We all know fear. I’m not just talking about the big fears like terror and panic, but fear in all its variations. Fear is our constant companion, our day-to-day nemesis and our ultimate challenge.
It fuels negative and judgmental thoughts and the desire for control. Fear underlies guilt, shame and anger. Every difficult emotion we experience represents some kind of threat: to our self-esteem; to the stability of a relationship; to something we want or want to avoid; even to our right to be alive. Look at any difficult emotion and there, below the guilt, shame and anger, below the negativity and the judgments, you will find fear.
Fear hides inside words like anxiety, worry and nervousness. It ranges from the anxiety of giving a presentation at work to the anxiety about terrorism in the world, from worry that our shoes don’t match an outfit to worry about world hunger.
Fear is not always negative. In fact, fear is essentially a positive mechanism, an ingenious natural design to keep us safe. There are plenty of opportunities for healthy fear to work its magic, guiding us this way and that, alerting us to danger and aligning us with what is good and right with the world.
Unfortunately, we’ve created a spin-off: fear we self-impose without the need for external causes. “No, thank you,” we say. “I don’t need any real danger to activate my fear. I can do it perfectly well myself.” Likewise, we take legitimate fear and work with it until we are paralyzed, barely able to breathe.
Healthy and Unhealthy Fear. Let’s begin by differentiating between two different kinds of fear: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy fear stands guard responsibly, informing us immediately of real danger. It’s the anxiety and worry pervading our daily lives that are the real troublemakers. Neurotic fear, as it is called, exaggerates and even invents dangers. Healthy fear is about protection and guidance. Neurotic fear is about the need to be in control. Healthy fear inspires us to do what can be done in the present. Neurotic fear borrows trouble from the future.
Begin to characterize your healthy fear and your neurotic fear as two advisors, each with their own personality and agenda. Perceiving yourself “in relationship with” your fears, rather than possessed by them, is the single most powerful technique I have discovered to help overcome the control that neurotic fear imposes.
Imagine this scene: You sit in an office with two advisors. Healthy Fear is the strong, silent type, vigilant and ready to inform you of real dangers as they come into view. It does not expend valuable energy advising you of every conceivable danger or conjuring up the innumerable ways things could go wrong. It sorts through a tremendous amount of complex information; its suggested responses are simple and efficient.
Each report of real danger is accompanied by reasonable recommendations for the intensity and timing of your response. If a bus is approaching, Healthy Fear will insist that you get out of the street, just as Healthy Fear will tell you to make an appointment with your doctor if you have an unexplained, persistent pain.
Your other advisor, Neurotic Fear, is anything but silent. It often shows up early in life, preferring to deal in extremes, talking nonstop and pointing out every conceivable danger. It promotes a steady anxiety, inspiring tightness in your chest and butterflies in your stomach. It paces the floor, never sitting down. Its very presence makes you nervous. It constantly reminds you of negative outcomes. Neurotic Fear loves to predict total disaster. Its philosophy seems to be “If something could go wrong, let’s focus on it.”
Most of us know these two advisors intimately. Healthy Fear lives within us for one reason only: to protect us. The relationship dynamic with Neurotic Fear is controlling overprotection. Neurotic Fear is in charge of your life. This “controller” promotes a state of perpetual self-doubt. Whether the controlling personality is a parent, spouse or neurotic fear within us, the lower our self-esteem, the easier we are to control.
Even after we have uncovered the more authentic voice of Healthy Fear, we still tend to lean toward the voice of Neurotic Fear. Are we inherently negative? Do we enjoy being afraid all the time? Are we just slow learners?
The answer is none of the above. Neurotic Fear embeds itself into our thinking through years of repetition. As a natural result, these negative messages achieve a high level of credibility. They are so familiar to us that we tend to trust them. We have been steadily and thoroughly brainwashed by Neurotic Fear.
The Challenge. We must learn to make a conscious choice to turn away from Neurotic Fear and toward Healthy Fear.
In my practice, I use a roleplaying exercise to illustrate this scenario. I ask two people to take on the role of Healthy and Neurotic Fear advisors for a volunteer, who sits between them. After creating a short list of messages for each advisor (specially designed for the volunteer), both advisors speak to the person simultaneously. Participants usually report that while they try to stay focused on Healthy Fear, they gradually lose the battle, ultimately hearing Neurotic Fear’s messages clearly while losing awareness of the healthy messages. Often by the end of the exercise, the person in the middle is noticeably leaning toward Neurotic Fear.
To help the volunteer overcome Neurotic Fear, I ask them to turn their back to Neurotic Fear and face Healthy Fear. With repetition and focused attention, the strength, credibility and wisdom of Healthy Fear begins to assume its rightful place.
Final scene: Speaking directly to Neurotic Fear, I ask the volunteer to say the following words:
I am coming to understand who and what you are, and I definitely see how much power you have in my life. I know I cannot just make you go away, but I can learn to stop listening to the lies you tell me about myself. This is the beginning of the end for you and a new beginning for me.
Neurotic Fear rolls its eyes and says, “Whatever.” It remains unfazed until we actually begin to change.
Then Healthy Fear responds:
Remember, our task here is not to be rid of Neurotic Fear, but to destroy its credibility. You may still hear what it says and feel its toxic, negative energy, but you will understand it and know it is not part of your authentic self. It will not be easy to change your thinking, but you can learn that Neurotic Fear is not your friend.
The Solution. While fear can be a major influence in our lives, it is not always a negative one. In fact, fear is essentially a positive mechanism, an ingenious natural design to keep us safe. It is there to get our attention, to alert us to danger, to guide us out of harm’s way, and to help us to align with what is good and right with the world.
How we face and respond to our individual fears is integral to how we respond to one another. When we make the decision to stand and face our individual demons, we contribute to the potential for positive change throughout the world. Our personal growth work is the pebble in the pond creating a ripple effect. Our treatment of our family and friends and even ourselves can effect change on a grand scale. This change begins with facing our own fears.