Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Rattlesnakes and Rubber Snakes: Sorting out Useful versus Useless Fear

It’s tempting to think all fear is bad. Motivators often assume this and we believe them because of great quotes like these…

  • Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. ~Mark Twain
  • Limits, like fear, are often an illusion. ~Michael Jordan
  • The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

The problem is, these one-dimensional views mislead us. To understand fear and get the most out of its power, we need to follow the lead of South African psychologist Joseph Wolpe and separate fear into two classes: useful and useless.

Useful Fear

Useful fear is the emotion we feel when the danger is high and the chance of harm is significant. If we’re walking in the woods and run into mother grizzly with cubs, it’s extremely useful to fear the fear and get out of there. If we run into a rattlesnake on a hike, we should feel fear. The danger is real, and the chance of harm is high.

Useless Fear

Useless fear is the same emotion, but in situations where the danger isn’t real or the chance of harm is low. It’s like running into a rubber snake and confusing it with a rattlesnake. That thing only looks harmful.

  • If we won’t swim in the waters of Waikiki Beach in Hawaii because we fear a shark attack, we’re struggling with a useless fear. The chance of harm is one in ten million, too low to matter.
  • If we won’t interview for a better position because we’re afraid of what the interviewer thinks of us, we’re struggling with a useless fear. There’s no real harm here.

Knowing Which is Which

Some fear is harmful. Some fear is helpful. Wisdom starts by knowing which is which.

Fear is the most powerful of the emotions, and makes a fantastic motivator if used right. So how might we get the most out of useful fear while getting rid of useless fear?

The first step is, again, to get good at spotting which is which. Whenever we run into a fearful situation we can ask, “Is this fear useful or useless?”

Then, once spotted, the key is to learn how to use the useful fear and get rid of the useless ones. If the fear is useful, let’s use it. Let’s allow useful fear to motivate us. But if the fear is useless, we can use proven techniques to pull the plug on its power, techniques I’ll describe in later posts.

As I write in my book, Automatic Influence, “Fear of rattlesnakes is useful. Fear of rubber snakes is useless. The key is to respect the rattlesnakes and not be rattled by the rubber snakes.”

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