Traversing the Inner Terrain

The search for the Authentic Self.

The F-Word: Fear

Big, ugly, hairy fear

Let's talk now for a while about what seems to be empowerment's polar opposite emotion:  Fear, the F-word.  We might find it hard to imagine the numerous subtle and nuanced actions and reactions that occur in a given day that are motivated by fear. And how many of our biological processes are literally run by fear? The rhythm of the heart, blood pressure, the digestive system, neurological responses, joint, bone and skin health and even the ability to absorb vitamins have all been linked to what we call "stress," though if you break that word down to its common denominator, you get fear.  We are stressed because we are afraid that if we don't get such-and-such done there will be consequences to pay; or because we must be on time because we fear that others will think less of us if we don't; or because we fear that we will lose a loved one in some manner. All of these stresses fall down ultimately to fear.

I often hear my clients make a distinction between anxiety and fear. "I'm just anxious," they say, "but I'm not afraid." Weeell, no. What makes us anxious is the fear that certain things won't happen in the way we hope-the way that keeps us safe from loss, pain, suffering or consequence. You may have to think about this for a bit, and I challenge you to do just that, but if you are honest, what you will find at the end of every rope of anxiety, is fear.

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Back in the '90's everyone seemed to be wearing those tee-shirts that said "Fearless" on them.  But like all other fads, that went away--mostly I think because none of us really are fearless. All of us have fears, and to deny that is to sabotage ourselves later, when we are standing in the middle of the road and a Mac truck is coming.  Fear is not a "bad" or "negative" emotion.  In fact, as we've already asserted, there is no such thing as a "negative" emotion.  Some of them might be more difficult than others, but those most difficult emotions can also be very informative about what's really going on in our psyches, even in the unconscious realms-if we are willing to sit with them and ease the real message out of them.

The problem with thinking that we should be fearless is that when we do, we generally end up repressing our fears, and then they can only be known to us when they become terror. The psyche will not forever let us get away with ignoring it. And so if we push fear down into the unconscious over and over again, it will simply grow down in there until there is a significant enough external trigger to cause it to come forth into conscious experience large and loud.

And this belief that we should be fearless is what also causes us to believe that we cannot be fully empowered until we are fearless. Not so. Empowerment is not fearlessness. Empowerment is recognizing the internal ability--even the skill--to experience all of our feelings, dialoguing with them long enough to sort out the message those feelings came to give us. And then, the empowered person can use that message as channeled energy to accomplish the goals of the authentic self.

However, because of this fallacy about fearlessness, when we are faced with a frightening or challenging situation, we tend to think that what we are supposed to do is go into it, facing the wind, with no fear. And worse, we fear that if we cannot do this then our fear is exposed to the enemy, and it will eat us alive. We do tend to think of difficult, challenging situations as the enemy-and we do often reduce the concept of enemy to its most primal connotations, even without knowing we are doing this.

This fallacy also leads us to think that we should just learn to "deal with it"--meaning that we should learn to just accept the unacceptable and tolerate the intolerable in our jobs and relationships. So, we tell ourselves that we are just being weak and stupid when we experience fear, and we try to "get a better attitude" about our situation.  This "better attitude" is really meant to keep us from having to face the even larger fear of having to take responsibility for changing our situation.

Fear is not the enemy any more than any other emotion is the enemy.  But then fear is not the whole picture either.  Fear is simply the emotion about a given situation, person, place, or thing. And emotions are only messengers. They do not come to tell us, however, that the emotion is correct or appropriate for the given scenario. They come to tell us what's going on inside of us. The empowered person knows that he is fully responsible for what he feels. The disempowered person believes that he cannot be powerful until he is fearless. Or, he believes that feeling fear makes him weak and vulnerable, so he must not allow himself to feel it.  Or, she believes that the only way to overcome fear is to make others afraid.

Your fear has something to tell you about you.  What is it?  

 

Andrea Mathews, L.P.C., is a Cognitive and Transpersonal Therapist, internet radio show host, and author of Restoring My Soul: A Workbook for Finding and Living the Authentic Self. more...

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