Fear and Entrepreneurship: The Psychology of What Scares Us

Your stomach ties itself into a knot. Your heart races nowhere as your mind sorts through every conceivable worst case scenario.

We call this “fear” and our instincts often scream for us to avoid it at its source.

As irrational as it can be, as silly as it sometimes seems in others, fear is something we have to continually confront throughout our lives.

But artists, entrepreneurs, and ambitious people especially—who often elect to walk paths and choose goals steeped in uncertainty—have to learn how to live with fear if they want to go far.

Because what should scare us most about fear isn't how it makes us feel, but how it tricks us into denying ourselves the things we want most.

Understanding Fear

For many neuroscientists, “fear” refers to the physiological state of a particular neural circuit in the amygdala that decides how we respond to threats.

The way we experience fear, however, is a negative emotional response to perceived danger that affects us both physically (rapid heart rate and breathing) and mentally (expecting a potential undesirable outcome). Physiologically, the fear of public speaking could feel very similar to the fear of getting hit by oncoming traffic.

Fear is supposed to serve to protect us from harm and preserve our well-being.

When it's not actually protecting us, however, fear can be an obstacle. In a recent survey of our readers, fear was second only to marketing knowledge when we asked what almost got in the way of getting that first successful sale.

I was kind of scared to launch; [I] didn't know if my website was lame or not.

Anonymous Store Owner

The 5 Types of Fear

“Fear” is just the word we use to capture a feeling that can vary greatly in intensity, duration, and irrationality that can be triggered by any number of things.

So in order to understand it, it might help to group fear as we commonly know it into 5 categories described by Dr. Karl Albrecht in his book Practical Intelligence:

  • Extinction: The fear of no longer existing (a.k.a death), which gives birth to the fear of heights or flying.
  • Mutilation: The fear of losing any part of our bodies or being physically invaded or harmed (includes the fear of spiders and sharp objects).
  • Loss of Autonomy: The fear of being helpless because of physical or social restraints that are beyond our control. This includes the fear of closed spaces or even commitments that might make you feel like a prisoner.
  • Separation: The fear of rejection and being unwanted or unvalued by others, which can be especially damaging when you consider that we are social creatures that crave connectedness. This is usually the voice in your head that asks you, "What will people think?"
  • Ego-death: The fear of losing our established sense of self, having our confidence crushed, or questioning our own competence and understanding of who we are. This includes the fear of failure and shame.

Each type of fear can be tied back to our needs as humans, but the last 3 categories are perhaps the most prevalent for aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Are you afraid of commitment to a new venture and the loss of freedom that it might entail? Are you afraid that being successful might mean you lose the life you know or your current circle of friends and family? Are you afraid of the shame you’ll experience if you fail?

These are the kinds of questions only you can answer; fear is very personal after all. Our tendency to be fearful or anxious may be genetic, but what triggers it is something we can learn from our environments and experiences (i.e. phobias or chronic fears with specific triggers).

However, fear can also be what defines an entrepreneur.

The Fear of Failure Can Be an Entrepreneur’s Friend

You’re probably familiar with the “fight or flight” instinct we rely on when we encounter any source of stress. The choice we have seems binary (do you address it or do you avoid it?). But there’s a third option that we sometimes choose instead: “freezing” or no action at all.

In animals, like possums, the freeze instinct can be justified as a way to automatically “play dead” when confronted by danger. In humans, it can result in inaction or indecision that we might mislabel as run-of-the-mill procrastination.

For entrepreneurs, the fear of failure comes out of our assessment of threats in situations where we could potentially lose. These situations force us to recall what failing feels like or the consequences it has led to in the past.

However, that can lead to one of three outcomes:

  • Flight: We avoid facing the situation altogether.
  • Freeze: We find ourselves paralyzed in the situation and unable to commit (such as being unable to launch a business even though we know it's ready).
  • Fight: We approach the threat aggressively and fight to control the outcome.

Choosing to fight—to attempt to be the master of one's own destiny when presented with the prospect of failure—is what makes an entrepreneur.

In fact, this is a common theme I've noticed in my conversations with entrepreneurs who often experience a sense of urgency born out of fear: a fear of being last to market, a fear of wasting all their invested effort by giving up, a fear of not being able to pay the bills, a fear of never realizing their full potential.

For these entrepreneurs, fear becomes a rival and not an enemy, as the things that keep them up at night are also what get them up every morning.

The Fear of “Success” (It's Real)

"The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it."
Steven Pressfield, War of Art

The fear of failure makes total sense. You can understand why someone wouldn’t want to fail and look badly in front of everyone.

But what we don’t talk about enough is the fear of success. A huge part of it, according to at least two studies that interviewed young adults, seems to be the anticipation of discomfort and drastic change we expect as a result of unprecedented success.

The mere prospect of these uncomfortable changes can create anxiety in otherwise achievement-oriented people and encourage underachieving.

The studies found that this anxiety was especially pronounced in those from disadvantaged backgrounds who anticipate a jarring loss of community and culture from success, or are uncertain what will happen to them if success forces them out of the role that society has for so long expected them to fill.

The Fear of the the Unfamiliar

Change your attitude from 'I don't know how' to 'I don't know yet'.

Scuba diving, bungee jumping, mountain climbing—any of these activities would frighten the average person, but a professional wouldn't even flinch.

That's because they're familiar with the ins and outs and outcomes of the process.

We develop attitudes towards certain objects and activities based on our past experiences with them. But when we don't have any past experiences, we construct them instead. And sometimes the attitude we develop is fear and aversion when our level of unfamiliarity is especially high.

Entrepreneurship, in particular, forces us to wear hats we never wear—hats that don't always look good on us right away.

But it's important to recognize what you're familiar with, what you're good at, and not to underestimate your ability to learn or outsource what you don't know. . After all, those who came before you have probably faced the same problems too.

There's never been a successful business or any enterprising venture built inside someone's comfort zone.

A comedian who knows how to get a laugh and Likes online had to learn how to do paid Facebook advertising to amplify their reach. A crafter who knows everything about making scented candles had to learn a bit about conversion rate optimization. Nobody is good at everything and that's okay—entrepreneurs come from all walks of life.

We live in a world with an internet that thrives on helping people solve problems (with platforms like Quora and Reddit and Facebook Groups). You've also got Google in your pocket and the Shopify blog is here to help too.

 

Dealing With Fear: Breathe, Meditate, Push Past It

“Fearless” is a lie. We just learn how to lean into our fears, even when it hurts, until it no longer does.

It's easy to say "just face your fears", but that's not always easy. Fear is a physiological response and can sometimes take a bit more than just willpower to overcome.

One of the more noticeable symptoms of fear is rapid breathing. Scientists have found that rapidly inhaling (which we do when we're under duress) improves memory recall and response times that can be useful when we're faced with a threat.

But when there is no reasonable threat, we can use conscious, deep breathing to help ease fear and anxiety. This is also a key component of mindfulness meditation, which on top of controlling our breathing, helps us look at our emotions and thoughts as passing experiences.

Apps like Headspace or Stop, Breathe, Think (free) can walk you through mindfulness meditation, helping you slow down a little every day or whenever you need to most.

On the Other Side of Fear

Fear is an inherent part of entrepreneurship because uncertainty, risk, and standing out often are as well.

But fear is also the thing that lights a fire under us and gives rise to our ambitions, like the fear of regret, an un-lived life, and unrealized potential. I won't deny that fear has kept me from doing some of the things I'd like to. But it's also what pushes me to do the things I most want to.

What's interesting is that in the dozens of interviews I've had with entrepreneurs, the same plot point often comes up in their stories.

Before they started or found success with their businesses, they came face-to-face with the same proverbial monster.

On one side of it was them. On the other side of it was their ambition and everything they ever wanted.


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