Feeling a Different Kind of Fear


If I asked you what you fear, how would you respond? Would your list include things like spiders or car accidents or getting the flu? Maybe criticism or loneliness or saying the wrong thing?

A few of my many fears include climbing down ladders (climbing up is just fine), looking silly when I try something new, and being annoying.

Sometimes it seems like fear is one of my most constant companions. I even wrote my very first guest post on what I was learning about fear .

I’ve been experiencing a lot of fear this week, and, it might surprise you to know, I’m glad. Some of my fear is a response to perceived outside threats, but much of it is a result of stretching myself beyond my own comfort zone.

Tara Mohr , the author of Playing Big, shares a teaching from the writing of Rabbi Alan Lew that completely changed the way she understands fear. She explains that the Hebrew Bible uses two different words for fear. “Pachad is the over-reactive, irrational fear that stems from worries about what could happen, about the worst-case scenarios we imagine.”

This is the definition that most readily comes to mind when I think of fear. It’s one I can certainly relate to. Anyone else have a tendency to look for all the things that could possibly go wrong?

It’s the second kind of fear I find especially interesting:

Yirah has three different meanings:

  1. It is the feeling that overcomes us when we inhabit a larger space than we are used to.
  1. It is the feeling we experience when we suddenly come into possession of considerably more energy than we had before.
  1. It is what we feel in the presence of the divine.

Yes. This sounds like what I’ve been feeling. As I stretch myself, there are, of course, some of the worst-case scenario rumblings—what if they don’t like me, what if I do it wrong, what if I say something stupid. But mostly I’m not so much worried as excited.

This kind of fear is still uncomfortable, but it’s also exhilarating. My insides feel quivery, my breathing gets shallow and fast, and my mind starts racing over all the possibilities. Contrast that with the threatening, over-reactive kind of fear. My stomach clenches tight, my shoulders slump, and my mind can’t picture anything but the worst possible outcomes.

One of the questions I’ve been exploring this week is how to make things fun and fresh again when I start feeling stuck. Part of the unexpected answer I’ve been uncovering is to do something that scares me. I’m not talking about putting myself in physical peril—juggling knives or jumping out of planes.

Instead, what is helping me feel alive and engaged is doing things that bring me closer to where I want to be while stretching me beyond what feels emotionally comfortable.

I took a look at my list of things I’d do someday when I felt more ready…and actually did some of them. I extended invitations without knowing how they would be received. I gave myself permission to do less in some areas and pushed myself to focus harder in others. I wrote and submitted a couple of guest posts.

I wish I could assure you experiencing Yirah feels amazing. Honestly, it’s still uncomfortable—kind of a trembling, shivery excitement. But just because it’s uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it’s not welcome. It’s actually a sign that what I’m doing matters to me.

We’re likely to keep ourselves small and stuck when we don’t recognize the difference between our experience of stepping into something bigger and our fear of bad things happening.

Maybe instead of asking how I can feel less afraid, a more helpful questions would be how can I lean into Yirah?

How about you? What has scared you recently, and which kind of fear was it? What are the most helpful lessons you’ve learned about navigating fear?