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Common Fears


Explanations > Emotions > Common Fears

Death | Pain | Harm | Impotence | Isolation | Poverty | Irrelevance | Even more briefly | So what


There are many things we fear, yet there are a few which underlie other fears and so which drive us more powerfully.

Fears are future-focused. They are good when they keep us safe by directing avoiding action. They can also be debilitating as they paralyze us and prevent us from succeeding.


Death is the ultimate equalizer. We all will die, yet we avoid the subject assiduously, talking about it in metaphor, such as 'passing on' or 'sleeping'. These are coping mechanisms that help us avoid this much-feared subject.

Death is the destruction of identity, which is a very deep need. The thought of extinction, of nonexistence is so uncomfortable we need the idea of an after-life which religions offer.


Physical pain is designed to alert us to injury and ensure we care for our bodies. We also experience emotional pain when our needs and goals are not met. Pain slows us down and turns our attention inward.

While we fear pain, we also forget it. When we are healthy it can be hard to recall exactly the agonies of illness, yet we remember enough to know it is not nice.

Pain is the weapon of the torturer. It seems ultimately cruel yet threatening pain is a common persuasive ploy where the basic message is 'Do as I say or I will cause you pain'.


Harm leads to pain or death so we fear this too. This can be in the form of physical disease or injury. Harm may also be psychological or social when it impairs our cognitive functioning or position in society.

We fear harm to our goals and the things we value. We fear bodily harm and the pain it causes. Even more, we fear disfigurement and disability that changes our image and our lives.

We may fear threats, though mostly we fear the harm the threat might bring.


Impotence is the inability to take desired actions, a debilitating loss of autonomy that prevents us from meeting our needs and achieving our goals.

When we are impotent, we cannot avoid harm, even if we see it coming. Like a rabbit frozen in the headlights of an oncoming car, we cannot even run away.

Blindness is a form of impotence. Our fear of the dark is largely based on the potential for harm and our inability to prepare, to take avoiding action, or otherwise avoid the harm.


We are social animals and naturally seek to belong to various groups, from friendships to work teams to country citizenship. We hence fear being alone, separated, without a support network.

When we are members of groups we constantly fear rejection and the isolation it would bring. Indeed, it is the threat of punishment or rejection that keeps many of us in line. It is perhaps not surprising that solitary isolation in prison is one of the most feared punishments.


We live in a material world and life's reality for many is more of a desperate scrabble away from poverty rather than a serene march towards higher goals. Poverty also has a social element as it implies having a very low status.

Poverty implies lack of money, though it also brings impotence in a wide range of things. Poor people are often so focused on staying alive, they are caught in the poverty trap where they have neither time nor resources to better themselves.


A higher need we have is that our lives have meaning, and that when we die we will have achieved something noteworthy.

One of the great frustrations is for our efforts to go un-noticed and under-valued. When we feel irrelevant, our sense of identity is diminished and it is this which the key.

Even more briefly

As a brief, memorable duo, we can reduce fears to lack and loss.


We fear we will lack the ability and resource to get what we need and avoid harm. When we think of things that might happen, it is not those we can cope with that troubles us most, but those where we will not have sufficient control to cope.


We also fear loss of who we are and what we have. When we think of death, harm and rejection, the idea of losing things we value causes most pain. Who we are and what we have defines our selves and loss is very largely related to our sense of identity.

So what?

One way of motivating people is to provoke fears. This will certainly get action, though the actual action can be hard to predict as people tend to flee their fears in unexpected direction or may react against you in the fight-or-flight response.

See also

Coping Mechanisms, Type of Fear


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