Is It Fear or Awe?

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Today’s guest contributor is writer, coach and personal growth teacher, Tara Sophia Mohr. She writes Wise Living, where she also offers her Goals Guide, “Turning Your Goals Upside Down and Inside Out (To Get What You Really Want).


In the personal-growth world, we’ve adopted this paradigm: “It’s scary to be your real self. It’s scary to take the leap and follow your passion.”

I used to think that too, but now I see it differently.

Often, when I’m working with a coaching client, we’ll uncover something core to who they are: a dream from the heart, a resonant vision for their future, or words that give language to a longing they’ve been afraid to admit, even to themselves.

A moment or two later, they usually say something like: “Oh God. It feels really scary to say that. I’m terrified!”

I used to agree, saying something like, “Yes, it’s perfectly normal to feel fear when you tap into your authentic self. Living an authentic life and going for your dreams requires leaving your comfort zone, risking failure, and being vulnerable. The risk-averse, primitive lizard brain activates, and fear comes up.”

These ideas about fear have become very popular. I’m sure you are familiar with them, too.

A few months ago, I started to see “fear” differently. I was reading a beautiful book by the late spiritual teacher Rabbi Alan Lew.

Rabbi Lew writes about the awe and fear that Moses experienced when he encountered the burning bush. He describes Moses’ state as the unique mixture of awe and fear that we feel in the presence of the divine, whether in the form of a burning bush or in the form of the still, small voice within ourselves.

Rabbi Lew explains that in biblical Hebrew, there are several different words for fear. Pachad, is “projected or imagined fear,” the “fear whose objects are imagined.” That, in contemporary terms, is what we might think of as lizard brain fear: the fear of horrible rejection that will destroy us or the fear that we will simply combust if we step out of our comfort zones.

But there is a second Hebrew word for fear, yirah. Rabbi Lew describes yirah as “the fear that overcomes us when we suddenly find ourselves in possession of considerably more energy than we are used to, inhabiting a larger space than we are used to inhabiting.

Oh, that.

If you’ve felt a calling in your heart, or uncovered an authentic dream for your life, or felt a mysterious sense of inner inspiration around a project or idea, you recognize this description.

Yirah is the fear that shows up in those moments when we uncover a dream, access our real feelings about an important situation, or contemplate taking a big leap toward a more authentic life. We feel sacred awe, which has a kind of trembling in it.

Often, pachad comes up in those moments, too – a deep and panicked fear of failure, criticism, loss of security.

In our culture, we often conflate both strands, and simply call what we are experiencing “fear.” But we can discern them more closely, and in doing so, more effectively manage fear so it doesn’t get in our way.

Next time you are in a moment that brings fear:

1. Engage your resourceful, rational self to counter the instincts of the lizard brain. Ask yourself: what part of this fear is pachad? Write down the imagined outcomes you fear, the lizard brain fears. Remember they are just imagined, and that pachad-type fears are irrational. Then use all your good tools for working with fear to quiet the pachad. For example, assess the probability of each outcome occurring. Brainstorm what you would do to course correct if any of those outcomes came to pass.

2. Savor yirah. Ask yourself: what part of this fear is yirah? You’ll know yirah because it feels different. It has a tinge of exhilaration and awe –while pachad has a sense of threat and panic. Rest in the yirah. It can actually be a tender and beautiful feeling – once you know what it is. You can savor it, knowing it’s just a signal that tells you are touching sacred ground within. You can keep leaning into – even looking for – the callings and leaps that bring yirah.


Tara Sophia Mohr writes Wise Living, where she also offers her Goals Guide, “Turning Your Goals Upside Down and Inside Out (To Get What You Really Want).


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28 responses

28 responses to “Is It Fear or Awe?”

  1. This. So much, this.

    I knew there was a difference, but the only word in English that I can think of is awe. I like yirah because it’s alien enough to me that it doesn’t come with any baggage.

    • shana says:

      well put michael, thank you. great idea to use the foreign word as a marker for a fresh perspective.

      and thank you tara – this discernment is potentially very enriching. beautiful…

  2. This I loved. Thank you so much for the reminder about what being authentic is really like. It’s so easy to get caught in”pachad,” where it feels panicky. But that’s only one part. I love the description of “yirah,” finding ourselves having more energy or inhabiting more space than we’re used to (kind of like getting out of our own jail, eh?)

    Thanks so much for this inspiration!


  3. Jeff Munn says:

    This combination is so familiar to me, and to have a new, more productive label for it is downright inspiring.

    I’ve often told people to “follow their fear,” but it was this fear that I was referring to, not the lizard brain. That “Oh my God, am I really here to do this?” kind of fear that leads us to take on our greatest challenges.

    Thank you for identifying the distinction.


  4. […] I have a guest post at Jonathan Fields’ blog, and so I want to invite you to head over there to read it.   The post is offers a powerful teaching about fear that I learned from the late […]

  5. Amy says:

    This is a beautiful distinction, and one I can immediately use to assess what’s going on in my own mind. Feeling both types of fear and recognizing the flavor of each gives me way more freedom to act — now I see that it’s my choice to engage the lizard (not a bad idea, but ultimately not very thrilling, but effective), or to harness the energy of yirah. There’s a time for each.

    Thank you for your wisdom, once again. This one I’m printing out!


  6. I’ve read things in the past about the lizard brain type of fear and how to deal with it, but I absolutely love this addition of yirah. Very useful and helpful. Thank you!

  7. Lisa says:

    This is exactly. ABSOLUTELY exactly what I have been writing about trying to piece together the difference between that inner experience when you should be saying YES and that inner experience when you should be saying NO.

    Your article and Rabbi Lew’s explanation of the hebrew words that tease this out are just perfect.

    Thank you!

  8. Rest in the yirah. This is what I am feeling. The exhilaration in the expansion.

    Beautiful piece, Tara.

  9. Tina Tierson says:

    Tara, Thank you SO MUCH! I have felt the yirah but thought it was only the fear. I love that there’s a difference and discerning them will become a very important part of my life! Yirah. What a wonderful gift! Thank you!

  10. Ann Marie says:

    What a wonderful way to separate those crazy irrational fears from the ones that are achievable, but scary.

    I have recently made some decisions that have made some of my friends uncomfortable. I realize that they are reacting out of concern for my emotional well-being, but I also see where some of their stuff comes up in the concerns as well.

    I appreciate their affection. And I’m sorry I don’t have their support. But following this path before me (pursuing a relationship with someone who will challenge me on many levels) is something I must do. As frightened as I am about my heart being broken, I know I will be more upset should I walk away, not knowing what might have been.

    I feel he will make me a better woman. One with a more open, but vulnerable heart. I’m willing to go there.

    Thank you Tara.

  11. This is about right. A month and a half ago I finally figured out what I really am. And now I am going it as much as I can. My first attempts stick, but I have been improving rapidly, far faster then I ever expected. I am now taking on something huge and I will probably fail, epicly, but I don’t care, I am having the time of my life and it is totally worth, I don’t care if I fail or make money at it or any of those things, I’m doing the right thing.

  12. David McMillan says:

    Great post, Tara! Wonderful distinctions! So wise, as usual. 😉

  13. Lee says:

    Tara, thank you. What you talk about I’ve read described as “the problem with upper limits” … and while helpful not particularly inspiring to me. I connect with your use of wordsmithing and the connection to Jewish spirituality (being Jewish) speaks to me deeply. Lee from Nova Scotia

  14. Amy VC says:

    Absolutely gorgeous piece, Tara. Thank you! The distinction matters and I had never thought of it in this new perspective. Powerful stuff.

  15. What a beautiful lesson on pachad and yirah – I relish in YIRAH and it’s a magical feeling….

    Live in the magic of YIRAH!

    Great post my friend,

  16. Krisenkindt says:

    I love this kind of good fear. I keeps me moving, going forward. Its a beautiful feeling and it applies in all types of moments. From stepping the first time into a new school, moving to a new country, taking a new job, a relationship… daring to do something different.

    Its beautiful that fear and awe have those two distinct words in hebrew. And I totally agree: You will know it when you feel it. And if you follow it, no matter how scary the awe, you will find great things and learn about your own abilities, things you never had thought you could do.

    Grab the Yirah, go for it! 🙂 What a nice post!

  17. Excellent reminder that fear can and often is a healthy aspect of personal growth.
    Thank you,

  18. Rob says:

    Hey Tara,

    Thanks for breaking this down in a pleasant bite-sized morsel that can be eaten now, and expounded further from within later. Separating the two and responding accordingly is part of the journey of empowerment.

    Live it LOUD!

  19. Kathy Valade says:

    Thanks for this wonderful explanation. It is so true! And, the more you practice ‘feeling uncomfortable’ the better you get at stepping outside your comfort zone. This is what ignites me, and keeps me motivated to do more and to inspire others to do the same.

  20. Thanks so much for this. There have been a handful of times this year when I’ve written something for my site and have felt, in pressing “publish”, like I’d just given birth. My body felt literally shaken and I stood up wobbly kneed. I assumed I felt afraid of something but never felt like that quite named what was happening accurately. This yirah: it nails it. *Thank you* for this clarity, and for the tool it is for parsing future experiences of “fear”!

  21. I am marinating in awe and yirah! Finding the sacred in the ordinary. Thank you.

  22. I very much like this distinction in the way pachad and yirah make us feel. Tuning into our feelings in this way can be really helpful.
    In my work as an Enneagram teacher, I meet with people who, because of their one particular irrationally fearful personality type, find this cool analysis of pachad very difficult to do. What can help them is to remember times of real crisis in their lives, because then, these people are rocks. That memory that they have proved they can cope with the worst life throws at them can really help.

  23. Hi Tara Sophia,

    I believe it is ultimately silly to fear our true nature. We must bask in the wonders of our inner self. Thank you for contributing this excellent piece to Jonathan’s fabulous blog!


  24. Beautiful way to express the AWEsomely-terrible-and-terrifyingly-electric feeling that rushes through us as we STEP UP.

    I’m guessing more and more of us will get to experience YIRAH.

  25. […] I have a guest post at Jonathan Fields’ blog, and so I want to invite you to head over there to read it.   The post is offers a powerful teaching about fear that I learned from the late […]

  26. Shaun Smith says:

    This article reminds me of the Marianne Williamson quote:
    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure….”

  27. […] what Tara Sophia Mohr, the nurturer of Playing Big, has to say about fear and awe on Jonathon Fields’ blog. She explains the word yirah (from Rabbi Alan Lew), which is a […]