Fear is an emotion with which I’ve had an unhealthy relationship, ever since I can remember. I was an uneasy kid raised by uneasy parents. Always fearful of what the future might bring, I developed superstitions and phobias in order to manage my fear, thinking somehow they would help minimize it. I was trying to take the uncontrollable and control it; control seemed to be the only way I could feel safe in life. I needed to be on top of my game, managing all the moving parts to avoid misstep, failure and manipulation.
As a young child in school I would run through a series of reassuring habits, like a daily verbal check list with my mother seeking her guarantee that all would be okay that day, that nothing bad would happen. Only then would I feel ok enough to step onto the bus. My poor mother was always worried that her reassurance would get disproved any given day. As a young adult, my controlling tendencies shifted to an over-interest with my work, or a strict exercise regimen. All of this kept the fear of the unknown at bay, but just barely. When work became unmanageable, or I got injured as a result of overtraining, I would become very fearful, grasping and insecure.
Then I gradually realized that my defense mechanisms would only continue to grow, transition and strengthen within me over time. The fact remained that I was still a scared kid, now with really sophisticated mechanisms of avoiding fear. I realized my life would always pose constant struggles unless I start looking fear in face, even if it killed me.
I needed to understand my fears for what they truly were: a reaction, a feeling, a perceived outcome of disaster and nothing more. Rarely had my fears ever materialized into what I’d dreaded, but I’d made damn sure I’d exhaust myself with worry and dread in the meantime. Often, I found that surrendering to what I feared was the best thing that ever happened to me because it propelled me into growth and a new awareness of myself and my capabilities. I’d find I truly had nothing to fear, but fear itself.
It took a couple big successes at facing fear to realize there was a common theme at the end of it. If I faced my fear in truth, admitting I was afraid, surrendering to the fact that I had no other choice for resolution, aside from moving forward into it, there always was an outcome of relief, gratitude and transcendence when I looked back on the struggle.
Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, meditation master and author, writes that we should see fear as a manifestation of energy expressed in the body in the form of a feeling. We have to recognize fear simply as a feeling, not a guarantee of danger. That feeling is rarely pleasurable, but it really only has a hold on you if you define it as danger. Most often what we fear is not really equal to danger.
We as humans have very little to fear when it comes to threats on our lives, aside from the harm we impose on each other and ourselves. Our age old reptilian brain leads us to believe our lives are truly threatened when someone competes with us because we no longer have the environmental challenges that our fight-or-flight reactions were intended to support. Survival of the fittest is now a game of the mind, not the body. We react out of fear, making our perception of the reality of the situation much more dire than it needs to be. As a result, we have an over-stimulated nervous system, over-burdened adrenals and tempers that react out of proportion to any triggers. We rarely relax and trust that things will just find a way to work themselves out as long as we stay true to ourselves. Relaxing and leaning in is a seemingly foolish and irresponsible approach to take in the results-oriented world we live in.
If we individually can develop a more intimate relationship with our own personal fears, then we can surrender to it a bit more easily each time it shows up. Here are 3 steps to living less from fear:
1. Recognize the feeling when it arises, which is usually the toughest part because we are so conditioned to find a way out of it quickly, that we never take the time to sit with it and pare it down to its roots. Acknowledge it to yourself aloud that you are experiencing the “feeling” of fear, admit that you are scared.
2. Be conscious of the unhealthy tactics you have lined up to pacify it. Whether it’s grasping relationships, compulsive shopping, sex, drinking, drugs, panic, sabotage, or paralysis to move forward, it’s all counter-productive. Try to be conscious if you reach for those toxic habits and instead have a list of healthy ones you can employ: Meditation, yoga, AA/Alanon meetings, swimming, calling a trusted and supportive friend, reading a soothing book, praying, taking a bath, or just simply changing scenery.
3. Reinforce the elevated perspective you’ve gained by sharing the experience with someone you trust, or even in your own journal. Add it to your repertoire for future use as needed to draw upon.
Our words and thoughts have the power to create the world we want, but that world cannot be created without stepping into the unknown and facing our fears. If we don’t face our fears, we likely create more trouble for ourselves by grasping to avoid the pain of dealing with the reality of what fear has to teach us about ourselves. Some wonderful books that have comforted me in fearful times and continue to do so, include: Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, by Dr. Joe Dispenza, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chodron and The Gift of Change by Marianne Williamson.
Have you ever had a breakthrough in dealing with fear?
Photo: martinak15 via Flickr