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Fear will remain in charge and dominate all aspects of your life for as long as you allow it. Here’s how to render it powerless.
If negativity were an Olympic event, I would be from a family of gold medalists. I grew up with an ever present sense that no matter how successful I might be now, the next step was bound to be my doom. In elementary school, I was a straight-A student, but I would stay awake nights before a big test, literally becoming physically ill, because I was certain I was going to fail. My fear was not that I would make a B or even a C. And I didn’t think of it as a fear. I experienced it as a certainty: tomorrow the bottom would finally drop out, and I would fail.
How much more relaxed would I be, how much more my true self, how much more productive and efficient and effective, how much more loving and generous and focused would I be…if this fear didn’t live in my chest?
I have a friend who seems fearless in the face of decision, even big, ominous, important decisions. He doesn’t say he’s fearless, only that he is “not particularly influenced” by fear. I am not like that, and neither are most of the people I havespoken with through the years. Fortunately, those of us who are afraid and who are “frequently influenced” by our fear are the norm. We are not alone. That is always good news.
We all know fear. Fear is our constant companion, our day-to-day nemesis, and our ultimate challenge. Fear fuels our negative and judgemental thoughts and our need to control things. Fear underlies guilt and shame and anger. Every difficult emotion we experience represents some kind of threat—a threat to our self-esteem or to the stability of a relationship [personal or professional], even to our right to be alive. And threat translates to fear. Start with any difficult emotion you choose, get on the elevator, press B for basement, and there, below the guilt and shame and anger, below the negativity and the judgements, you will find it: fear.
Fear takes many forms: dread, worry, panic, anxiety, self-consciousness, superstition, negativity. We can worry that our shoes don’t match an outfit or worry about larger concerns like world hunger. We can be somewhat nervous about performing at a recital or seriously nervous about the results of an HIV test. And it shows itself in many ways: avoidance, procrastination, judgment, control, agitation, perfectionism. These are just some of the guises of fear.
It’s what we all have in common. We will experience fear in different ways, depending on more variables than we could possibly count, and we will respond to fear in our own ways. There is no escaping the fact that fear is a universal experience that we share not just with other human beings, but with all creatures. Sometimes I think the primary difference between how my dog and I experience fear is that he tends to be afraid when there is legitimate danger, while I have the capacity—and the inclination—to scare myself with my highly evolved mind in the absence of any real threat. Or we can take any legitimate fear and work with it until we are paralyzed, barely able to get a decent breath.
My work as a psychotherapist has been largely about how to claim our right to live without fear of internal war and destruction. I have spent thousands of hours in conversation with people—individually and in groups—working to increase understanding and solve problems. I couldn’t possibly recall all of the various strategies, techniques, and philosophies I have enlisted toward these ends, but I can report that no matter what the approach, in every single difficulty I have encountered—mine or someone else’s—fear has been involved.
Sometimes fear is part of the problem. Sometimes fear is the problem. And when we are really paying attention, fear is usually part of the solution. Fear is an essential part of our nature, installed in our DNA, no doubt for very good reason.
Although fear is a major influence in every one of our lives, it is not always negative. It is essentially a positive mechanism, an ingenious natural design to keep us safe. And there are plenty of opportunities for that healthy fear to work its magic, guiding us this way and that, alerting us to danger and aligning us with what is good and right in the world.
Fear is an alarm system. It is there to get our attention, to push us in one direction or another, out of harm’s way. We must emphasize this from the very beginning: our natural mechanism of fear is not the problem. We have used our higher intelligence to create a monster out of what is essentially a healthy, natural response to adverse or potentially dangerous situations.
It is essential that we begin by differentiating between healthy and unhealthy fear. The anxieties and worries that pervade our daily lives—the real troublemakers—are not born from healthy fear, but from neurotic fear. Healthy fear stands guard responsibly, informing us immediately of real danger. Neurotic fear works around the clock, exaggerating and even inventing potential dangers. Healthy fear is about protection and guidance. Neurotic fear is about the need to be in control. Healthy fear inspires us to do what can be done in the present. Neurotic fear speaks to us endlessly about everything that could possibly go wrong tomorrow, or the next day, or next year. I encourage you to personify each of these, creating specific human images to characterize your healthy fear and your neurotic fear. See them as two advisors, each with his own personality and agenda.
Most people will recognize these two advisors. Some of us may say we know them intimately—especially the neurotic fear, the one my wife calls the “Bully” and one of my clients calls the “Chairman.” He will never be caught wearing a “Bully” name tag. More likely he shows up claiming to be “the voice of reason,” “the realistic one,” “your best friend,” and sometimes “your only hope.” Healthy fear, the one my wife calls the “Ally,” is not pushy. This one is clear, direct, and to the point. The Ally lives within us for one reason only: to protect. The Bully, on the other hand, will claim to protect, and may even intend to protect, but will continually step beyond the bounds of that job description. The Bully overprotects, to the point of control.
We lean toward the voice of neurotic fear. And we continue to do so even after we have uncovered the more authentic voice of healthy fear. Faced with this choice, how could we possibly continue to take the obviously negative option? Are we that inherently negative? Do we like being afraid all the time? Are we just stupid?
The answer is none of the above. We are not inherently negative, we don’t enjoy scaring the hell out of ourselves, and we are not just stupid. Neurotic fear has firmly established itself within our consciousness in two major ways.
First, and most simply, the neurotic-fear messages have embedded themselves into our thinking through the years of sheer repetition. And, second, as a natural result of such repetition, the messages have achieved a high level of credibility.
They are so familiar that we tend to trust them. In other words, we have been steadily and thoroughly brainwashed by the Bully. Isn’t it time you fired the Bully who has been running your life? Isn’t it time to put yourself in charge?
Excerpted with permission from Embracing Fear: How To Turn What Scares Us Into Our Greatest Gift published by Harper Collins; $13.99.To order Embracing Fear visit: http://amzn.to/embracingfear
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