The Fear Ladder: Overcoming Your Greatest Fears

woman, girl, dragon

How many of us have goals we wish we could achieve but are constantly held back by some pesky fear getting in the way? For our grandest desires, there’s usually some fearsome hurdle blocking our path that may as well be a three-headed, fire-breathing hydra. Trying to overcome that fear head-on can be daunting, and just thinking of it may be paralyzing. So how does one even begin to approach slaying a fire-breathing hydra?

The Fear Ladder

First of all, what is a “Fear Ladder?” In a nutshell, it’s a list of all your fears, ordered from top to bottom, starting with your most intense fear on top and your least intense fear on the very bottom. Each rung of this ladder represents a core fear that has yet to be vanquished. But to understand the usefulness of this, some other important concepts are required.

Fear is Akin to Potential Energy

This is something that is really interesting when it comes to fear. I view fear as frozen potential energy/confidence/power/freedom/etc. You see, the thing is, when we overcome one fear, we don’t just overcome that individual fear, we also uproot parts of other fears, or entire other fears altogether, that the uprooted fear was intertwined with. It depends on how large the fear being overcome is or how enmeshed it was with other fears. Either way, each fear that is conquered thaws from its potential into actual, and it then unlocks various resources to overcome larger fears.

purple and pink plasma ball

Unlocking the Potential Energy Trapped in Current Fears

This is where the magic happens in this process. Instead of attempting to overcome the double-black-diamond fears at the top, we’re going to start with the bunny hill fears at the bottom—the ones that we have little resistance to overcoming. When we overcome the bottom fears, we’re still thawing frozen potential, giving us access to that which was previously frozen, making the next fear/rung on the ladder feel as approachable as the one we just conquered.

Understanding the Nature of Fear

question, unknown, unfamiliar

Our fears are rarely isolated or individual phenomena. They are all interconnected in a complex web in which each seemingly-isolated fear reinforces a panoply of other fears. This means that any fear we overcome weakens this web overall, making every other fear slightly less daunting.

Just like in this photo, you can imagine how every fear removed frees up resources/space in the mind that can then be utilized for things that are actually useful instead of anxiety-inducing.

This concept can be understood by reading accounts of those who have had near-death experiences or in some way overcame the fear of death. In these cases, people are usually left with a sense of relative fearlessness. This is because the core human fear has been uprooted, and in doing so, it automatically pulled up the roots of a huge range of other fears connected to it.

The Fear of Death, And Then What?

As an aside, if we look at any major fear we’re holding on to, almost all of them can be traced down to the root-fear of death. Let’s look a a simple example of the fear of losing one’s job and use the “And then what?” practice to run through the worst case scenarios.

So what might happen if we lose our job?

  • We won’t find another job (and then what?)
  • Then we won’t have money to afford our expenses (and then what?)
  • Then we’ll have to sell our belongings (and then what?)
  • Then we will run out of things to sell and be penniless (and then what?)
  • Then we won’t be able to afford rent (and then what?)
  • Then we’ll become homeless (and then what?)
  • Then we won’t be able to afford food (and then what?)
  • Then we’ll die

Try this with almost any fear and see where the bottom is, where you can’t go any lower. This is a great way to uncover other core fears that can be added to the ladder.

Our Fears are Rarely as Daunting in Reality as They are in Our Imagination

This phenomenon is universal to everyone. Think of riding a bike as a child or jumping into the deep end of a pool for the first time. Think of the last major fear you overcame. Once you did, how much of the unpleasantness you were imagining actually happened? Even if everything went totally wrong, was it as big a deal as you thought it would be? Likely not. Now think of how proud you were simply for making the attempt, regardless of the outcome. What did you learn? How much of the fear existed simply in your imagination?

I recall the first time I finally worked up the courage to sing karaoke, in front of a bar packed full of people. When it was my time to take the stage, the DJ queued up the wrong song (one I had never heard before), and I simply had to stand up there like an idiot as I tried to sing a song I didn’t know. It was mortifying as I watched the confused faces of the crowd as I attempted to sing the lyrics of this mystery tune. By time it was over, and much to my surprise, I was felt much more emboldened than embarrassed.

It felt like the universe was punking me, like it was trying to prevent me from facing this fear. But it didn’t matter at this point. I couldn’t embarrass myself any further. I put my name down again, and thankfully they got the song right this time. I felt incredibly proud of myself for not allowing the initial mixup to discourage me from trying again, and I came out of it with an amusing story to tell after the fact.

Building the Ladder – Example

Let’s create a Fear Ladder focused on public speaking or performance (such as music or standup comedy) as an example. I’ll use some of mine to get it started.

  • Public performance
  • Publishing video content
  • Public speaking
  • Joining a new group
  • Meeting new people
  • Starting conversations with strangers
  • Sharing unconventional thoughts and ideas
  • Trying something new
  • etc.
2 men sitting on floor

Let’s say you want to overcome a fear of public speaking. Put this at the top, and then list all other fears you have under that, in order of magnitude. The idea is to list out all your major fears that you are aware of, all the way to the bottom.

The bottom rung/fear should feel less like a fear and more like an aversion that you’re perfectly capable of doing, but have been avoiding merely because it’s slightly outside your comfort zone.

Placing the Ladder

Once you have your ladder built, you now have a powerful tool you can place against this bulwark of fears that will allow you to climb to the very top, eventually revealing what lies on the other side of this massive, mental barricade. (Remember, each one of these rungs serves as a springboard to the next. Each one is a key that will unlock various surprises and resources along the way.)

If we look at public speaking for example, striking up conversations with strangers would be a great place to start. If that still feels like too big of a fear or causes too much anxiety, we could expand the ladder to tackle this particular fear, like so:

  • Starting conversations with strangers
  • Whenever you’re in line somewhere, ask the person in front of you any innocuous question simply for the sake of doing so
  • Make small talk with cashiers at places like grocery stores
  • Talk to people online using your real identity
  • Talk to people online anonymously

Climbing the Ladder

If you constructed your ladder honestly and ordered it appropriately, this process should start to reveal how it not only diminishes your overall anxiety about the fears at the top, but can even become enjoyable. Again, the important piece is that each rung should be a logical progression to the rung before it, in terms of intensity and perceived difficulty.

career, man, career ladder

The First Rung

Once the bottom rung of the ladder no longer feels like a fear or an aversion, you’re now ready to move on to the next rung. Having climbed the very first rung, you’ll likely learn a number of things—one of them being that your aversions to this rung were totally unfounded or at the very least, exaggerated. There will likely be a number of pleasant surprises along the way as well.

One of the main themes I’ve experienced in overcoming fear is that, once I’m on the other side of a particular fear, I often find myself shaking my head in disbelief as I wonder what I was so afraid of all that time.

Take It One Rung at a Time

As you progress up the ladder, it may be tempting to start climbing it as quickly as you can to get to the top. However, I would advise against this, as it may lead to an Icarus effect where you end up falling back down because you haven’t completely integrated the rungs below. Like building any kind of structure—such as a skyscraper or a pyramid—you want to ensure your foundation is solid before advancing to the next tier.

You also don’t want to unlock too much potential energy before you’ve cultivated the experience and wisdom to know how to integrate it properly. Once you get halfway up the ladder, you may start to notice a theme arise where each rung that is climbed empowers you that much further, and eventually you can start blasting through all the rest above.

While this is indeed the point of this technique, it’s important to take things slow and be sure that you truly overcame the fears up to the rung you are on before going higher. Otherwise your ladder may start to get shaky as those latent, lower fears rear their ugly heads and one of their tendrils snakes up and grabs one of your ankles. Unlocking this much potential at once is empowering and can be exhilarating. But remain cognizant of your primary objective. This ladder should represent a controlled chain-reaction in one direction, not an atom-bomb-like explosion of fearlessness in every which way.

Avoid get carried away with superfluous distractions or facing irrelevant fears for the sake of facing fears and unlocking more power. Doing so can potentially breed new fears, fears you heretofore had not imagined, fears that were previously irrelevant, but now exist in your mind and must be reconciled.

sea, bear, surreal

While most of us strive to have as much power and control over our lives as we can possibly imagine, I can say from experience that moving too fast and unlocking too much power too soon is indeed a very real possibility. But this is not something to be desired. If you are careless in your ascent, power can suddenly turn on you, as it morphs from a helpful tool to an unspeakable burden. Take only what is needed for where you want to go. Don’t succumb to frivolous curiosities along the way (unless that is the path you are exploring and are doing so intentionally, inviting whatever chaos and consequence that ensues with open arms).

Iterate and Integrate


Your initial ladder is meant to serve as a blueprint. As you go along, you’ll find that you will be able to refine it further by adding new rungs along the way. Some of these rungs may feel like they are filling gaps in the ladder where a rung or two was missing. More rungs will also even out the progression from one step to the next, making the ladder feel more gradual and lead to a more pleasant and enjoyable climb.

A Word of Caution

Some fears/rungs may dissolve automatically by overcoming other fears, unlocking sometimes-unpredictable surges of energy and confidence. When this happens, it’s important to retain a sense of humility as you explore this new and uncharted territory, lest you become obnoxious to everyone around you. Or worse, you become overconfident and get lost in hubris and self-aggrandizement as you become Icarus and fly off into the sun.

Most people do not take kindly to rapid and radical self-transformation in others. It is both confusing and disorienting to the mind. In general, the mind’s coping mechanisms for this kind of confusion are rarely pleasant when other minds have to scramble to figure out how to interact with this new “you” who conflicts with the old, familiar “you.”

Much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, people who know you well can potentially have very negative reactions to sudden or abrupt transformation, and the reactions are highly unpredictable. It really depends on who you surround yourself with and their own levels of self-awareness. It’s important to respect where others are at and meet them there. Stay humble, and lead by example as opposed to proselytizing every step of your journey.

Depending on how rapidly you are ascending, some people are going to think you’re crazy at some point. This seems to be the mind’s first line of defense when encountering behavior it doesn’t understand, especially when dealing with particularly fearful minds. Make sure that you are taking time to reflect while staying grounded so that you can be sure you aren’t actually acting “crazy.” Learn to be in the world but not of it.


For a fear to be fully transcended, it needs to become an integral part of your personality. For example, striking up a few conversations with strangers and then thinking you’ve overcome that fear is not enough if you don’t continue this practice. You don’t need to start conversations everywhere you go, but you should no longer feel any kind of aversion to talking to someone interesting should an impulse to do so arise within you.

You can track your progress by rebuilding your ladder from time to time. When rungs that were on your previous ladder no longer come to mind as a potential rung, you can start feeling confident that those rungs have been fully integrated. Just make sure you are being completely honest with yourself so that you aren’t inadvertently masking fears that are merely lying temporarily dormant.

chimney, building, coking plant

Don’t Look Up

If your ladder looks like a list of terror rather than a handy guide, you’re likely missing a number of crucial connecting rungs. Remember, the focus is on the bottom. There’s little use in looking up, past the next rung or two, as you won’t yet have the experience and validation necessary to view the higher rungs from the appropriate perspective. With each rung you traverse, you are slowly becoming a new person. This new person is slowly becoming more capable to take on ever-greater fears. But you must become that person first before the higher rungs will feel possible to climb.

Nonetheless, after some practice, you should start to see a pattern emerge, and the confidence will come. You may only be halfway up your ladder, and the top rung may still appear so far out of reach. But you will have also intuited enough of the themes and patterns to trust that by time you reach the next rung, you will have the tools and experience necessary to climb yet another step higher, and yet another step higher, eventually reaching the very top.

person climbing up the ladder


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.