and fear seem to share yet another aspect. Just as there is rational and irrational fear, there can be rational and irrational hope. Rational hope can be linked to hope theory, and the agency and pathway thinking suggested by Snyder (1991). Irrational hope, however seems to be the missing part of this puzzle and where there has to be faith. Faith is born of uncertainty and faith cannot exist where there is “proof”, just as the light of irrational hope is brightest in the darkness!


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