Fear as a Motivator and Inhibitor

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series The Negative Self

Gazing in fearDespite a large amount of disagreement in the psychological community, more often than not, fear is listed as one of the most basic human emotions. Regardless of high-level professional quibbling, there is little doubt we’ve all experienced it at one point or another.

Most likely, you’re more familiar with fear than you want to be.

You know what it feels like–your pulse quickens, your breath hitches in your chest, your skin goes cold and clammy, your mind either races or seems to stop completely. At its most extreme, it can send us running away or into a catatonic state. At its most insidious, it can creep into our thought processes and breed suspicion, general anxiety, and a host of other problems.

As a Motivator

Needless to say, all of those things are generally unpleasant and any sensible person would seek to avoid them. Especially in a relationship. Because of this, fear can be an effective motivator–applied either by oneself or others.

How many people do you know move almost immediately on to their next relationship after one ends? Dig down into their motivation for this and you may very well find a fear of being alone. Even on a subconscious level, that fear acts to keep them involved with someone, sometimes regardless of how good that person is for them.

Alternately, someone who has a deep-seated fear of being dependent on others may quickly get out of a relationship where he or she feels pressured to acquiesce to another’s care or make too many compromises.

In abusive relationships, that kind of fear is often leveraged by the abuser against his or her victim. They plant the ideas that the victim will never find anyone else, that he or she is worthless or incapable of surviving without the abuser’s support. This constant fear pressure serves to warp the victims perception of him or herself, leaving them feeling trapped.

As an Inhibitor

Much the same way as it acts as a motivator, fear can serve as a relationship inhibitor.

An extreme fear of dependency–or of repeating past bad relationship experiences–may even keep someone from getting close to others all together.

Common fears of embarrassment can make social interaction difficult and fears of being hurt (often again) can make even connecting with others on a basic level difficult.

Threats that instill fear–especially those that hinge on physical violence or withholding of affection or some other positive aspect of the relationship–can be used to keep others from engaging in all sorts of other behavior. Everything from breaking off contact with friends and family to performing actions that they’d never do on their own can be attributed to fear-based coercion.

A Counter-Intuitive Twist

Most people will go out of their way to avoid those things that scare them or produce anxiety. But some will actively go out and find people and circumstances that trigger anxiety or a fear response.

These thrill seekers can sometimes be unaware of the pattern they’re pursuing and, in some cases, may not even be aware that they’re putting themselves in danger. These are the people who are adrenaline junkies or thrive on the passionate fire of a mutually violent and destructive relationship. The Sid & Nancys of the world.

On the flip side of the thrill seeker is the person who thinks he or she needs to be punished for some transgression (real or imagined). They can seek out destructive or unfulfillingĀ  relationships as a means of avoiding the happiness or feelings of self-worth that they think they don’t deserve. In this case, the fear, while sought out, is done so to avoid the chance of positive feelings or experiences, allowing them to continue to justify their position as an unworthy individual.


At its most insidious, fear works its way into the thought process and plays off the negative spirals we all experience at times. Set off by any tiny thing a negative spiral can play on your fears, finding disparate bits of memory and facts and skewing them to support your most fearful thoughts. A significant other working late for the third time in a week can quickly bloom into a vivid fear of them having rough hotel-room sex with a coworker that you think may be interested in them. An unreturned phone call can spike into a sure sign that they really don’t like you as much as you thought. An unintended insult can trigger a surety that they’re just as abusive as your last ex.

Fear can motivate us to stay away from those things that aren’t good and hinder us from getting out of bad situations. It can accentuate the negativity already inside of us or lead us on wild chases of bad experiences to satisfy some deeper need–either for excitement or self-flagellation.

It blurs the lines between reality and imagination even more quickly and easily than hope can. It sneaks up on us from our deep past and can overshadow and undercut even the brightest future.

How big a part does fear play in your day to day life? Think hard on it. Next time, we look more in depth at how to tell.

Series NavigationFacing Your Negative SelfThree Types of Fear
  • Maria

    I know I am pulling away from my boyfriend emotionally and physically (much to his dismay), because I do not want the pain, anger, and scars from another break-up or divorce. This is not relfective of the value or quality of our nearly 2-year relationship, which is doing pretty darn well, actually. Rather, it is my own desire to avoid repeating past mistakes. I remember the gory details of the decline, separation, and end of my 2-year marriage and it killed me. As much as I tried to hold it in and not let anyone else know how much I was hurting, not for losing my jerk of an ex-husband but for losing the chance of being one of those couples who have been together forever, still love ecah other in their 70s and have been married for ages. You know, a relationship that works and continues to.

    Now that I am divorced, I can never be like my parents: married for 45 years, still in love, very happy, and almost idyllic. They were the standard I desperately wanted to live up to. Now that dead, unrecoverable dream haunts me. Perhaps my boyfriend and I will have a relationship/marriage that stands the test of time and makes it longer than the now seemingly normal 2 to 5 years. Only time will tell. First, I must get over my fear of being hurt again and losing what I hold most dear: love.

    • Anonymous

      Oh, that’s a rough situation. But very helpful that you realize what’s going on inside of you… too often people in that situation don’t realize it and end up projecting their fears on their significant other.

      There’s no simple solution, of course, but being open about it with your significant other can really help.

      As far as the “happily married forever” bar goes, I know where you’re coming from. Just last year, I was at a family celebration of 100 years of marriage: 60 years for my grandparents and 40 years for my parents. If matching those numbers were high on my list of priorities, and I got married today, my wife and I would have to live till I was near 100 to hit the 60 year mark. From everything I’ve ever seen, though, the most important thing in any relationship is the quality of it–not the quantity of time it spans.

      Wishing you good luck in everything.

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