Fear – the great joy killer. It can suck the life out of every exciting idea, every happy moment, every particle of potential that we have. Living fearlessly doesn’t mean living foolishly, it means we finally decide to believe that things will work out. It means we grow our capacity to feel confident in ourselves, and we learn to feel graceful as we step out into thin air because we have prepared ourselves for life at higher altitude.
What do you fear?
We often fear that which we most want. Success. Intimacy. Commitment. Genuine expression of our true self. We fear that something bad will happen if we ask for what we want, if we are are too successful, if we express who we are. Pursuing our dreams makes us vulnerable in ways that staying stuck does not.
How does fear undermine your life? What would you be doing if fear wasn’t stopping you?
We have to turn towards and face our fear. Look it square in the eye and figure out what is required to surpass it. In this way, you make deeper sense of fear and decide when it is serving you and when it isn’t, and you can stop feeling fear when you no longer need it to keep you safe.
What is fear, anyway?
Let’s start with how the emotion of fear itself works. Like all emotions, the experience of fear is in the body. Fear is visceral. We feel certain things in our body and those sensations are the experience of fear. Our body may shake, tense, freeze, feel wound up or ready to explode, feel pressure or squeezing, heat up or go cold, our breath and heart rate may race or nearly stop, the belly may sicken.
This is actually normal. Our bodies were designed to have these signals as part of our survival mechanism. These sensations occur on a scale of intensity from mild to extreme, depending upon the danger of our situation, the resources we feel inside, and the help we have at hand.
In a well running system, the body experiences these sensations and the mind responds with an effective series of perceptions, thoughts, impulses and directions and creates safety.
What’s the difference between fear and anxiety?
However, the mind may also experience overwhelm, confusion, disorganization, and dissociation. The mind may respond to the physiology of fear by producing thoughts and images that frighten us even more.
These thoughts and images can cycle and loop inside of us and perpetuate more sensations of fear. This is the basic mechanism that can lead to anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety is a state of fearful anticipation, with the body responding in the present to a memory from the past (intrusive re-experiencing) or a situation that may happen in the future (anticipatory experiencing).
The origin of the fear response is the need for survival.
The emotion of fear is meant to be visceral. That’s what makes it effective as a survival tool.
Our first experiences of fear are in infancy, and are based on our instinctual response for survival. As babies, the only resource we have for helping ourselves is getting a caregiver to tend to us. The unpleasant bodily sensations of fear are meant to get the infant crying, so that resources show up to help. The medicine for fear is to increase our resources.
In childhood, we have varying experiences with fear based on our caregiver’s ability and/or willingness to meet our needs and/or soothe our fear responses. This has an exponential impact on our outlook on life, and our confidence in our self and the world around us.
Fear is so unpleasant that we may become afraid of the biological sensations and signals themselves. Those sensations are encoded into our bodies and brains and are given high priority to override other processes and signals.
At its most basic function,
fear is simply a set of biological sensations
that are designed to have us act to gather resources.
You have your own resources now.
But you are an adult now. You have developed many more internal resources than you are aware of, and you have also developed sophisticated skills for gathering external resources.
I’m going to suggest you focus on the thing you are afraid of. Take a good long look. We spend so much time trying to avoid, run away from, or brace against our fear. Just go ahead and observe the fear-inducing situation from all angles, and let yourself feel the signals and sensations that arise in your body. Deepening your understanding of this will help you figure out what you need to conquer it.
Be your own hero.
In treating chronic nightmares, I teach clients to enter the dream world during full wakefulness to correct their sense of powerlessness and alter the course of the story. In short, this is the process of freezing the action and turning on all the lights, then being joined in the dreamscape by a band of powerful superheroes, protective animals, guiding angels, nurturing parents and wise ancestors. You shine a spotlight onto that beast until you see what it is made of. And you call resources to you until you have everything you need to be stronger than, bigger than, more powerful than whatever monster the nightmare has dished out.
Note that this approach transforms your nightmare into more of an action film, with you ultimately starring as your own hero.
Look at what you are afraid of.
In waking life, you can do the same as in the nightmare. Its the same cure. You slow it all down and look at it from all sides. You become your own hero, the leader in your own life, the one who understands what is needed and who takes decisive and effective action. You become brave and calm and unstoppable.
Answer these questions:
- What is this monster that you are so afraid of?
- What is it really?
- What is it made of?
- What (or who) does it look like?
- What does it want?
- What are its tactics for getting it?
- Who or what is allied with it?
- What are the earlier, younger versions of it?
- How did it progress to what it is today? (If it’s a person, what were they like at early stages – at birth, as a baby, a child, a teenager?)
- What does it fear?
- What are its weaknesses?
- Who and what are stronger than it is? Why and how?
- What else do you need to know about it?
- What else can you learn by looking deeply at it from all angles?
Gathering your resources.
And now the magic question: What resources do you need to overcome it?
Lets begin with gathering your internal resources. Here’s a list to consider as you begin. Which of these, if they were amplified inside of you, might help move you forward? What other internal resources not on this list might you need to amplify as well?
- Courage, resolve, determination, self-discipline
- Kindness, loving self-attention and consistent self-care
- The ability to set and keep boundaries with yourself and others
- The ability to delay gratification
- Skill and/or knowledge
- The ability to soothe yourself, to relax your body and quiet your mind
- Faith in yourself or the world, or in God
- Bigger, long-term perspective
- Desire for justice, reconciliation, or forgiveness
- Connection to your authentic self
- The ability to know what is right for you
If you need help, an expert in any of the above internal resources, such as a life coach, counselor, teacher or wise elder may be able to help you develop yourself in those areas.
Gathering external resources begins with imagining who and what conditions would help you. Some external resources may be people or situations that lead you to develop and grow your internal resources. Others might be tactical or strategic resources that help you deal with the practical elements of your situation and goals.
Take an inventory of your current external resources, and evaluate where you need more help in order to move past what is stopping you. Inventorying your external resources is an important step in analyzing your situation and creating the change you want.
Internal resources help us create external resources. And external resources help us create internal resources. You can start anywhere. Just don’t let the lack in one area be a reason to stop. You can overcome fear, and you can overcome whatever else is stopping you from living the life you want.
Make room for joy.
When fear takes up less of your internal space, you open the possibility of noticing and feeling your full spectrum of human emotion, including joy, hope, faith, pride, confidence, and love.
Make room for those. You’ll want to experience them when they show up!
As always, let me know if I can help.