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I’ve noticed a strange phenomenon that seems to effect almost everyone who works on developing themselves actively.
There you are; bravely facing fears and pushing the boundaries of comfort. Maybe you’re moving forward in your career, or conquering social anxiety, or changing your health through exercise and nutrition. Everything is on track.
Then, suddenly – seemingly out of nowhere – you just stop caring.
Performance drops off. Results falter. You find yourself procrastinating, lost and confused.
Where did all that motivation go? Why did something that mattered to you so much suddenly become unimportant and even distasteful? Why can’t you figure out why you no longer give a shit about changing?
I noticed this most distinctly when I was learning how to meet strangers. It would occur in waves. For weeks, or even months, I would be regularly pushing through anxiety to approach strangers and start conversations. Then, without warning, I would stop wanting to do it. This would lead to long periods of inactivity and lack of growth.
This made no sense to me on a rational level. On one hand, I had a story in my mind saying “Well, you’ve proven you’re not afraid of this now, so there’s really no point in doing it anymore,” while on the other hand, I still had a strong, deep-seated desire to connect with people, date interesting women, and build a healthy social circle.
My behaviour did not match my values and goals, but for the life of me I just couldn’t be fucked doing it anymore. There didn’t seem to be any sensible reason for this sudden drop in passion and intensity, yet I couldn’t convince myself to get back on the horse and keep going. It just seemed so pointless.
Since that experience, I’ve had a realisation. Recently, it all became clear when I read Mark Manson’s book Models. Now I see this thing happening everywhere.
The pattern is simple:
It starts with inspiration and a courageous commitment to change. This is followed by a strong burst of action and life-changing behaviour modifications, often with pleasurable results as well as painful learning experiences.
Then, it happens. There’s a sudden dip in action. People become too busy, or tired, or distracted. The motivation disappears. And despite the core desire for a new life remaining strong, the day-to-day motivation to breach the comfort zone is gone.
Sometimes this takes the form of a complete “relapse” into a needy behaviour. Someone working on their career suddenly finds themselves stuck in a boring job again. Someone working on their social skills finds an “OK” partner and just drops all forms of socializing to spend every spare minute with them. People stop going to the gym and start eating fast food again.
Does this resonate with you?
I believe what has happened here is that you’ve been tricked by your fears and insecurities. They’ve played their final trump card, a last desperate attempt.
You see, Fear’s most devastating weapon is saved for the end, when the battle seems to be over. You previously thought nothing could hold you back more than terror or anxiety. But you’re wrong. There’s a far more powerful trick waiting for you. The weapon is brutal in its deviousness and simplicity.
The weapon is Apathy.
Fear sneaks into your brain’s control room when you’re otherwise occupied and pulls the plug on motivation. It does this with no obvious fearful sensations occurring, so you have no idea that Fear is even involved.
There is a build-up to this. Fear notices that you are regularly putting yourself into emotionally uncomfortable situations, and it’s not happy about this. Fear watches your efforts with growing resentment, day after day, shaking its head and saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?! Another day of this shit? He must be mental. This better be just a phase, I swear to God.”
After a while, Fear gets fed up. Fear looks at your constant painful growth and says, “Alright fine, you wanna play? Then let’s do it, bitch. Let’s play a game.”
The set-up for this apathy trick takes the form of what seems to be a reward: Recognition.
Fear starts whispering in your ear about how brave you are, and how much success you’re having, and what a good boy/girl you are! Hell, if anyone deserves a rest, it’s you. By God, you’ve earned it! Take a week off, what’s the harm? You’re obviously on top of this shit now. Let’s have a break and crack into it again in the… ah, near future. Yeah, that’s what we’ll do. I promise. Well done champ!
The truth is simple: You are still afraid.
It’s not that you don’t care anymore, it’s that you’re worn out by the constant absence of steady comfort and familiarity. Your Fear isn’t really your enemy, on the contrary; it’s trying to help you.
Fear can’t communicate with direct honesty, because fear only operates in a fictional space. Fear is future-based, and the future is only ever a prediction, a simulation – it’s never real. Fear has no choice but to use deception to influence you. Fear only ever speaks in metaphor.
Especially when you refuse to acknowledge it.
I found that Fear only uses the weapon of apathy when it feels left out. We are raised to have so much shame and disgust attached to the concept of fear. Because of this we try to destroy or at least ignore our fears. Even some of the most helpful self-development resources regularly talk about fear as a bad, evil enemy. I know I used to.
When Fear feels like it’s left out of the decision-making process, it throws a tantrum, like the child not chosen for the schoolyard baseball game. In a more practical sense; the protective scripts and circuits in your brain notice that you’re clearly ignoring all risks and warnings that Fear is sending you, so it goes into emergency override. It switches off your desire and won’t turn it on again until you acknowledge what Fear has to say.
And, ultimately, acknowledging Fear was what resolved this recurring issue for me. I rebuilt my relationship with Fear. It was awkward at first, like meeting up with an ex-partner after ending on bad terms. I had to get to know my Fear, listen to it, give it room to speak, and – most of all – respect its suggestions.
I learned quite early on during this healing process that Fear didn’t actually want me to stop growing. It just wanted me to take better care of myself in the process.
I was going out and meeting five new people every lunch break. This left no time for rest or real reflection. It was also misguided; once I conquered my fear of talking to strangers, I needed to change tack and work on building deeper connections and creating an interesting social life, not just cold-talking to random people walking around the mall. Fear was trying to help me see this.
I started literally having conversations with my fear. When fear-like symptoms came up – such as anxiety, hesitation, and apathy – I would stop and check in with myself. What are you trying to tell me, Fear? What do I need to know? How should I approach this challenge differently?
The answers came to me from inside my head. Fear told me to slow down, measure, rest and recuperate. It never actually said “Don’t do it,” it just questioned why I was doing it and why I never felt like I’d done enough.
Next time you notice apathy, note that it doesn’t mean you should give up – you did originally want this change for a powerful reason, right? Just acknowledge that Fear is feeling left out and needs some of your attention. It’s probably worried because you’re not caring for yourself through the constant pain of growth.
Sit down with a pen and paper and ask your Fear what it’s trying to tell you.