Fear stalks our world, brazen and shameless. I expect fear to occasionally sneak in and out of alleys, but to see it parade through public streets as though a welcome visitor is…..frightening!
There are public and private fears; they embolden each other. Like bullies on the playground, they compete for space and power. Who will be the scariest today?
Fear is dangerous because it paralyzes, like the sting from a scorpion. It stops my thinking and problem solving brain. It lights up my reptilian brain – the one that responds with fight, flight or freeze, the one developed for survival by our earliest ancestors.
Fear’s first cousin is anxiety. While fear is often an immediate response – a heart thumping jolt of adrenaline – anxiety is like a chronic cough, always niggling in the background, not serious enough to locate as a real problem. I recently saw a cartoon with an executive-type in a corner office, the assistant saying, “I’m sorry, he blocked this whole hour for anxiety.” Don’t we do that sometimes, block an hour, a day, a week for anxiety? As though that were really getting something done!
I am fed up with fear. I have spent enough of my life being afraid of things over which I have no control. I am afraid it may rain. Well, it may! I am afraid someone won’t like me. Could be! I am afraid that I will have to change. I can choose! I am afraid I will die. I will! I am afraid that I will miss the joys of my life if I focus on fear. Now, there is something to be afraid of!
People use fear to manipulate. Cable news feeds our fears to get us to watch their programs. Pundits poke at us to see if they can gin up enough fear energy to boost their ratings. Disasters serve as financial bonuses for news networks. I rarely watch news programs for just that reason – I resist being manipulated.
The use of fear to control was well described by the 16th century Italian, Machiavelli. While he admitted that love was an effective persuader, he argued that in almost all circumstances, the best course of action for a ruler was to instill fear in people, for if fear overwhelmed the hearts of citizens, there was no chance of rebellion.
I’ve decided to take on my fears this year. I am ready to move from fear-dom to free-dom. Here is my strategy.
First I will get curious about my fear. Where is it from? Where does it pulse in my body? What assumption (often erroneous) underlies the fear? Is this fear mine or someone else’s?
I grew up in the 50s when the great fears were communism and nuclear war. We worried about where we would hide when the big bomb was dropped. While this was not my fear, it hovered over us like threatening storm clouds, sapping joy and wonder. We are now provoked to fear the migrant, any religion not our own or what someone else might take from us. When I have been contaminated with a contagious fear I ask, do I really want to carry this? Is this really mine?
If I do own the fear, what is its origin? Did I inherit this fear? Many of us with parents who lived through the depression of the 1930s inherited the fear of scarcity. Our parents kept things long past their usefulness, just in case. I don’t have to keep that fear. I can discard it along with the dozens of empty plastic containers that have also outlived their usefulness.
When I own my fear, I can examine the assumptions underlying it. I used to fear public speaking. My assumption was that I didn’t have anything worth listening to. Or my voice would crack. Or I would faint at the podium. If I fear crossing bridges, I might assume that bridges are not safe and fall regularly. Is the assumption factual? Seneca said 2,000 years ago, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Many fears depend on wild imagination. I check my assumptions and replace them with facts.
Secondly, I’ll notice when I am afraid and act anyway. Psychologists tell us when we avoid that which we fear, the fear increases rather than diminishes. Every time we avoid the same fear, it grows. My nervous system is aroused when I experience something novel, something new. If I never walk into my fears, they are always novel. I don’t ever become familiar with them and they remain alarming. Not only that, when I avoid the dreaded thing again, I experience a sense of failure. Now I am not only afraid, I lose a piece of confidence to meet the fear.
When I was afraid of speaking in public, I wasn’t sure I could relax and be myself. The more I avoided public speaking, the greater my fears grew. Then I joined Toastmasters. All I did with Toastmasters was practice speaking in front of an audience. Pretty soon it wasn’t so terrifying. Pretty soon I found I enjoyed talking at a podium. Pretty soon I wasn’t afraid. I did that by increasing my exposure to what I was afraid of, until I was no longer terrified.
If I focus on my fear, it will expand. If I focus on my bravery and resilience, that will expand. Where will I focus?
Finally, I will ask for help. I do not have to face my fears alone. Often talking about my fear is enough to lessen its impact. I might take some quiet time to be with my Higher Power. Both talking with and listening to HP calms my reptilian brain and clears a thinking space for considering options other than fearful fretting.
Sharing with my spouse or close friend what it is I am afraid of can make if seem less scary, like when my five-year-old self walked into the dark basement with my brave 10-year-old cousin. I can ask a friend to go to the doctor with me when I fear having cancer. I can ask a neighbor to join me as I introduce myself to the new renters down the block. I can ask a 12-Step friend to go to a meeting with me. I do not need to do it alone.
This year I choose to not be controlled by my fears or someone else’s. I will be curious about my fears, face those that are truly mine, and ask for help when I need it. I will tame my fears and walk into freedom. I choose not to be afraid. And you? What fears are you ready to release?
Mary Lou Logsdon, leads retreats and provides spiritual companioning in the Twin Cities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.