Fear is sometimes familiar, sometimes appropriate, sometimes inherited, sometimes life-saving, sometime self-sabotaging. Only by examining the mechanism of fear can it be understood; only when it is understood can it be dealt with effectively.
After all, life is not a game of tag: no place is absolutely safe.
The number of successful, competent women who have problems with unresolved and irrational fears are legion; successful women use fear not to undermine their success, but to apologize for it. Fear is offered to others as a compensation for achieved success. It is only within their most intimate relationships--or, in some cases, totally on their own-- that they express their intense fears and needs for reassurance. Their personal lives are often at odds with their public personae; instead of regarding themselves as others do, as self-sufficient and courageous, they think of their inner selves as so extremely fearful that they worry about displaying any aspect of that "true" self--the fearful self. According to a number of studies, women who identify themselves as "able yet fearful" have, statistically, more unhappy love affairs or marriages than their less fearful counterparts, but they do not necessarily do less well in the workplace.
In part, we choose what we fear, and we choose how we manifest our fears. Fear is often the single certainty--the thing of which they are most sure--in the lives of some women who find that life is so chaotic they need to fasten onto something reliable, and fear is reliable.
They hunt down evidence for their fears like a shark looking for a weak swimmer. Fear acts as a shaping principle for an existence fraught with shapelessness--if nothing else can be relied upon, then at least fear provides a boundary. "I can't drive on the highway" declares a longtime friend, otherwise a courageous soul who takes small plane every year to an obscure Central American village to work with sick children. She can do things that sound as impossible to me as a shuttle trip to Mars, but she can't drive herself to the airport or drive her sister to the doctor.
She defines herself, in a limited but significant way, by her fear of highways and I do the same with my fear of airplanes. It's not so much that we confess our fears to each other because in some subtle, almost unconscious way, we brag about them, offering them up to one another in what, over the years, have become almost ritualized conversations. I talk about turbulence, she talks about exit ramps. We rehearse our fears, not because we don't know them by heart but because in a way they humanize us, or more particularly, feminize us.
"I've overcome so many anxieties," we say in a virtual duet, "can't I just be allowed to be afraid of this one thing?" Our fear becomes our badge of femininity; we talk about it the way we talk about diets. "So I'm not perfect, so that means you'll have to love me even more to make up for it!" we wail to the world at large.
The world, of course, couldn't care less. The world-especially the world of men-has enough to worry about.
In Rediscovering Masculinity: Reason. Language and Sexuality, Victor Seidler addresses, in part, some of the reasons men's response to fear is different from women's: "As boys, we are brought up to distance ourselves from fear. We learn that we have constantly to prove our masculinity, we can never take it for granted. This builds enormous tension into contemporary conceptions of masculinity. Fear is defined as an unacceptable emotion, but in disowning our fear and learning to put a brave face to the world, we learn to despise all forms of weakness. Strength is identified with a stiff upper lip, as we learn systematically to discount any feelings of fear. We learn not to show our feelings to others, since this is an immediate sign of weakness."
And yet, as happens so often, it is a novelist-in this case, Margaret Drabble in The Waterfall-- rather than a researcher who perhaps best sums up the state in which the fearful woman lives: "There is something so ludicrous about efforts to subdue trivial phobias, unfunded fears: even the most heroic victory on this field has a quality of the pitiable. When we see a woman walk along the street, how do we know she is not some brave agoraphobe, flinching for the brutal sky? Some people are afraid of insects, of water, of green leaves. Of the very air. They fight against unseen impediments to perform the most simple human acts--speaking, hearing, making love. They expose themselves to their own ridicule, in efforts to avoid a stammer or a fit of impotence. And yet we dare to judge each other, we dare to suppose a norm. We continue to live, as though life were a practical possibility, as though we could know something of one another."
Fear is in our heads, not out of our hands; we pick and choose our fears, and polish them up with secret attention. We own them, which means that we can or throw them away-- or change ourselves if we choose.