“Oh no, anything but that!”
We all have particular things that frighten us, embarrass us, freak us out, give us a huge day-wrecking dose of adrenaline, or seem to mean that our world is coming to an end. Maybe you have situational fear around public speaking, dating, flying or bungee jumping. Perhaps your greatest fears revolve around people or things in your environment, such as dogs, bees, your boss, the in-laws, your spouse or other relationships. Maybe you have all-the-time background anxiety about growing up, getting old, failing, not measuring up, being exposed, losing a loved one, not getting married, hurting those you love, etc.
It’s interesting how we respond to fear in our society. For many, it’s considered shameful or “unamnly” or “childish” to be afraid. On the other hand, many in the younger generations have been taught to be influenced to a great degree by emotions. For this group, “grown-ups” often respond to their fears with expressions of pity. When children feel fear, most of us would run to comfort and console the child. These differing attitudes about fears beg a huge question: do we choose our fears? And if so, how do we un-choose them?
Choose Your Fears
Whatever your fear, you’d probably agree that the last thing fear feels like is a choice; “full-force enemy attack” or “steel-reinforced brick wall” or “running off of a cliff at full speed” are likely better descriptions. Yet here is the Truth: the vast majority of our fears are smoke and mirrors; dirty tricks played on us by our shame. Of course, that doesn’t mean they don’t feel real. It does mean that when we obsessively fear a particular thing, our brain’s fear-response system has been hijacked by a fantasy. Now, that might sound abrasive or harsh, especially if you’ve experienced a lot of fear, trauma or any abuse in your life. Please stay with me though; my goal is not to shame you but to empower you.
In order to overcome a fear, there are 5 principles you must know and apply:
- Call it what it is (your brain is awesome)
- Recognize when you feel fear
- Recognize why you fear and what you really fear
- Activate choice
- Be vulnerable
Fear is a very important biological response to stimuli. When the brain perceives that something is dangerous, it does a whole lot of very helpful work for you, such as firing the adrenal glands and switching all the sensory and reflex systems to “turbo” mode. If you’re being chased by a crazed wildebeest or a ravenous lion (or a boss who’s completely off his rocker), this response is tremendously good news! With absolutely no cognitive effort or concentration (there’s not time for that, after all), your brain has just turned you into a parkour-loving, stone-hopping, river-swimming superhero capable of dismissing pain and pushing through injury. You’re instantly stronger and faster, and your senses are keener. The limbic system (the “animal” or instinctual part of the brain) is stinkin’ awesome.
The limbic system cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and it uses past events to “pre-process” or respond to current events. So it can and does “misfire” often, especially given the complexities of our modern world. When I have a confusing or overwhelming experience (for example, a business partner or spouse who lies to my face, unbeknown to me), I can feel fear because I don’t know what will happen next; the relationship is unpredictable and I feel that I’m in danger. At that point, it’s very easy to begin “playing out” alternative scenarios in my mind. What may begin as conscious planning, however, can quickly degrade into fear-obsession. Since my limbic system is already engaged (I feel that I’m in danger), I will have the propensity (even the urge) to ruminate on every possible bad outcome. The trouble is, every time I do so, parts of my brain think it is real. My limbic system gets “tricked” into engaging further and telling me, “get out of there!” when I may not be in any danger. Fantasy has changed my “reality.”
Moreover, experiences, whether real, perceived or fantasized, slowly rewire the brain. Traumatic or abusive experiences condition the brain to engage fear responses to specific triggers as well as to many situations, experiences and items that may not be closely related. Past hurts and violations (whether real or perceived) have told the brain, “increase the defenses!”
2. Recognize Fear
Most of us recognize (at least after the fact) when we have an extreme fear response. That feeling of adrenaline firing into the bloodstream is fairly obvious and unmistakable. Some people love it, others absolutely hate it, but everyone has felt it. However, more subtle fear responses include:
- The desire to hide or cover up
- Feeling threatened
- The desire to blame or lash out against someone
- The impulse / need to fight back
- Being “speechless” or unable to mentally “keep up” with what another person is saying or doing
- The desire to give up, leave the room, disengage or walk away
These responses vary from person to person. Because the brain can be tricked into giving us “false” fear responses, we need to be aware of all the ways we personally react to fear.
3. Identify What You Really Fear
As I said before, fears can be real or faulty (fantasy). A real fear is one where you’ve accurately identified the thing you fear and the danger it poses. In other words, that crazed wildebeest chasing you, or the snapping rattlesnake in your boot REALLY ARE dangerous to your survival.
But most of the time, fears are “phantom fears” which cover up the real thing we feel fear about. A phobia of spiders is probably not based on them being dangerous; almost all spiders are not. Fear of flying can become totally irrational and crippling, even though flying is generally safer than driving. Fear of failure is not based in fact; there is no evidence that I am permanently incapable of reaching my goals. In many cases, what has happened is that past experiences have taught me to become closed, or shamed. If I believe that I am not lovable, or that I don’t matter, or that the world is out to get me, I will perceive dangers that are not real. I may perceive that spiders are my mortal enemies and want to hurt me; I can decide that trusting anyone (including those imperfect people who build and fly airplanes) is too risky for me; I can easily become afraid that if I let anyone see who I am, they’ll think (and tell me) I’m a failure. Shame alters our whole attitude, and then that attitude “pokes through” or “shows up” in the form of specific (often irrational, and often seemingly unrelated) fears.
4. Activate Choice
Shame tells us lies about our identities, and then our brains (which can’t tell the difference between reality and fantasy) react to those lies by “helpfully” warning us to fear.
The good news is that you can put your fear responses in reverse to discover what your shame messages are saying. Consciousness is key. If you’ll pause and analyze your fear, you can actually change it. First, practice recognizing when you’re reacting to fear. Then, tell yourself the Truth about the situation, such as “no, this isn’t actually dangerous.” Ask questions curious such as, “why am I afraid of this?” As you repeatedly ask curious questions, you will perceive (often quite quickly) what faulty core beliefs or shame messages you believe about yourself (again, the brain is incredible). Then you can work on changing those beliefs, and your fears will diminish, the triggers will stop, and you’ll be free from fear.
5. Be Vulnerable
The final step is not really a step but an on-going process. Vulnerability is the direct opposite of fear. Fear creates an impulse to “close” — to run, to protect, to hide, while vulnerability is the active choice to override fear with rational thought. Where fear says “don’t let them see or you’ll get hurt,” vulnerability says, “I’m going to let them see. It will deepen our relationship and show me that I won’t necessarily get hurt.” The choice to be vulnerable is the choice to take risks in life, in relationships, in work environments, and so forth.
Caveat: vulnerability is healing when two conditions are met: 1) the fear is based on shame, and 2) the people with whom you are vulnerable are emotionally safe and mature enough to validate you. In other words, vulnerability doesn’t mean taunting a crazed wildebeest or smothering your head in honey and spelunking into bear dens. It does mean making rational, informed and thought-out decisions to go against your selfish instincts of self-preservation when you won’t be physically killed or injured in the act. It means weighing the consequences rationally and getting advice from others who “have their heads on straight.” It means responding to the Truth rather than reacting to shame and distortions.
So there you have it. A short list that’s easy to read and really challenging to implement.
You can conquer those fears through the power of choice. Even when you do feel like you’re being chased by wild animals.