Turns Out There’s No Such Thing As Fearlessness (And That’s A Good Thing)
Illustration by Ms Stefania Infante
Fear Less by psychologist Dr Pippa Grange is a book that you feel could have been written for you. But then Dr Grange’s central thesis, formed over more than two decades working with elite sportspeople – most famously the England men’s football team during the unexpectedly joyful 2018 World Cup campaign, as well as performers, business leaders and politicians – is that our lives are run by fear.
“We’re wired for it,” she says in an accent that’s part her native Yorkshire and part Australian, where she studied and worked for 20 years. “It’s there. It’s natural.” An evolutionary early-warning system, our older, more primitive brain circuitry is an always-on, super-fast processor of fear. “But the amount that we let it run wild is the problem.”
A certain amount of fear is to be expected, whoever we are. Even the most seemingly self-assured high achievers occasionally feel what Dr Grange calls “in-the-moment fear” before, say, taking a penalty in the World Cup or presenting at your Tuesday morning meeting. She once worked with an Aussie rules footballer who threw up before every one of his 200-plus games. Churning stomach, racing heart, sweaty palms: these signs are hard to miss, unlike penalties.
More insidious is the fear that can lurk underneath the in-the-moment kind. This not-good-enough fear can manifest itself as a tendency to criticise yourself or others (really fear of inadequacy), jealousy (fear of not being loved), perfectionism (fear of failing) or reclusiveness (fear of being rejected). At the heart of them all is the fear of being abandoned. This kind of fear holds you back or, if you do succeed, leaves you unfulfilled, something Dr Grange calls “winning shallow”.
Men and women feel fear in the same way, but are socialised to respond differently. While boys are taught to be tough and not to show emotion, including fear, the same is not normally expected of girls. Dr Grange has spent the best part of her career in mostly or exclusively male organisations, where men can struggle to express themselves in a “non-performative” way, ie “saying what you’re experiencing at the time, without conforming to expectations of how it should be said”. These expectations are often rooted in hierarchical power structures. If, for instance, everyone defers to the “big dog” to speak first, the freedom of expression for others (and the intimacy it builds) is limited.
“We’re wired for fear. It’s there. It’s natural. But the amount that we let it run wild is the problem”
The mention of intimacy can raise eyebrows, particularly among those with a puerile sense of humour. But what Dr Grange means is: can you be real? Show who you are? Bring your whole self, flaws and all? That kind of intimacy, or vulnerability, is “so freeing for performance”, whereas lack of it “dials up the judgement too much”.
One way of fostering intimacy is the bonding exercise called Triple H, where you stand up in front of everyone and share three personal stories about a hero, a hardship and a highlight. As Dr Grange admits, though, this is enough to strike fear into the heart of any man. Easier ways of achieving a greater level of intimacy include maintaining eye contact for longer or stopping to listen and genuinely engage instead of moving swiftly on after a perfunctory, “All right, mate?”
Taking conversations further – opening up and encouraging others to open up – can be a source of real anxiety for men, but one we need to confront. Rather than quickly getting down to business, as is men’s wont, Dr Grange suggests making space for even just a 10-minute conversation about something else that allows people to bring more of themselves in, perhaps by asking them what they’ve “noticed”, which is less directly exposing. “You can make it fun,” she insists. But it also takes courage from leaders, who feel the same fear of being judged – and laughed at.
“Just start with noticing. Until you really see it, you can’t move towards a solution”
Elite sportspeople plan and practise strategies to manage in-the-moment fear. You can process it: control your breathing, consciously relax your muscles or tell yourself that you’ve done this 1,000 times before or some other affirmation. (The key is to recognise the fear early and perform your “active routine” immediately, to nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem.) You can distract from it: think about something else, listen to music or chat unrelatedly. Or you can rationalise it like the bilious Aussie Rules footballer who reframed his vomiting as part of his pre-match prep. Your nerves before presenting are a sign that you’re physiologically ready.
There are, however, no quick fixes for sneaky not-good-enough fear. “Just start with noticing,” says Dr Grange. Then join the dots on what it’s costing you – opportunity, peace of mind or a deeper relationship. “Until you really see it, you can’t move towards a solution.”
Fear Less recounts powerful case studies including one in which a closeted footballer whose fear of rejection spills over into violent bar fights, or a pushy father whose perfectionist fear of failure estranges him from his talented swimmer daughter. Their dramatic breakthroughs came over months, though, not overnight. And there’s a reason the book is called Fear Less, rather than “Fearless”. We can get better at noticing fear, we can right-size it. But we can’t eliminate it.
“To a degree, it will always pop up. Embrace the mess and leave yourself more room for joy and fulfilment”
“To a degree, it will always pop up,” says Dr Grange, who is candid about her own life experiences of not-good-enough-fear in the book, including while writing it. It might come as a surprise to us to hear of an eminent psychologist or elite sportsperson feeling fear, but this stems from the false notion that fear is something we can get rid of. Dr Grange is frustrated by how self-help perpetuates the fantasy of becoming a “perfect, sculpted, fearless” person. Reality is less neat. “Embrace the mess and leave yourself more room for joy and fulfilment,” she says.
Self-help also puts the onus on “what’s happening in your head”. But Dr Grange has for the past 10 years positioned herself as a “culture coach” because so often it’s our environments – work, teams, families, relationships – that provoke fear. “It’s such a shared, common experience,” she says. “We need to be talking about it collectively as well.”