Perhaps more than any other emotion, fear is the emotion that reveals that emotions are neither good or bad. Instead, the more useful way to think of emotions is in terms of whether they’re…well…useful. Is the emotion motivating behavior that sets you up to get the things you want?
In teaching kids about emotions in The Straight-A Conspiracy, Katie O’Brien and I line up two examples side-by-side to help kids see that pattern: snakes and math.
Snakes are exactly why fear is so useful. Fear will literally save your life. When you run into a snake, fear takes over your body and your brain. You stop thinking. And blood rushes to your legs. You might even poop yourself to run away faster. Those of our ancestors who pooped and ran away from snakes lived to poop and run away from snakes another day. In fact, it seems humanity’s two in-born fears are of snakes and spiders which is why when you see a garden hose out of the corner of your eye you can easily freak out and jump back in a panic. That shape switches our brain into fear mode.
Meanwhile, if you have that fear going on around math, you’re actually setting yourself up for failure. Why? In a state of fear, you can’t think. Your brain has been put in the single worst mode for solving math problems. Right when you need to think, you’re in a temporary state where you literally can’t think.
This is where understanding the difference between thinking fast and slow becomes so important. If your fast thinking is to experience fear around math, then you’ll need to slow down to train a new emotional response. This comes down to taking a breath, talking to yourself A LOT and patiently and methodically working through the process to get it right. With practice, you will build confidence and ultimately can move past fear to actually really enjoying the challenge.
However, it’s important to realize that there’s a reason why Jon Haidt compares the brain to a rider and an elephant. Your fast thinking is powerful. It’s like an elephant. Meanwhile, your slow thinking is like a rider. It’s much, much less powerful. It’s going to take real effort to reflect and retrain your fast thinking. You will have to patiently keep nudging and guiding the elephant until it does what you want.
Speaking personally, fear is such a powerful emotion that it has probably taught me more than any other emotion about how emotions work. I’ve seen how fear drives people’s choices without them even realizing it. When you see that pattern often enough, you start to assume that emotions are guaranteed to be driving your choices in ways you don’t even realize. And so, while as a kid I would get defensive when people would tell me I was being emotional, now I know about #DescartesError I know better. I know they’re right. I am being emotional…always. The question is what emotions are driving my choices, where do they come from and are they appropriate. No emotion helps you better understand how and when to apply those emotions than fear. Emotions are tools. Is a hammer good or bad? Is a screwdriver good or bad? They’re neither. They’re right for certain jobs and wrong for other jobs. Fear taught me to think of all my emotions as tools.