Trying not to fear fear itself
Posted: September 19, 2017
I’ve been wanting to write about fear for a long time but was – perhaps not ironically – afraid of how to put thoughts into words. So, naturally, I acted on that feeling and it has taken me a long time to write the post. But with the unfortunate and rather alarming spate of natural disasters over the last couple of weeks that presents me with existential thoughts, I felt compelled to push through my fear. And then in publishing, facing the fear that some of my own existential thoughts might not align with those who are reading. But, it does seem that with every natural disaster, or terrorist attack, or whatever happened last week in the government, fear has a way of shaking us deeply. But one thing shakes me even more strongly: when I hear that it is not “okay” to be afraid. Somehow, people who let themselves be afraid have a way of “letting the other side win,” or are seen as “weak.” The implication is that those of us who don’t feel fear will be able to conquer everything more easily. However, I have found that if something is seen as “not okay” to feel, in all likelihood not only will we still feel it, but we will also experience shame from not being allowed to feel it. In my psychotherapy practice, we can do a lot of work with feelings – all of the feelings. Yes, it feels great when we can sit with an emotion such as joy, because that just feels good in our body – maybe it resembles an openness or lightness that is not so familiar. But as a society, we have a way of trying to knock out/numb/suppress the perceived “negative” emotions. Which is interesting, because when we trace back through history, certain negative emotions were needed for survival against threats to existence. If you walked around feeling nothing but joy, with your head sitting in the clouds, you’d likely be killed or eaten. Analogy: if our whole self is a car, our feelings are the driver. It is the emotions that do the steering, and pump the gas pedal or slam the brakes. We might think that our thoughts are the driver, and in some instances that could be the case, but when feelings are left unheard, unattended to, or unanswered that makes the car stall, sputter, or break down. Or crash. If we genuinely feel fear in the “existential” threat that our partner won’t be there for us, and we aren’t allowed to express it in that way, what will happen? We’ll crash. We’ll yell, scream, cry, protest, demand, etc. We will create a self-fulfilling prophecy because our partner will likely not be there for us with those behaviors. Because we aren’t allowed to be fearful that our partner won’t be there for us, because that would be weak. And inevitably what will happen is those very fears will undoubtedly come true (as chances are, our partner is going to attempt to distance him or herself from the screaming and demanding and protesting.) In our relationships with our friends, families, and significant others, “crashing the car” happens when we stifle the fear. But where does it lead when we are not allowed to express our fears openly (in a civilized way that doesn’t intentionally hurt someone else, though there may need to be limits to this, for example, not to allow hate speech to oppress a group.) Thinking existentially about the impact of stifling fear makes me a bit fearful, I am willing to admit. Instead, what if, after about the age of 8, it were okay to feel fear and express it? The 8-year-old who does and it actually gets accepted by his parents (instead of being called a “sissy”) often gets comforted, soothed, and actually feels better, perhaps becomes a more open child to that which he is afraid of, and grows into an open and accepting adult of differences in others. Even if we didn’t get this as children, we can start now by treating ourselves with the comforting, soothing way, as adults. Why must we put on an act if all that we are seeking is some soothing from the support system around us? I’m afraid it might be too much to ask, but I have hope that it’s not. I want to help you process your fears, because it’s okay to have them. They are human experiences. Please, if there is one thing I will encourage you to “not be afraid of,” it is to take risks and reach out for help.