So, how has running from Fear or ignoring her all your life been working for you?
Not great, I’m thinking. It hasn’t worked out great for me either.
But, as I’ve become more present in my life, it has made me more attuned to how fear works. I’m discovering more and more ways that Fear shows up in our lives. Since I wrote the blog How Fear Shows Up In Your Life, I think I’m up to 21. It’s empowering to take the blindfold off, finally, and see how Fear works. But it’s also a little demoralizing to know how many of these fears are regular visitors to my life.
So, what do we do about it? Let’s back it up a bit. In order to do something about fear, we need to know what to look for.
Two kinds of fear
To define it: Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger. We need fear in our lives. if we didn't feel it, we couldn't protect ourselves from dangerous threats. Physical fear says, “Pay attention!”
For example, let’s say you are up a ladder, putting up Christmas lights on the tree outside your house, just like you do every year. You reach out as far as you can to put up the last light at the highest point of the tree, but it’s not quite far enough. Even though you know it’s not a good idea, you don’t listen to the little voice saying, “Don’t. It’s not safe.” Instead, you lean just a little further to your right, and that motion is enough to make the ladder unstable. It starts to tilt and you feel yourself falling. You fumble and grab onto a thick branch, clinging to safety as you stabilize the ladder. Your heart is pounding in waves in your ears and it feels as though it will burst out of your chest. You’re panting, your eyes are wide open, the hair on the back of your neck is standing at attention, and you break into a slight sweat. Your senses are on fire. You climb down from the ladder with shaky legs to move it where it needs to go to put the lights up safely.
This is a physical response to life-threatening danger.
Emotional fear is tricky. It's humiliating, shaming, and can bring up past abuses. To our body, it feels the same as a physical threat because we feel the same physical reaction to it.
For the sake of this blog, let's go with a less difficult scenario.
Let’s say you’ve been given the assignment to recite a section of a Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at school. You write it all down on index cards, you memorize and you practice reciting it until you’re ready. On the morning of your speech, you have butterflies, but you just want to get it over with. When your teacher calls your name, you step up to the front of the class and you see there are 35 other kids who are just waiting to pounce, like cats on a bug. But you start into the poem,
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:...
And then, suddenly, you notice the bored faces of your classmates, and the flow of your soliloquy is broken. You hesitate. Your mind goes completely blank for a moment. You look down at the cards, but all you see is a jumble of letters that make no sense. Your heart starts to pound in your ears, you feel nauseous and dizzy, you break into a light sweat. You hear tinkles of derisive laughter from your fellow students. You want to run, but you are frozen. You move to the next card, and there it is, your line:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;...
You’re off again, reciting the entire poem without your cards. But when you go back to your seat, instead of feeling elated that you survived the ordeal, you replay that moment over and over in your head. The next time you’re called to stand and speak in front of the class, you stumble a little more. Before you know it, that humiliation of forgetting for just a moment becomes a fear of public speaking.
Our body reacts to emotional fear in the same way as physical fear — it feels the same because somehow, for a moment, our brainwaves got jumbled and recognized the classic fear response of fight, flight, or freeze as life-threatening fear. Over time and repeated reinforcement of that first humiliating experience when we were called to speak, our brains became rewired to react with fear to difficult, but definitely not life-threatening events. No one EVER died from public speaking.
The voice of Fear, which is there to keep us out of danger, gets stronger, louder, more forceful, stopping us from trying out for the choral group because you have to audition, and Fear says, “You know how bad felt when you tried to recite Shakespeare…”
Truth: If you fear it, it usually means you really want it (and need to do it)
Emotional fear is not bad, it’s telling you what you really, really want
Fear rears up when something you deeply care about is threatened. That part of you is sacred and for many people, remains unconscious (and untapped) potential. Fear usually means something is very right.
I found this beautiful metaphor at Live Unbound, called Follow Your Fears:
If you’re going through a difficult time, consider the possibility that right now you’re exactly where you need to be.
When parasites slip into oysters and threaten their survival, their natural reaction is not to fight it off. Instead, they cover it up with the same substance that is used to create their protective shell. Over time this process creates one of the most admired objects in the world, the pearl.
Instead of trying to eliminate problems or avoid fears; run towards them. They’re your stepping stones to greatness.
Fear is the obstacle, but it’s also the way. So, instead of running from Fear, embrace her, let her know you got this.
Look at the stories you’ve made up about your fear
Emotional fear is an illusion. We make up frightening stories about our past and our future and rehearse them until we’re terrified. What if no one comes? What if I’m too old? Who will support me? What if I lose everything?
But what if I fall? (Oh, but what if you fly?!)
The thing about a Fear is that she keeps us thinking about all the terrible things what will happen if we step out of our confinement. In reality, thinking about doing something challenging is almost always waaaaaayyyy worse than what actually happens, because Fear uses exaggeration to keep us inside our zone of comfort.
Our stories are often about the pain of the past or the fear of the future. Change the fearful stories you tell yourself. You will find safety by living in the present moment. You always have the option to create new stories filled with positive expectations of the future. Remember, for every time you’ve failed, you have probably succeeded dozens of times. Use these successes as proof.
If we’re engaged in fear and trying to defend ourselves from negative outcomes, then the choices we make will be based on trying to protect ourselves from whatever it is we fear. Our thoughts will not be grounded in love, which makes our lives abundant and happier. Our thoughts will be based on fear, which keeps our lives small and lacking.
DO THIS: Turn your face towards fear
We don’t face our fears because we don’t even want to think about them. We don’t want to acknowledge that they are there. And this is what gives Fear its power.
Fear holds us back in so many ways: we procrastinate, we lash out at baristas and spouses, we say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’ at things that our hearts yearn for, and we keep ourselves in everyone else’s business, so we don’t have to look at our own. These are only a few of the many ways fear infiltrates our lives and prevents us from living our dreams.
Try a mindfulness meditation:
Spend about 3 minutes with your face turned towards your fears. Listen to the conversation and allow yourself to recognize the fears that make themselves known. Let the story of the fear float away. Instead feel where they show up in your body. What is that feeling? Does it burn, does it flutter, does it flip-flop, does it hurt? Where? Be brave enough to sit with these fears as long as you can (but stop if it gets too intense and try again tomorrow).
Try to look at the fear with compassion. You are stressed or hurting in some way. Put your hand over your heart and send love to your stress and pain. Wish for your own happiness. Love yourself up!
Sit for another minute and try to see YOUR goodness, underneath the fear. This takes practice, but start to see how wonderful you are, underneath everything. That you are safe. This goodness is always present, but we don’t often look at it. See the love, compassion, beauty, good intentions, and kindness, that are inside of you all the time.
This Buddhist mindfulness meditation trains you to detach from the story of fear-based thoughts.
As you get more comfortable and aware of it, you can try it when a wave of fear comes up and threatens to knock you over. It isn’t easy to resist the fear and to listen to your heart. It takes practice and determination to find your calm center beneath the fear.
Why doing this work matters
Why bother making such a monumental effort? Simply, because Fear is in control.
When we’ve had enough and are ready to break the pattern of Fear smacking us down so that we run back to our teeny-tiny boxes (our comfort zone, which is supremely uncomfortable in reality) we find the courage to face Fear, and feel compassion for her.
Being aware of where Fear is speaking from and giving her plenty of compassion can help Fear to relax and allow us to change our thought patterns. We can start looking at the desire behind our fears, instead of the stories we tell about them.
kathy mercure is a storyhealer, storylistener, and storyteller. Her life’s work is to gently draw stories from her students and help them unblock their writing, find their voice, and heal their lives. Her passion is to support women and men in realizing their true identity as a valued human being, claiming their passions, and speaking their truth as they become their most authentic selves. (Photo by EagleSpirit Soul Shots)