The Three Levels Of Fear. Part One: Fear On An Individual Level

This is part one in a series of three articles.  It reviews how fears develop in individuals.  Part two reviews how fear can develop and spread in executive teams, and part three, how fear develops and spreads within organisations.

Fear On An Individual Level:

There is much literature on the early development of fears.  Fear development in young children is well summarised by LeBoe (2013), who outlines, how between nine and 12 months old we start to cling to loved ones in the presence of a stranger and at pre-school age the fear of ghosts and goblins emerges.  As she states “Children as young as three can detect a snake more quickly than a flower”.  We then go on to “learn our fears” based on the influence of early care-givers and peers.

Intertwined with and building on this early fear development we have coming into play what McDougall (1985) describes as the “theater of our mind”.  Termed by Kets de Vries (2011a) as our “inner theater”, he states “Behind the curtain of our inner theater, a rich tragicomedy plays out on our inner stage, with key actors representing the people we have loved, hated, feared, and admired throughout our lives.”   McDougall believed “Each secret-theater is thus engaged in repeatedly playing roles from the past using techniques discovered in childhood and reproducing, with uncanny precision, the same tragedies and comedies, with the same outcomes and an identical quota of pain and pleasure.”  So our early fears are further influenced and moulded by our experiences as we developed and were influenced by care-givers, teachers, peers and other significant adults, and subsequently these fears play out in our lives today. We carry our early fears around with us from home into the office and into our leadership roles.

As each person has their own unique inner theatre, each person has their own unique collection of fears.  Some of the most common fears for business people are: feeling we don’t deserve the success we have achieved - the “impostor syndrome” (Kets de Vries, 2005); fear of underachievement and fear of loss of status (Hampton, 2013); our subconscious fears such as fear of death, fear of lack of meaning in life and fear of loss of libido (Kets de Vries, 2009, 2014).

Having a fear doesn’t mean it will have a negative consequence.  As individuals we learn to manage or contain our fears.  Indeed, a fear can lead to what can be perceived as positive leadership behaviour.  For example, the fear of looking foolish might mean a leader is more humble, and humility in a leader can be perceived as a positive and beneficial leadership trait (Ou, Tsui, Kinicki, Waldman, Xiao, & Song, 2014).

To reduce the likelihood of fear being experienced, we develop what are termed social defence mechanisms. In effect these help protect us and can be relatively harmless, for example the use of humour to help defuse a stressful situation can be used quite artfully.   Freud (1966) refers to nine defences, and Kets de Vries (2006) notes 14.  These include (after Kets de Vries, 2006):

  • splitting - an ‘us versus them’ mentality where there is no middle ground
  • denial - not accepting the reality of a situation when it is clear to others
  • displacement - when people redirect their feelings towards a person who is “(less) dangerous than the one the aggression is really aimed at” and
  • reaction formation - “when people substitute behaviour, thoughts, or feelings that are diametrically opposed to their own unacceptable ones”, for example someone exhibiting homophobic hatred when they themselves are attracted to the same sex.

Anna Freud (1966) - Sigmund Freud's daughter - mentions another important psychodynamic defence relevant to this research paper; that of projection:  She describes:

An ego which with the defense mechanism of projection develops along this particular line introjects the authorities to whose criticism it is exposed and incorporates them in the superego.  It is then able to project the prohibited impulses outward.  Its intolerance of other people precedes its severity toward itself.  It learns what is regarded as blameworthy but protects itself by means of this defense mechanism from unpleasant self-criticism.

To put this succinctly, someone with a bad feelings about themselves projects them and imagines they are contained within or represented by another person.


(Article reference details, available on request)

You might also enjoy these articles:

Explore Vantage Hill Partners professional services:

Click on link:

Top Team Effectiveness * CEO & Executive Coaching * Storytelling for Leaders * Keynotes