Don’t fight fear with reason
Updated: May 5, 2020
Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight
Just the Facts?
Most of us have the wrong understanding of how our feelings relate to our decisions.
We think we make decisions or judgements based on a sober analysis of the situation and that our feelings arise as a result of them. We point to facts and logic as proof of how we use rationality and reason to arrive at our decisions.
We view our feelings as being caused by a reaction to these logically derived conclusions. We think they arise as an aftereffect of our rational thought process.
Sometimes we recognize that our feelings may cloud our judgement but again we point to the facts that support our conclusion as evidence that we are still being objective despite that.
Feelings Drive Us
In fact we have it exactly backwards, most often our feelings drive our decisions, they aren’t the result of our decisions. And facts are not how we actually arrive at our decision, they are how we justify the decision.
What we actually do is make an instinctual decision emotionally and then find the facts that support that decision afterwards.
Our feelings drive our judgement as to which facts we believe. So any facts that don’t support our feelings, we automatically consider as being not true.
We may say that something is true or not but what we are really doing is deciding whether something feels true or not.
This means that since any logical analysis is based on facts whose veracity we measure by our feelings that analysis is very unlikely to contradict that initial emotional impulse.
The best example of why this happens is one of our strongest base drives: fear.
We take fear as a sign that something is wrong because the purpose of that emotion is to protect us from physical destruction.
If our cavemen ancestors erred on the side of not being fearful enough then even if 9 times out of 10 that rustle in the bush was just the wind, if that 10th time it was a tiger, they would be dead.
In that world of ubiquitous fatality it is better to overreact for things that turn out not to be dangerous than under-react for things that turn out to be dangerous.
Because of this we are designed to find fear very hard to ignore when making decisions.
As with a lot of our caveman attributes, this default behavior works to our detriment in the modern world. Now the things we are afraid of very rarely have the potential of being fatal.
When we are worried about performing well at our jobs or when we see someone different than us or when we are faced with making a public speech we are scared even though there is zero chance of injury. Because, at our core, we are still assuming the tiger when we feel fear.
Sometimes we try and talk ourselves out of this fear but that will never work. Because when we come up with some logical reason why we shouldn’t be afraid, remember that we are judging the validity of facts via an emotional lens.
So by definition any logical argument we make as to why we shouldn’t be afraid will fail because we didn’t actually use logic to become afraid in the first place. Our fear focuses on the inconsistent parts of our argument as an excuse to ignore the whole point.
Using a logical argument to change an emotional decision is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Feelings will always trump reason because feelings are tied to our survival instinct.
So what can we do?
Bring a Gun to a Gunfight
The first step is to realize that there is nothing wrong with us when we are being fearful. It is a normal mechanism that we don’t have much control over.
But while we cannot do anything to eliminate fear, we do have control over how we react to it.
So we start by keeping in mind that fear is real but it is not necessarily reality.
It is not meant to be an accurate measure of danger, it is merely meant to signal that we should be alert for danger and in the modern world, that danger very rarely actually exists.
This is just the start though, to a certain extent it is still making an intellectual argument to ourselves. Telling ourselves that our fear is just an alert mechanism is just as rational an approach as finding evidence to contradict it and therefore just as useless if we stop there.
Heart Intelligence not Brain Intelligence
So how else do we convince ourselves to move despite our fear? We must use the right tool for the job, which is to say we must use our hearts not our brains.
We fight feeling with feeling, we fight fear with courage.
Courage doesn’t mean having no fear, that is being oblivious: if I don’t realize that that tiger charging at me is dangerous, then I’m being stupid not brave.
But if I realize that tiger charging me is dangerous and I stand my ground anyway rather than running, then I am being brave. It doesn’t matter if there is no actual tiger, our level of courage is exactly proportional to our level of fear.
We just need to make sure to keep our brains out of it, because the moment we starting making a rational case we provide fodder for our fear to “prove” that it’s real and immediate.
The moment we begin to introduce facts into the mix, we begin to pick and choose them to make the case for fear. Paradoxically our rational minds serve only to prevent us from being brave.
So when we feel fearful, the solution is not to “deal” with our fear. The solution is to accept our fear and move anyway. To be brave.
Fight fear with courage, not with logic.