The Hidden Cost of Fear

Steven Barnes
7 min readJul 10, 2019

I remember when I was in maybe fourth grade, at Alta Loma elementary school, and one kid, a big guy, “Tommy”, believed I’d done something wrong. To tell you the truth, he might have been right. I was just as liable to commit casual, thoughtless cruelties as any other kid. Could I have teased someone? Hit someone? Maybe. I honestly don’t remember. What I DO remember is that he took the occasion of this fault, whatever it was, to follow me all the way home, beating me up as we went. Again and again, as I cried and shuddered, he punched me in the stomach again and again. If I tried to cover up my belly, he threatened to punch me in the face.

That memory, of sheer helplessness and pain over time, the shame and humiliation of not fighting back, of being unable to do anything but walk and sob, burned deep in to my heart. For years, DECADES, it haunted me.


Yes, I’ll tell you how I got past that terror. But first a thought as I create the new Lifewriting course, which will deal directly with fear, and the way it cripples us in life, and what we need to do to heal. Even in purely business or public contexts, in relationships and casual encounters, bullies and predators use fear, intimidation, guilt and shame to control you.

As Dawn Callan has said, even people who LOVE you can accidentally drag you down. Countless artists have been crippled because their families warned them they would never be able to make a living “playing games.” Or teachers or friends mocking their early work. Those warnings, criticisms, go DEEP.

Our most basic wiring is survival. It trumps EVERYTHING. I promise that no matter what your problems, what your concerns, how depressed you are, how much money you owe, or how much you loved that girl who left you…if I stuck your head in a bucket of water, you would forget EVERYTHING else and fight for your life. Period. Every time.

That’s real. That survival drive is the “third rail” of every psychological response, every action in life, and figuring out how to undo the negative lessons powered by it is one of the major aspects of “adulting” in life.

What was I being taught by “Tommy”? On the surface, of course, not to do whatever terrible thing that ten year old Stevie might have done. But under that…that I was small, and weak, and bad, and wrong. That if I even dared fight back, I would be hurt even worse. That I was a coward.

Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes is a NY Times bestselling author, ecstatic husband and father, and holder of black belts in three martial arts.