7th April 2020

Culture / Featured / Hilary Gallo

Daydreams and Nightmares: The Fear Hack by Hilary Gallo

130 10 mins 5

Hilary Gallo is a lawyer, coach, negotiation expert, sometime jewellery designer and the author of Fear Hack and The Power of Soft. Hilary is our resident Fear Doctor -a sort of agony aunt if you will- who rationalises our fears and helps us to see how to overcome them.

He describes the connection between daydreams and nightmares. Both are fabricated in our imaginations; we can fall into them and believe that they are true or that they will be true.


In this particular time of stress and anxiety, he helps us to be present. As Hilary puts it, “My focus is on enabling people. What binds my work together is a belief in our power from within”.

Often the best thing about a holiday is the looking forward to it. Sometimes it’s even a good reason to book a holiday well in advance. Our reward is a deliciously long drawn out period of imagining. Once we have dates and destination fixed in our heads, we are free to daydream about those long, soft-hue, never-ending days. We might even start to think about how the holiday is going to transform our lives. What about that winter weight or lazy exercise habit we put on? No problem – we can see ourselves now. On holiday, we are up early every day, running to the beach for a swim, stretching under the warm morning sun, enjoying a breakfast straight out of a health magazine photo-shoot.

The problem with the holiday daydream is that it is a daydream. The one thing we can guarantee is that the reality of the holiday will always be different from our vision of what the holiday might have been like. The room we stay in will be different from that in our vision, the meals will be different and the weather will be different. Even we, the person who is the centre of the dream will be different. In our heads we can feel ourselves relaxing into a delicious night’s sleep in the four-poster bed looking out over the mountains and the infinity pool with the mountain beyond. Think back to a holiday you had. Was it as you imagined it? It’s not just that the hotel and the room aren’t quite like we imagine them. Nothing is quite as we imagine it. Reality is always changing and always different.

What is clear from this wall is that our fears only live in our imaginations.

Hilary Gallo

My biggest takeaway from running fear workshops for the past four years is that fear is like this too. The first thing I do is to get people to name their fears, put them on a small piece of paper and then to put them up on a wall. I then get the group to look at what we’ve all collectively put up there. The conversation is rich and varied and at times has gone on for hours but one early finding is consistent among all groups.

The biggest thing we get to see is where the fears really are. We may not see it immediately in ours, but we do see it in other peoples. What is clear from this wall is that our fears only live in our imaginations. “Where do they exist?” I ask. “In our heads” the group responds. Eventually I ask “who has control over them?”. “We do” the group slowly responds. It’s obvious when we think about it. Our nightmares are creatures of the same thing as our daydreams, our fertile imagination.

In the course of the discussion, one of the things I do is to differentiate between fear and danger. Fear is a creature of the mind whereas danger exists in reality. If someone on the street is running at us with a knife, then we should act. This dangerous reality exists, here and now. Fear is different because it lives in a fictional world inside our own heads. This is its power. It is the same as any good novel. The novelist doesn’t have to describe everything because once we have a few key basic anchoring details provided in the script, we make the rest up in our heads. Fear has its own fertile world to live in. This world of dreams, like the novel, is unfettered by harsh reality.

Fear can go anywhere and it does.

Hilary Gallo

The challenge here is that this world of imagination is huge. Psychologist and Writer Daniel Gilbert and Harvard University colleague Matthew Killingsworth conducted a study back in 2010 involving some 5,000 people who reported their mind-states on their iPhones.

The finding was that nearly half of the time (46.9% in the study), the participants’ minds were wandering. The study didn’t stop there. What the researchers also found was that the wandering mind was an unhappy mind. Even though the majority of wanders were positive (42.5%) or neutral (31%) rather than negative (26.5%), these wanderings themselves made people less happy. The study proved that people who did stuff and focussed on what was happening in the here and now, were happier.

Something I have also observed in the course of my work is that this mind wandering fear problem seems to be most significant with people who work in the creative field. Nowadays that is more and more of us. In the last century, we have generally stopped working in the fields with physical objects in the here and now and shifted to work in pure conceptual ideas. My hypothesis is that if we work all day with our imagination, whether we are a designer coming up with inventive ideas or a lawyer worrying about what might happen in a transaction, then we are spending a lot of time exercising our fertile imagination. We may be doing this for good creative reasons but it is very easy for the highly tuned imagination to switch from positive daydream to negative nightmare territory. It’s what I call the “Alexander McQueen Factor” – the idea that the same brilliant imagination which allows us to create a glorious possibility could also take us down into darkness.

The way I like to think about fear is like that moment we have in an empty house at night. All of a sudden, we are captured by a strange noise downstairs. In a moment that noise has become a burglar. In another moment it is a vicious murderer, armed with a deadly weapon, out to attack us. The trick with fear is to do what we might also do in the house. We go downstairs to check that the living room is empty. We might also check the cupboards too. In checking the lock on the door, and connecting ourselves with reality we curb the daydreaming mind and anchor ourselves in what is as opposed to the wild fancy of what might be. We become a fear detective.

Look for evidence of reality in the nightmare and we start to see how much truth it really has.

Hilary Gallo

The Wandering Mind Study is right, a wandering mind can be an unhappy mind. Our creativity is a superpower but left to its own devices, it can also be our undoing. The trick is to connect ourselves with the anchoring substance of reality. The answer ultimately is to use our imagination as a tool instead of letting it have us. Instead of allowing our wild imagination to swim us in a sea of every mind-driven thought, we have to create a vessel in which we can ride it. It isn’t that our imagination is wrong, it is just that it is a tool that needs managing. Just like a sailor captures the wind in the sails of the boat, we need to learn how to interrogate it. Fear, like the wind, is a valuable friend if we know how to befriend it. We need the directly connected force of sensed reality in the here and now to anchor us.

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Hilary Gallo
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Hilary Gallo is a lawyer, coach, negotiation expert, sometimes jewellery designer and the author of Fear Hack and The Power of Soft. As Hilary puts it ‘my focus is on enabling people. What binds my work together is a belief in our power from within’.

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