May 19, 2023 Founders Note 017

017: One Big Human Fear

I want to help people be less afraid. 

That’s a hand-written note inside a book tucked into the drawer of the bedside table next to the late Robin Williams’ bed. As the 2020 documentary “Robin’s Wish” articulates in its title, this is the legacy he hoped to leave behind: that his work and his life would help people be less afraid.

I watched “Robin’s Wish” when it came out a few years ago and have had a screenshot of that handwritten note saved on my phone since. It was a hit-pause-rewind-watch-again moment in the film. It strikes me now, as it did then, as perhaps the most beautiful mission statement I’ve encountered. It’s a string of words that warms my chest. It’s so deeply human. 

Two years after penning that statement, Robin Williams took his own life. An autopsy would reveal that, unbeknownst to him and his family, he had been suffering from a progressively debilitating neurodegenerative disease of the most inhumane kind, Lewy body dementia. Even while he struggled through the final few years of that disease, which I have to assume were riddled with fear, his wish was to help others fear less.

“All of us are driven by fear. All of us,” writes Dr. Pippa Grange in her 2020 book “Fear Less.” Fear is part of our hard-wiring, specifically an ancient, protective aspect of our brain, the amygdala. The amygdala is part of our “old brain circuitry” and is about 100,000 years old; it’s all about instincts, impulses, and survival. It’s evolved to process negative emotions extremely fast. When you hear a rustle in the bushes at night, the amygdala immediately goes to work protecting you. This is when the impulse to fight or flight comes into play. Only later – it could be seconds, but it’s later – are we able to rationally process the moment. This is our cerebral cortex, our “new circuitry” (50,000 years old), which allows us to leverage logic and reason to assign meaning and understanding to what we heard. When you consider these two processes, what is clear is that we feel fear before we can truly think.

The fear response shapes our ability to process information. Cognitive processing slows, particularly anything like complex decision-making or critical thinking. Our IQ can drop by 15 points when we’re under threat because the amygdala is busy reacting, surviving, and getting the hell out of here – it’s not evaluating whether this is a valid threat worth considering. If the amygdala had a motto, it would be, “Better safe than sorry!”

When afraid, we lose perspective. As Dr. Grange notes, our focus narrows dramatically to just two areas: what we know and what our negative memories tell us. “Fear makes you more defensive and less open,” she writes. “You make short-term choices and shut down risk of all kinds. You go for what you already know, killing creativity.” This is true both in the rustle-in-the-bushes type of in-the-moment fear as well as what Dr. Grange calls not-good-enough fear.

 It is our fear of not being good enough that causes us so much suffering – and gets in the way of fulfillment.

“This is when the emotion of fear gets mixed up with what happened in the past and what might happen in the future.” Not-good-enough fear can go unrecognized but it occurs “when your mind distorts fear into stress about the past or the future – we often call this anxiety. This is fear of what might happen or what did happen, and what that means for our survival, whether this is a real threat or not.” 

This is the sort of existential fear that undergirds how we process the world and evaluate ourselves, usually limiting how we value ourselves. From this not-good-enough fear comes a whole range of anxiety-based emotions and behaviors: the fear of trying, the fear of failing, being judgmental of others, feeling jealousy, perfectionism, feeling judged by others, feeling excluded, unworthy, or unwanted. Beneath all of these is “one big, overwhelming and ultimately human fear: the fear of not being enough, and therefore being abandoned. Because as a human being, this is what we all fear more than anything else.” It is our fear of not being good enough that causes us so much suffering – and gets in the way of fulfillment.

I suspect not-good-enough fear is the type of fear Robin Williams was referring to.

I read “Fear Less” last week. It’s the kind of book that you can knock out in a few days, so if the topic of not-good-enough fear resonates with you, I highly recommend it (and so does Brené Brown, if that does anything for you). It’s not a self-help book, but half the book is written from Dr. Grange’s experience as a therapist, describing what has worked for her patients to get better at managing their not-good-enough fear. It didn’t all resonate with me, but I did come away with a number of good tools. 

If I may end on a confessional note, here’s why I find the book so profound: We’re all afraid. It’s not just me that worries I’m not good enough. You do too. And while I hate that for you, it means that we’re in community around this shared human problem, which means I needn’t feel so ashamed. I can have more compassion for myself – and more curiosity and empathy for you. 

Robin Williams’ wish – to help people be less afraid – is grounded in an understanding that being immune to fear isn’t an option. He doesn’t say, “I want to help people be unafraid.” Fear, for all of us, is a given. That’s why his wish is also a confession: I’m afraid, but I want to fear less. And I want you to fear less too. 

Fear is a necessary part of the human experience – our amygdala keeps us safe – but the encouraging news is that with awareness, resources, and tools not-good-enough fear doesn’t have to be.
Brian McGrath Davis Co-Founder