Fear-Setting: How You Can Overcome Paralysis and Take Action

If you looked at the title of this blog and thought “What is fear-setting?” you are probably not alone. This was a foreign concept to me as well before I recently watched Tim Ferriss describe fear-setting in his TED Talk, “Why You Should Define Your Fears Instead of Your Goals”.

Tim began his talk by discussing a time in which he had suicidal ideation and went as far as creating a plan to commit suicide. He said that it was by chance that he did not follow through with that plan. Tim has Bipolar Disorder and was referring to one of his depressive episodes. He reported that he has had about 50 depressive episodes in his lifetime and was eager to find a way to manage the highs and lows he experiences. His main goal was to find a recipe to avoid self-destruction and self-paralysis.

He began to learn more about the concept of stoicism. He learned that stoicism is an operating system for thriving in high stress environments and making better decisions.

Stoicism teaches you to separate what you can control from what you can’t control.

Then, you do exercises around what you can’t control. This decreases emotional reactivity, which Tim refers to as a “super power”.

Tim also latched onto a concept called Premeditatio Malorum. This concept involves taking your fears and visualizing the worst-case scenario in detail, so that you can overcome paralysis and take action. He created a written version and called it “Fear-Setting”. He details exactly how to do his written version in the Ted Talk.

Near the end of his talk, Tim says that he can trace all of his biggest wins in life back to fear-setting.

He now knows and understands that some fears are well-founded, but believes you shouldn’t come to a conclusion until first putting your fear under a microscope.

I couldn’t agree with this more and will certainly use Tim’s concept moving forward in my work as well as in my own personal life.

Tim credits fear-setting for some of his biggest wins in life. He ends his talk by stating that some of our biggest fears are very often what we need to do most in life.

The actual process of fear-setting involves three steps.

  • Step one starts with writing something you fear at the top of the page. For example, “What if I completely change careers and start over?”
  • Then, create three columns below, titled “Define” “Prevent” and “Repair.”
    • Under Define -write down all of the worst things that you can imagine happening if you were to attempt this fear.
    • Under Prevent -answer ways to prevent those things in column 1 (define column) from happening, or ways to decrease the likelihood that they will happen.
    • Under Repair -write down ways that you could repair the damage if the worst-case scenario things in column 1 (define column) were to happen.
  • In step two, answer the question, “What might be the benefits of an attempt or partial success?”
  • Lastly, step three involves weighing the cost of status quo.
    • In this step you will consider “The Cost of Inaction,” which includes emotional costs, physical costs and financial costs.
    • Create three columns titled “6 months,” “1 year” and “3 years,” then fill in what costs you might incur within each of those time frames if you do not take action.

Now that we know the actual process of fear-setting, is it something that you feel might be helpful? Below, I’ve included a few discussion questions to help you consider if fear-setting is right for you.

  • Have you ever written down any of your fears (big or small)? If so, has it been helpful to see your fears written in black and white?
  • How have you challenged your fears in the past?
  • Has inaction or paralysis from your fears cost you anything in life?
  • Currently, what is one of your biggest fears? Would you try fear-setting to tackle it?
  • Do you feel this tool would help for you to overcome paralysis or would it be a waste of time?
  • What if you were to get to the end of the exercise and realize that your fear is well-founded? Would you seek additional support?

Amanda Barnes, LAMFT