Thoughts on Snakes and Fear

Piggybacking off the last two days posts about fighting monsters (Fighting Monsters Part 1 and Fighting Monsters Part 2), I have another example of how we often view our fear inaccurately.

If you and I touch a hot stove, we are both going to feel heat, and if the stove is hot enough, get burned.

This is how the physical world world works.

We tend to believe that world of thoughts and feelings works the same way. We receive sensory input, and we react to it. But thoughts and feelings do not work that way. There are far more variables at play, a few which include attention, mood/mindset, and beliefs.

Here is an example of how it really works. My wife would say that snakes scare her. This is a perfectly reasonable, logical statement to make. She doesn’t like them, and feels a bit of fear around them. However, it is technically inaccurate.

This summer she was gardening. She was pulling weeds, dead grasses, and leaves out of one of the beds in the yard and putting it in one of those large brown paper yard waste bags.

About halfway into the job, she turned from the bed toward the bag, and to her horror, a small snake was slithering on the rim of the bag. She was startled, and a little scared. After all, she believes snakes scare her.

Now, this was a pretty tiny snake (in the world of snakes and yard waste bags at least). It would not have been big enough to get into the bag from the outside. So the implication was that it arrived on the rim from crawling up the yard waste as it accumulated in the bag, which means my wife actually had it in her hands at one point and put it in the bag herself.

Here is the key to understanding fear: If snakes could actually scare her, as stoves can actually burn us, why was she not scared when the snake was closest to her, when it was actually in her hands? It wasn’t because she had on any magical gardening gloves. It’s because she isn’t literally scared of snakes. She’s scared of her thoughts about snakes.

This is useful, accurate information to have. Because we aren’t scared directly by outside stimuli but rather our scared through our thoughts about them, we have two pathways to change. One is to understand that thought content always evolves, which is why we aren’t scared forever after being fearful or startled. The fear always subsides.

The second is that we are free to change our thoughts if we can, which may lead to less fear. However, it’s been my observation that when fear is understood accurately and is understand as a normal state, it isn’t further feared, which typically creates less anxiety and fear about fear, which reduces how much fear appears in the first place.

Fighting Monsters: Part 2

Yesterday, I posed a few questions: When a child, say 3 to 6 years old, is scared of the monster in their closet, what do we tell them? How do we react?What do we point to about the nature of fear? Where does it come from?

So how would you deal with this situation? Would you tell a child fears are not OK and must be dealt with swiftly?

Would you hand a child a magic potion or a protective amulet and expect it to work long-term to help them understand fears?

Would you send a child to boot camp to train them to increase strength and toughness to defeat monsters?

If you moved to a bigger house with bigger closets, and the child assumed the bigger closets held bigger monsters, would you then send them to more boot camp to get even stronger and tougher?

My guess is that you would respond very accurately and logically by smiling, telling the child that monsters do not exist, and reassuring them that the fear will disappear.

Monsters do not exist. Something that does not exist certainly has no power to scare us, so fear cannot be caused by monsters. What causes children fear areĀ thoughts about monsters.

Fearing monsters may seem silly to us, but we do the same thing when we believe a score on the scoreboard is causing us to feel pressure or the pile of work on the desk is causing us to feel stressed. Nobody (literally no body or living thing) and nothing (literally no thing or situation) can cause a specific thought or feeling response in all of us. Our individual and momentary thoughts about those people and things are what cause the feeling.

If you believe something outside you causes you fear, there is a very high likelihood you are going to remind yourself of that belief in that thing’s presence and feel fear. The thing is not causing your fear. Your thought/belief is.

If you believe something outside you causes you stress, there is a very high likelihood you are going to remind yourself of that belief in that thing’s presence and feel stress. The thing is not causing your stress. Your thought/belief is.

Fear is a normal feeling. It naturally follows worried thinking, surprise, confusion, and uncertainty. Further, it doesn’t have to be dealt with or trained out of existence. It will disappear without any intervention, and the better we understand the source of the fear as thoughts rather than some outside source, the less we will believe we are in the grips of an outside force that has control over us.

By exposing this illusion of external control, we gain freedom.

By remembering that we are imperfect and will forget the nature of fear from time to time, we gain freedom over the belief that we must be perfect and in control of ourselves. It is perfectly fine to let thoughts and feelings arise and subside as they will. Doing battle with them is what exhausts us and drives us to distraction.

There’s no need to fight monsters or our own reactions.


Have you ever noticed that our favorite stories about mental toughness are the ones in which the protagonist is forced, often tragically, to overcome a situation for which he or she is seemingly unprepared and unequipped? Ever notice that our favorite mentally tough hero has beaten odds even she didn’t believe she could overcome?

When discussing stories of triumph over adversity, I constantly hear people say things like, “I couldn’t do that,” or “I couldn’t handle that.” The truth is you could and you can. We are all capable of much more than we understand. You are as mentally tough as you need to be. Right now, you are capable of mustering as much toughness as you need in any situation. Mental toughness is revealed. It does not need to be built. The only thing blocking you from accessing this mental toughness is your belief in whether it A) already exists, or B) needs to be built.

I used to believe that mental toughness had to be built. I was a big believer in mental toughness training. I spent years of my life earning a Ph.D., writing a 313 page mental toughness training manual, and working my tail off to help people build mental toughness. So what has changed? Why do I now believe mental toughness is revealed and not built? Why have I changed my practice in profound ways in recent years? Some ideas are irrefutable when you apply logic to experience.

On Halloween night 1973, two Michigan State Troopers greeted my mother, hats in hand, to inform her that her husband had just died in a car accident. My mom was devastated. Here she was, 23 years old, a mother of a seven week old baby, and a now she was a widow. She felt like she couldn’t go on, like she’d lost the will to live, the will to parent her newborn. She wondered, “Why did that happen to me? Why my husband? Why didn’t I die instead?” She even wondered at times, much to her own horror and guilt, “If I had to lose someone, wouldn’t it have been easier to lose the baby than my husband? At least we could support each other and rebuild our family together.”

In those moments, it felt like the situation was too much for her and that she didn’t have what it would take to carry on. But then, one day early in her mourning, a thought occurred to her: “I can curl up and die, or I can get on with my life.” Thankfully for me, my mom was capable of choosing to get on with her life. She decided she could rise above the tragedy that occurred and the situations she believed she was up against. The toughness that was in her all along shone through like a light from heaven, and her love created a new world, a world that was unimaginable before tragedy struck.

The personal weight of some tragedies is proof that toughness doesn’t have to be built. It is there when we need it. My mom wasn’t prepared for my dad’s death, and she wasn’t able to build it slowly as she needed it. She needed it revealed in an instant, and it was there for her. To access her toughness, my mom only needed to acknowledge its existence.

For this reason and many others, my mom is my hero. Who is yours?

My guess is that you don’t need to look any further than your own family or friends to find similar examples of someone who beat odds she once believed were insurmountable. If you can’t think of a story off the top of your head, ask around. My guess is you won’t have to look outside your own family. There is a chance you will gain new appreciation for someone close to you, and you might also prove to yourself that you are capable of more than you realized when you woke up today. Mental toughness is yours if you just acknowledge it.

Fear and Courage

I talked with a few people about fear this week. One important thing about fear to keep in mind is this: Fear has its greatest power when you believe you are actually feeling a situation or even a potential situation (a future situation). This creates a justification for your fear, and often, a seemingly insurmountable external foe.

But remember, we never actually feel situations. We feel our thoughts about situations. Fear is just our own experience of our thoughts, not a condition the world forces upon us. There are no external battles that force us to fear them. It seems that way, but the fear always resides only within. This is normal, and not to be further feared. When you realize the true source of fear is thought, you will come to see fear for what it truly is: A fleeting condition.

Another useful thing to remember about fear is that you won’t find comfort in outside conditions. Just as fear resides inside you, so does comfort. So if you are searching for outward signs that the time is right to take your risk, you won’t find any. You might think you have found comfort for a time, but before you act, your mood will change and the fear will return no matter what you are looking at outside.

If you seek true lasting comfort and courage over fear, look within yourself. There are no external battles to win. The goal is internal and within reach.