The Gift of Fear

Foreign Service LifePeru
August 10, 2013


So, as I mentioned in my last post, I was a bit rattled after my sketchy cab incident and decided to *FINALLY* pick up this book, The Gift of Fear, after 5 years of it sitting on my shelf.  Surprisingly, it was not only insightful, but also read like a thriller.  Not kidding, I couldn’t put the thing down – and not because I was scared either, but because the information was so rich and I saw how many of the common traps I’ve fallen into before.

I say before because I feel like this is something I’ve really worked on since joining the foreign service.  It’s not like violence didn’t exist in my pre-foreign service life in Minnesota; it’s just that I thought I could “worry it away”.  I could make up the most elaborate stories of what might happen to me and was ever-so-vigilant as a result (my family didn’t call me Safe Sarah for nothing).  You see, I assumed that if I was on high alert all the time that safety would constantly be on my mind and therefore keep me out of danger.

Guess what?  It’s exactly the opposite.  De Becker states, “.. if one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed.  […]  I strongly recommend caution and precaution, but many people believe — and we are even taught — that we must be extra alert to be safe.  In fact, this usually decreases the likelihood of perceiving hazards and thus reduces safety.  […]  If we are looking for some specific, expected danger, we are less likely to see the unexpected danger.”

De Becker believes that worry is essentially useless AND a conscious choice we make because we get a secondary reward from it (avoiding change, not admitting powerlessness, etc).  He says, “Worry is the fear we manufacture – it is not authentic.  […]  Many people believe that worrying about something will stop it from happening.  Most of what people worry about has a low probability of occurring because we tend to take action about those things we feel are likely to occur.  This means that very often the mere fact that you are worrying about something is a predictor that it isn’t likely to happen.”

Here are De Becker’s 3 simple rules regarding worry and fear:

  1. When you feel fear, listen.
  2. When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.
  3. If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

Given where I started, I’m quite proud of how far I’ve come in regards to safety.  Joining the foreign service forced me to confront violence as a reality (it was easier to believe bad things didn’t happen in the US) and as a result I learned to accept that danger is real, but not something I needed to focus all my energy worrying about.

For me, safety now incorporates 3 things:

  1. Educating myself on possible threats in my environment (for example, knowing that kidnapping has happened to Expats in Lima before)
  2. Gathering information so that I can be as situationally aware as possible.  If I know what the norm looks like, I’m more likely to intuitively recognize when something feels ‘off’, like it did my my cab situation.
  3. Always listening to and trusting my intuition, no matter what.  If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t try to think it through anymore – I simply get out of there.

I hope this was informative and I highly, HIGHLY recommend that you pick up The Gift of Fear.

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  1. Mary Olk says:

    I LOVE this book. Thanks for sharing some very helpful information Sarah. You are the best!

  2. Sarah Novak says:

    Me too Mary – glad you found it useful! :)

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