Dear Neil:  I have some fears that I’m having a hard time coping with.  The first thing that I’m afraid of is failing in my relationship with my boyfriend of five months.  I have a history of my relationships with guys failing, and I really want this one to work out.   Secondly, my mom and my sister have both had breast cancer and had to have mastectomies, and I’m afraid I’m in line to be next.  I do everything I can think of to stay healthy, but this fear follows me around unmercifully.  Thirdly, the doctor says I may need to have female surgery (unrelated to cancer).  I’ve never had surgery before and am deathly afraid of it—and of not waking up afterwards.  These fears really have a grip on me and are spooking me big time.  Can you offer any suggestions on how I could have courage and face my fears?

Afraid in San Francisco


Dear Afraid:  Courage is not absence of fear—but rather the judgment that something else is more important than your fear.  Fear says “I can’t cope. I’m not going to be able to handle the bad things that are happening, or that could happen.”   Courage says “I will find a way to face this dilemma and not let this problem defeat me.”   Courage says “Feel the fear, but do the wise, healthy thing anyway.”

Fear is designed to help us anticipate danger, and to respond to it effectively.  But being preoccupied with fear keeps us stuck in anxiety, worry and unhappiness.  It obscures analysis and weakens our ability to concentrate, because our clarity is clouded by anxiety—and  it’s hard to overcome adversity or face challenges if we can’t think clearly.  Thus, we must be careful to make sure we don’t allow our fears to get the better of us, because they can, if we’re not careful, defeat us.

To help you create clarity in your thinking so you can face your challenges as effectively as possible, answer the following questions as thoroughly as you can:

  • What I’m afraid of is…
  • If my fear turns out to be correct, then…
  • I’m afraid I won’t be able cope with…
  • What threatens me the most about this is…
  • I could allow this fear to become destructive if…
  • Some effective ways of coping with this fear would be for me to…
  • Some effective ways of overcoming this fear would be for me to…
  • What I can do right now is…

Regarding your intimate relationship, I would recommend you explore carefully the fear that you won’t measure up or be good enough, as well as your fears of rejection and disapproval.

If we’re not working on our fears, we’re not working on our life, and we’ll then back away from new possibilities and opportunities.  Talk to friends and family, or journal about your fears.  That often helps you feel that you’re not facing life challenges alone.

Has your relationship turned cold and distant? Neil’s book Love, Sex, and Staying Warm can help you rekindle your passion.

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