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Image: A ship on open water

What Fear Can Teach Us About the Stories We Tell Ourselves

It’s 1819, your boat has capsized, and you and 19 your shipmates are 1,000 miles from the nearest sanctuary of land. You have three options to save yourselves: find the nearest islands 1,200 miles away–islands rumored to be home to cannibals– risk deadly storms and find your way to Hawaii, or take the longest journey towards South America and potentially starve to death before reaching land. Each option strikes fear into your heart. Which do you choose?

These were the real fears that the men of the whaling ship Essex had running through their minds as they watched their ship sink into the ocean. And while history tells us what they eventually decided, it is in the choices they didn’t make, that we can glean an invaluable lesson about fear, stories we tell ourselves, and the way they can impact our daily lives.

Come along as the novelist Karen Thompson Walker helps us look at our own tough choices in a new way that will feel like a leap of insight we can use every day.

Image: A ship on open water
Source: Unsplash

“We know how fear feels, but I’m not sure we spend enough time thinking about what our fears mean.”

-Karen Thompson Walker

When was the last time you made a decision based on fear, either about the unknown future, the outcome of a decision you have to make, or a place you’ve never been before? Did your wild ideas about what could happen cause you to change your decision making? Or, have you been avoiding an important conversation or life change because of your fear of the imagined repercussions? 

In her incredible talk from the TED stage, Thompson Walker helps us see the root of so many of our fears: imagination. In our unique ability to imagine the future, we tell ourselves stories that come to shape our reality. Fear not though, if we come to understand our fears as the stories we tell ourselves, we can begin to make better decisions, and start to listen to those stories with a more critical eye! 

Here’s Karen Thompson Walker at TED with the story of the whaleship Essex (and if you haven’t Googled it yet, the fate of men of the Essex) and new insights into what fear can teach us! 

If you want to get even more out of the talk, pause at exactly 4:45. That’s just after you understand the choices that the sailors faced. Then really think about which option you would choose. Really… process your choices and jot down your decision BEFORE listening to the rest of her presentation.
Via: TED 1

A big thanks to the incredible TED organization for sharing this talk with us all. If you want more insights like this one, go check out the TED website and browse through their collection of talks on subjects ranging from history, to personal growth, to cutting edge technology. 

So, which choice would you have made?

Would you have stayed away from the one that incited the most vivid fears? Or gone with the closest option? 

It makes you think about how often we let irrational fears that stem from the stories we tell yourself lead us into bad decision making. How often do we make choices based on the scariest outcome we can imagine, even though that possibility has terrifically small odds of actually happening? We do it in our families, businesses, and communities. It seems to be a leap our brain performs automatically.

Take a look at the following photo. What’s the story that jumped into your mind about what’s going on there?

Image: What Fear Can Teach Us
Source: Liesl Ulrich-Verderber

Are you telling yourself a negative story, perhaps something a bit fearful? 

It’s an impulse that is irresistible, isn’t it?

Well, actually, this is our 11-year-old daughter sitting by a campfire in our backyard, pouting a bit because we wouldn’t let her have a 20th marshmallow! 

Oh how the stories we tell ourselves could be changing the way we approach every situation.

Here’s more so you can understand how this plays out in our own lives…

First, we have to acknowledge that fear is an entire system of brain pathways, and one of the most important responses that has kept humanity from going the way of the Neanderthal. Yet today –  when we do not have to fear a saber-toothed tiger behind every tree – we are still telling ourselves that a critical level of danger may be right around every corner.

In our modern lives, our stress is social, ethical and financial, but our brain elevates these challenges to that same fear center as a possible saber-toothed tiger attack! 

Here are a few examples: 

How often do we have difficult family situations that need attention, but we avoid wading in because we are imagining the worst possible outcome? Do we even consider that the other person may react gracefully or they might be relieved to have had the conversation too? 

How often are our business decisions based on avoiding the worst possible outcome? If we create a work environment that is entirely “Risk Conservative,” very little that is meaningful and new gets done. 

Should you be asking for a raise, but you are telling yourself all kinds of scary stories about how your boss may react? If you are a good employee, why would they react badly?

Most importantly, have you ever told yourself a scary story ahead of time that caused you to pass up a good opportunity?  (Yikes! That’s the hardest one for me to ponder.)

Turning Fear into a Helpful Motivator

Since watching this TED Talk, I have thought of “the cannibals on the island” that the sailors imagined. How making a decision based on this wild, and unfounded fear led them to choose the most dangerous, least likely to succeed choice to stay alive. Their decision to act on the most emotional, vivid story they told themselves nearly killed them all. This has often made me stay with the facts when making decisions instead of making choices with fear as a motivator.

If you need a simple practice to help you decide if fear is becoming a motivator, think about a choice you have ahead that you have made scenarios for time and time again. How emotionally charged are the possible outcomes you are envisioning? Now take the most emotionally charged ones and set them aside. And for the remainder, stop and ask yourself how likely that particular outcome actually is. 

If you want to check out a really great TED Talk that looks at the actual likelihood that you’d face rejection in any of these situations check out this great article:

Getting What You Need More Often

Rejection is something we have all had to face, but fear not! What if there was a better way to look at rejection and what it really costs us?

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast

Some interesting things to consider. See where this new insight takes you.

Every week here at the Goodness Exchange, we feature numerous innovators who have become good at avoiding the impulse to follow their fears. All of them face choices every day that could lead to setbacks, but they’ve learned to avoid telling themselves stories that are based on assumptions. Instead, they deal with the fear of failure in a healthier way; a way that acknowledges the imagination and passion that fear of the unknown can give us, and at the same time they approach a problem with “the coolness and judgment of a scientist” to choose an option that isn’t based entirely on fear.

If you want to read a few of their stories or hear from them directly, check out some of these pieces from the Goodness Exchange Library:

The New Model to Defend Nature & Community: Empower Women with Damien Mander (Episode #57)

You would never initially think that women would make some of the best game wardens in all of Africa and lead to complete social reform within the community! There is a lot to learn here, and today we’re going to dive head first into a world of social entrepreneurship with Damien Mander.

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
What if We Celebrated What’s Right with the World?

As a National Geographic photographer, Dewitt Jones learned a lot about reframing the way he looks at the world. Here are the remarkable insights he has on what we can do to find what’s right with the world and start to see beauty more often.

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
21 Billion Pounds of Clothes Go to Landfills Every Year… Now FABSCRAP is On the Case!

We’ve mastered how to make the most of food scraps, but what about textile scraps? Let’s meet the female CEO of FABSCRAP, the company transforming textile waste from the apparel design process into a catalyst for a community of changemakers.

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast

Have a great week… and watch out for the stories you are telling yourself.

Stay open, curious and hopeful.

~ Dr. Lynda

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  1. TED. “What Fear Can Teach Us | Karen Thompson Walker.” YouTube, 2 Jan. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwgWkUIm9Gc. Accessed 16 Aug. 2022.
Image: Dr. Lynda

Lynda Ulrich


Dr. Lynda is a dentist, artist, global traveler, and philanthropist who looks for potential and shares it with the world.

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