Caution vs Fear

If you have been following the blog you already know that words matter. Whether we call something caution or fear is of great significance. Most people I talk to can’t readily verbalize the difference. Accurate description leads to better actions and responses.

caution sign

“You are only afraid if you are not in harmony with yourself. People are afraid because they have never owned up to themselves.” – Hermann Hesse


Fear can be defined as an unpleasant feeling triggered by the perception of danger, real or imagined. It causes physiological changes and behavior changes. It is unrealistic to think that we will never feel fear. Fear is a natural thing, even instinctual at times. In other instances it can be learned. It is not uncommon for a child to develop a fear of something that the parent is afraid of.

Caution can be defined as care taken to avoid danger or mistakes. Interestingly, it comes from the Latin cavere, meaning take heed. Synonyms include watchfulness, discretion, and circumspection. Caution acknowledges the fact there there is risk. It is based on our knowledge of the world. But caution does not imply the need for continual vigilance. It is more contextual. We recognize that there is uncertainty or risk in a certain time or situation, but the recognition doesn’t cause the physiological change.

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” – Rosa Parks

What I have observed is that caution is generally the appraisal of a situation whereas fear is the appraisal of one’s ability to handle the situation. Fear implies that you have convinced yourself that you are not capable of handling a negative outcome or emotion.

Although I’m sure not everyone would agree with me, I think caution and fear are appropriate emotional reactions, but only when contextually warranted and time-limited. They are both important sources of information as we try to navigate this complex world.

“Prudence is not the same thing as caution. Caution is a helpful strategy when you’re crossing a minefield; its a disaster when you’re in a goldrush.” – John Ortberg

So what’s the purpose of all of this? The purpose is to make sure that we are making correct interpretations and responding with effective actions. It is also to encourage seeing the contextual/environmental nature of caution and fear rather than defining them as permanent personality characteristics.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

The more you tell yourself that you are afraid, the more you will believe it. Eventually you will begin to act out being afraid and limiting your life and the pursuit of your values. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Fear can be present in some situations, but only for the necessity of survival. Remember, the real difference is in the attitude toward ourselves. Do we believe we can handle it or not?

“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.” – W. Clement Stone

“If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu