“It’s fear of the unknown. The unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusion, wars, peace, love, hate, all that – it’s an illusion. Unknown is what it is. Accept that it’s unknown and it’s plain sailing. Everything is unknown – then you’re ahead of the game. That’s what it is. Right?”
-John Lennon, English singer and songwriter

How do you feel about what the New Year will bring? How you answer that question is a good indictor about how you view your possibilities and live your life.

For many of us, there is one deeply embedded fear that prevents us from taking control of our lives, blocks us from letting go of old, outdated, cumbersome beliefs and inhibits us from shaping our future in a positive, proactive way. It is the one fear that keeps us average, penned in, restricted and doing the same things that everyone else is doing in the same way simply because it’s comfortable and familiar. Most of us don’t deal well with ambiguity.

This fear is the fear of the unknown and it is pervasive in our society. We even have superstitious sayings to reinforce this fear: “Ignorance is bliss”, “Curiosity killed the cat” or, “Better safe than sorry.”

And when the fear of the unknown becomes widespread, it can do untold damage. The philosopher and writer, Bertrand Russell summed it up concisely when he wrote, “Collective fear stimulates herd instinct and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”

Of course, the present circumstances of our bleak financial outlook, the fact that we are involved in fighting two wars and our pervasive concern about terrorism on the home front fuels this fear. Indeed, fear of the unknown can be seen in the everyday actions we take or don’t take.

I’m sure you are familiar with the feeling that manifests itself in anxiety, stomach flutters or a stiff tightness in neck and shoulders – that vague, indefinable discomfort that happens when you get close to the edge of familiarity. It’s that internal, often malevolent voice in your head that shouts “Danger!” which is often misinterpreted as a red flag to doom. You recognize that voice, don’t you?

There is a part of your mind, known as the subconscious, which is designed for one single purpose – to keep you safe. This part of your mind has been trained to identify what is benign and what is dangerous. Not only is this ‘early warning system’ embedded in our genes, reinforcement conditioning takes place in childhood. Perhaps when you wandered too far from your parents and were reprimanded. Or maybe you were chastised because you stood to close to edge of a cliff, talked to a stranger or touched a hot stove. Whatever your experience, you learned what was safe and what was dangerous, even if it wasn’t. The fear from those warnings stuck like glue.

And that’s the problem – the conditioning, the learning, the programming may be a little out of whack with reality. The truth is that what you picked up and internalized on the meandering path to adulthood probably goes like this: “If it’s familiar and comfortable, it’s good. If it’s unfamiliar, it’s bad. So trust the things you know.”

This presents a bit of a challenge, especially when you realize that fear of the unknown refers to fears that are based on absolutely nothing. In fact, fear of the unknown is about the future – a projection into the future – based on circumstances that you’ve encountered in the past. Since the world is changing with lightening speed, it isn’t logical that the future will be like the past unless – you make it so.

It’s important that you realize and internalize the knowledge that fear of the unknown is based on past experiences, not on those things that you have not yet encountered. If you accept this truth, you will know that the fear of the unknown is based on a lie – a false perception. It’s based on what has been – not what will or can be. In others words, you need to get real to be free.

The good news is that you can manage your fear by learning to manage your mind. You can actually overcome this fear through – believe it or not – rational thinking. When you steadfastly choose to confront and examine your fears, you can almost always resolve them or at the least ameliorate their hold over you.

According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the deeply ingrained biological aversion to ambiguity comes straight from the fear of the unknown. In his book “Iconoclast,” Berns shows that fear, this limiter of potential and creativity, can be held in check. How? By learning to convert ambiguity into risk by reappraisal. It is when we reappraise that we can view ambiguity as an opportunity for gaining knowledge, and it is by gathering information and learning that we are able to see possibility instead of doom. This requires a shift in your thinking about the future.

Here are several tips on how to mute the fear of the unknown:

  • If you are feeling fear, there is some sort of risk involved with what you are doing or desire to do. Your job is to convert ambiguity into risk by defining specific goals for the future. That’s the way to harness your stress and convert it into positive energy and opportunity.
  • List two specific short-term and two long-term goals you would like to accomplish during this New Year. Do something out of your comfort zone, something you’ve only dreamed of doing. Break your routine.
  • Write down the risks involved with pursuing your goals.
  • Learn, learn and learn some more! Learn everything you can about the circumstances, the arena in which you will be involved. Learn about the people with whom you will be dealing with. Study the niche you want to fill. Learn about the stock market. Learn about your competitors. Learning always reduces fear.
  • Trust yourself! Once you have learned what you need, you can make an informed decision. If you can handle the risk, take it, let go and trust yourself.
  • Reach out! You aren’t the first or the last to fear the unknown. Seek advice. Ask for help from someone who has been down the same or similar road as you. Others have overcome their fear and achieved success. Learn from them.
  • Fear of the unknown is the best opportunity you will ever have to discover something new. Perhaps it’s time to reflect on the words of the Roman Emperor and stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (ad 161-180): ” If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Make the unknown, known – and have a great year!