The Words We Use Matter

While the modern medical name for the feeling produced by a new challenge or large goal is stress, for countless generations it went by the old, familiar name of fear. Even now, I’ve found that the most successful people are the ones who gaze fear unblinkingly. Instead of relying on terms like anxiety, stress, or nervousness, they speak openly of being frightened by their responsibilities and challenges. Here’s Jack Welch, the past CEO of General Electric: “Everyone who is running something goes home at night and wrestles with the same fear: Am I going to be the one who blows this place up?” Chuck Jones, the creator of Pepe le Pew and Wile E. Coyote, emphasized that “fear is the most important factor in any creative work.” And Sally Ride, the astronaut, is unafraid to talk plainly of fear: “All adventures, especially into new territory, are scary.”

I was puzzled why so many remarkable people preferred the word fear to stress or anxiety. The answer came to me one day while I was observing physicians in the course of their training. I was following one of our family-practice resident physicians through the course of her day in the health center, seeing children and adults for the wide variety of maladies that bring people to a primary care physician. I noticed that when adults came to see a physician and talk about their emotional pain, they chose words such as stress, anxiety, depression, nervous, and tense. But when I observed children talking about their feeling, they talked about being scared, sad, or afraid.

It’s my conclusion that the reason for the difference in word choice had less to do with the symptoms and more to do with expectations. The children assumed their feelings were normal. Children know they live in a world they cannot control. They have no say in whether their parents are in a good mood or bad, or whether their teachers are nice or mean. They understand that fear is a part of their lives.

Adults, I believe, assume that if they are living correctly, they can control the event around them. When fear does appear, it seems all wrong–so adults prefer to call it by the names for psychiatric disease. Fear becomes a disorder, something to put in a box with a tidy label of “stress” or “anxiety.”

This approach to fear is unproductive. If your expectation is that a well-run life should always be orderly, you are setting yourself up for panic and defeat. If you assume that a new job or relationship or health goal is supposed to be easy, you will feel angry and confused when fear arises–and do anything to make it disappear.

Excerpt from One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D. (pages 29-31)

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