Two New Ways of Understanding Fear

Chances are, if there is something holding you back from stepping up to a leadership opportunity, it’s fear. Fear is always with us, encouraging us to play it safe and small and trying to protect us from getting hurt. Fear and I have been in relationship for a very long time, pushing and pulling and overcoming to forge the path of my career and my life.

Earlier this year, I picked up one of the most powerful, profound, and paradigm-shifting books that I’ve ever read—Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead by Tara Mohr. An expert on women’s leadership, Mohr outlines all of the ways in which we hold ourselves back from owning and creating our important work. And she says it all in a way that makes you feel like you’re curled up across from her on an emerald green velvet sofa, learning from a wise mentor while clutching a warm cup of tea. In other words, her writing is real, big-hearted, and authentic.

One of my biggest takeaways from the book is an entirely new perspective on fear. Mohr encountered this new perspective through a teaching from a spiritual leader on how fear is conveyed in the Hebrew Bible through two separate words with two different meanings:

The first word for fear is pachad, meaning the fear of projected or imagined things—”the over-reactive, irrational fear that stems from worries about what could happen, about worst-case-scenarios we imagine.” This is the fear with which I’m well-acquainted. It’s the one that makes me feel breathless and tight, paralyzed. It’s the fear that I wrestle with to overcome.

The second word for fear was brand new to me: yirah, which has three different meanings:

  1. The feeling that overcomes us when we inhabit a larger space than we are used to.

  2. The feeling we experience when we suddenly come into possession of considerably more energy than we had before.

  3. The feeling that we are in the presence of the divine.

Upon reading this, I was immediately transported to a moment from last fall when I was preparing to speak at a conference that felt like a big, exciting new level for me. I nervously grabbed my tea from the continental breakfast and sought out my room to set up. When I got there, I noticed the sign over the door said “Grand Ballroom.” I gulped and pushed the door open. The room was huge. There was an enormous screen in the front, a whole audio setup with microphones for me as the presenter, and a vast ceiling.

My immediate impulse was to phone a friend—I dialed one, and then another, but no one was picking up at 7:35 am. That was the pachad, the fight or flight fear trying to talk me into running from the room to avoid embarrassment.

But I took a breath. I stood firmly on my two feet in the front of the room and felt an expansiveness inside of me. The participants came in and filled the seats. The session got going, and I was in my element. We filled up that space with a dynamic, interactive session that resonated deeply with the participants.

I remember thinking after: Give me a stadium. Give me a microphone. This is bigger than me, and I’m ready.

I felt yirah—expansive, energized to share my tools, and passionate about their usefulness for others. I felt tapped into my inner source of strength and purpose. It wasn’t a constricting type of fear, but a life-giving, inspiring one.

Since then, I’m on the chase for those yirah moments. They aren’t something to overcome—they’re something to be savored.

What does it mean to you to distinguish between pachad and yirah fear?

When was a moment that you felt yirah? What did it feel like to you?

Carole Ann Penney, Strategic Career Coach & Founder of Penney Leadership, develops mission-driven leaders who are ready to take the next steps in their career development. She is a member of The Lady Project’s Board of Directors and mentors emerging female leaders through Brown University's Women's Launch Pad Program. When she is not coaching, she’s developing the most important emerging leader in her life—her three-year-old daughter, Avery Jean. Connect with her at: LinkedIn, Instagram.