A Fear Worse Than Reality

Why do we always imagine the worst? We psych ourselves out before ever getting the chance to act. Let's examine where this tendency comes from and how to combat it.

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca

A fear of the unknown is hard-wired into all of us.

Remember those monsters under the bed and in the closet as a kid? Don't look under the bed. Don't look in the closet. It's dark there.

Just get into bed, throw the covers over your head and imagine what lurks where the eyes cannot see.

There are no monsters in dark places. As adults, we know they are given life through imagination. Even so, fear of the unknown remains. The monster known as failure stalks and taunts us in every stressful situation.

We tend to obsess over what we fear. Each concocted failure scenario is relived multiple times until what we imagine is far worse than the reality of what we face. According to Seth Godin, “worry is the act of experiencing failure repeatedly in your head before it ever happens.”

  • I’m going to mess up at the next game.

  • I’m going to forget my lines in front of everyone.

  • I’m going to fail that test.

Fear guards against risky behavior, but if left unchecked, it can prevent us from growing. Too much fear of a thing often results in inaction. We never take that step. We never take that risk.

How do you fight this tendency to imagine the worse?

  1. Reverse your perception by thinking and reliving positive scenarios. Tony Robbins encourages us to “stop being afraid of what could go wrong, and start being excited by what could go right.”

  2. Pick something in the past that turned out to be tame compared to your imagination. Use it as a reminder each time you succumb to fear of the unknown.

  3. Imagine what you fear as a storm at sea. Then use these words of wisdom from the Buddha: “Stop trying to calm the storm. Calm yourself, and the storm will pass.”


The next time you anticipate the worst in a future event, use one or more of the three strategies to contain your fear of the unknown.

How did it go? Is there something else that works better for you?