In Praise of Fear
Friday April 7, 2017
We tend to give fear a bad rap. People committed to mindfulness or spirituality often tell me how angry they feel at themselves, or guilty, when they experience fear. But fear, perhaps our most primitive programming, alerts us to perceived danger. At the DNA level, the cellular level, and the conscious level, survival motivates us most prominently.
Fear, a powerfully intense emotion, both expresses and reveals to us a potentially life threatening situation to which we require the appropriate orientation—one of alertness, attunement to environmental cues, and readiness for action. Everything else recedes in those heightened moments of fear when all of our energies unite and deploy us into fight, flight, or freeze mode.
For most of us living in the Western world comes the luxury of pursuing a satisfying life beyond the basic attainment of survival, food and shelter (which makes the poverty of some in a rich country all the sadder).
We want not only to subsist, but to live life to its fullest, and to that end we imbue our families, our other relationships, our work, and our situation in the world at large with meaning. We crave a sense of purpose, and hope to make some helpful footprint in the vast and unfathomable expanse of time and ancestry. Just as our aspirations supersede survival, so does the potential for fear accompany us along the way. We fear not just the loss of a food supply, but the potential of losing out on a plum job to the competition. We fear a fall in social status, not being picked for the team, getting less than an A or B on a paper in school. We fear social humiliation, rejection, or that our contribution will not be good enough, or that we will not be attractive enough or measure up or get ahead.
The desire for a full and rich life, as an elaboration of the instinct to survive, comes with its counterpart, a more elaborate set of attendant fears. Want and worry go hand in hand. Worry, anxiety and fear we generally experience as uncomfortable, but, like excited motivation, these feelings activate us and often play a key role in helping us to succeed when they don’t rise to an overwhelming level of complete distraction or paralysis.
Fear isn’t really our problem. It’s how we cope with fear and what we do after fear has warned us of possible impending doom that can undermine us. To start with, a negative narrative about fear, as if it has no right to a presence, presupposes a largely incorrect assumption that we humans can and should only feel “positive emotions;” that somehow “fear is bad;” and that if we feel fear then we must be less evolved than our more mature and spiritually developed counterparts.
We might turn this around by respecting fear, ours and others’. Fear is by its nature a measure of challenge. Some of us measure risk or challenge more accurately than others. For some people, fear amplifies or overstates the level of risk or challenge. On the other hand, for some people–say someone cavalierly using a circular power saw without protective eye wear or gloves, or someone whose doctor says COPD or lung cancer is immanent if they keep smoking–fear underperforms in its alert messaging.
If we can imagine our fear like a protective and loyal dog who barks at a stranger or strange circumstance, this may help us to identify fear as an ally, albeit a sometimes overzealous one.
In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, there’s an intervention in which we identify our “irrational” fears. I object to the use of “irrational,” because no one has ever told me about a fear that has no logic to it. It is possible for a plane to fall from a sky. It is possible one’s symptoms could be cancer. It is possible you will fail to get the job. It is possible you’ll get romantically rejected. It is possible you could drop your baby. It is possible someone followed you in the store. But when fear feels strong—adrenaline rushing, muscles tense, shoulders hugging the ears, breathing shallow, etc.—then fear overstates the case. Intense fear makes the possible seem probable. Possibilities are definitely not probabilities.
Intervening with ourselves by learning to calibrate our fear can help us respond to stressful situations less intensely. We only want to use the most efficient amount of emotional fuel to deal with the situation.
What often amplifies fear has to do with our long held narratives about our lacks—of competence or fortitude or fitness or approval rating. With fear’s volume turned up, thinking through problems gets more difficult, or even taking one step forward can seem insurmountable. We may even tuck the overdue bill at the bottom of the pile of papers to avoid facing it. Similarly, people whose anger flares hot, provoked by even the smallest of inconveniences, may have to work hard to recalibrate.
One client, Bill, a young man in his mid-twenties, finished a certificate program, got a job in his field and moved into a studio apartment of his own. Shortly after that he had a fender bender which, even with doing part of the fixing on his own, required the loan of a car from his father for a week and a hundred dollars from his mother. Having been the subject of parental criticism in the past as well as currently, Bill barraged himself with negating comments: “I’m a failure;” “No one in my family has any respect for me. I’m just a f-up to them;” “I’ll never get anywhere at this rate.” These thoughts came with a deep depression and suicidal ideation. While I sympathized with Bill’s current misfortune, I noticed his black-and-white thinking. Bill’s narrative turned an undoubtedly stressful situation into a complete catastrophe, and because he had driven the car and gotten into an accident he saw himself, as not only the cause of this accident, but a worthless human being.
I asked Bill to take a deep breath, to bear with me, and to let me know what he honestly felt were his accomplishments of the last two years. When he had finished telling me his exemplary list, I asked whether he had noticed the black-and-white thinking that had erased from his mind all these great things, and made it seem like he’d done nothing deserving of praise.
I asked Bill whether it might feel useful to him, to ask himself, “What is the gray here?” when he found himself spiraling down. When we next met several weeks later, Bill seemed quite a bit cheerier. His vehicle was fixed, even though it needed more work—which would cost more money on his starter wage—but he said he had been asking himself about the “gray,” and realized that even though he didn’t have a brand new free car, at least he didn’t have an undriveable one. The gray wasn’t all that bad since in a few weeks he would be paying back the loan to his mother. He had also spent time with a friend who thought it was pretty “sick” that he had his own pad and a great full time job in his field.
Recalibration may involve developing the facility to note when a small present situation triggers a larger response to a past problem. Fear or anger revs up in the moment, just in case what happened in the past stands a chance of recurring—the present partner will also leave us, the boss will call us in to let us know our job has been eliminated, the phone call will produce horrific news, etc. For people who have been unfortunately traumatized in the past, “triggering” may happen frequently. Anything—a sound, a sight, a smell, an interaction—can all cause triggering. At times, trauma makes it particularly difficult to distinguish present stressors from past ones in the moment something is taking place.
Intense fear prepares us for worst case scenarios and often overpowers our ability to stay fully present and engaged in the now. Our heightened response, like road rage, an expression of the influence of older narratives playing out in our minds, as well as our general level of stress.
Of course, our brilliant imaginations consider multiple case scenarios so that none will take us unawares. This is a gift. But remembering that past and present can collide emotionally may help us to ramp down overblown fear responses to present situations that don’t warrant them.
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a creation of Marsha Linehan’s for working with people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, “dysregulated” emotional output can respond to the use of DBT skills—journaling, changing the scenery, listening to music, soothing self-talk, etc. When practiced over time, these strategies gain utility.
Mediating the emotional output of fear with powerful, and often short (and short-circuiting), thought-input helps, as a kind of re-storying about ourselves (our character within our story). As an example, when fearful ask yourself: “How would a calm and wise person act in this situation?” When angry, ask yourself: “What would a patient and wise person do in this situation?” Similar questions help in two ways. First, by slowing down our experience so emotions don’t get on a runaway train. And secondly, by maneuvering us toward a reservoir of conscious resources and past situations that would be helpful in the current situation.
Once we have stepped over the threshold of fear to engage ourselves in the venture ahead—tying a tourniquet to save someone’s life, taking the test, acting our character’s part onstage, parachuting from the aircraft, getting married, going to another country alone, learning something new and difficult—our engagement in the process, our supremely focused attention, allows fear to recede into the background.
“I have learned that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear.” Rosa Parks
It would be remiss not to say that emotions, and particularly fear, are infectious. In a crowd of scared people, we feel scared. The definition of emotion is movement outward. The energy of fear can grab us by the neck, squeeze the air from our lungs, and cause our hearts to thump loudly and fast like a drum beat loud enough to alert everyone around us. Because fear is so primal an emotion, and because it flags things that matter to us, we can easily get manipulated to do things, say things, or behave in ways that would otherwise surprise us. While I, in no uncertain terms, do not want to turn this psychological article into one about politics, it seems noteworthy from a therapist’s office, how many clients feel fear about things that matter to them and their families through the lens of the collective bigger picture—will their jobs remain secure, will they have health care, will their children get a quality public school education, will there be arts experiences for their children who paint, play the violin, or dance. Will one’s sexual orientation or gender, or ethnicity, or country of origin, undermine their rights in this great nation. Will the air remain clean for the baby on the way, and for that baby’s baby born sometime ahead?
We fear things, both close to the chest and at large, that seem threatening to our healthy lives and livelihoods, to our safety and security and to that of our children. Our vulnerability around fear leaves us open to manipulation, thought insertion, and fear mongering. Mediating fears that go beyond our individual and family lives, fears that concern more collective concerns, often require us to seek the comfort of others and the inspiration of those who can help us see potentials beyond the provocations of our fear and inspire us with the power of collective voicing and collective actions. Whether for our own lives or for the lives of those around us, taking action on something we hold dear, turns down the volume of our fear. Only if we experience helplessness and hopelessness will fear have unfettered reign.
If you play a role as a parent, a boss, or another authority figure, it may be beneficial to remember that scaring someone into something—dominating their behavior by cultivating their fear—does not have as much power, in the long run, as helping others to use their own powers of thought, reflection and compassion as cultivators of productive behavior, at home, in school, in the workplace, and in society.
Camel Saddle: What worthy challenge scares you the most? What are your tendencies in terms of coping with this fear? Do you avoid, procrastinate, get angry, self-condemn, feel depressed, get distracted? On what exceptional occasions have you faced or conquered this fear? What encourages you the most? What is some useful self-talk to get you up close and personal with what you most want and most fear?
In the movie, ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ Benjamin Mee says, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”