Loads of words have been written about fear. Enough to fill pages and pages. In fact, I suspect that if you laid all those pages end to end, they would span the highways and byways of a small state. Like Rhode Island. Maybe even a really big state. Texas perhaps. I don’t know.
Geography aside, it’s fair to say it would be a very large state of fear.
Which is exactly why I’ve been reluctant to write about it. I mean, what could I possibly add? I threw caution to the wind last week, though, and went and cracked open the door.
I began by spilling the beans about a few of my own experiences with it.
Then I introduced the F – E – A – R acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. Well, I didn’t exactly introduce it; I know some of you have heard it before.
But I didn’t stop there. No. I asked my savvy readers to comment on the fear acronym. To consider if it could really work to make a person feel less fearful. And everybody who chimed in seemed to agree that as nifty as the acronym is, a longer conversation is required to fully understand the depth and breadth of fear (many thanks to Sara, Wilma, Belinda, SuZen, Eric for playing along with my somewhat unusual movie moment).
So there you have it. The door is no longer cracked open, it’s wide open. Beckoning. I’ve come this far, and I figure I might as well walk through and put my two cents in.
WALKING THROUGH THE FEAR DOOR
Okay. FEAR. Have you noticed the words we tend to partner with it?
Defeat. Overcome. Conquer. Master. Destroy. As in: How To Defeat, Overcome, Conquer, Master, and/or Destroy Your Fears in Three Easy Lessons.
Think about it for a minute. Those are fighting words. Warrior words. In fact, we’re channeling the warrior archetype when we use them. But the thing is, the warrior isn’t usually skillful enough to slay the fear dragon.
Because it can be a very BIG dragon. That even an army of warriors couldn’t bring down.
And at some level, I think we know that. So we try a different tactic. A whole new set of words: discard, eliminate, get rid of. And my personal favorite: banish.
Mmm, banish. If fear were a Shakespearean character, the king would proclaim, Fear…you are ban – uh – shed from the kingdom.
Don’t you love how Shakespeare livens up that simple two syllable word?
BAN – UH – SHED! (Say it fast).
Yet even with the extra syllable, we’re still left wanting. Because no matter how powerful the king, fear will find its way back into the castle. Maybe it’ll have to swim across the moat, but trust me, it will persevere.
Does this seem depressing? I don’t want it to. I’m just trying to make the point that fear can’t be beat down or kicked out.
There was a time, though, when I was in the camp that believed you could do just that. If a client told me they wanted to be rid of fears, I’d enthusiastically sign on. I reasoned that if I could just discover the right tactic or strategy (do you hear my warrior words?), the fear would be eliminated.
Maybe I clung to that notion because of some unwanted companions during the first half of my life: anxiety attacks. I suppose I didn’t want anyone to experience the dark shadow of fear if they didn’t have to. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time one of us helping types unwittingly tried to protect when instead we should have been encouraging a form of capitulation.
Luckily I caught on. And over the years many wise teachers have helped me to understand that there is another way with fear. A more life affirming option that allows us to change its meaning.
CHANGING THE MEANING OF FEAR
At its most basic, changing the meaning of fear requires acceptance. Admitting that it JUST IS. It’s an emotion and we’re going to feel our share of it. It’s rarely a good idea to deny or refuse emotions, because if we do they come back to bite us in our collective butts. (That said, if you experience paralyzing fears or panic attacks like I did, it’s time to get help).
Usually, however, allowing ourselves to feel fear lessens its grip. And since many smart people have written about this, I won’t belabor the point.
But a curious thing happens when we simply choose to accept fear. We’re able to open our eyes and look beneath. We can see the story that breathes life into it.
THE STORY BENEATH THE FEAR
It’s an ancient story, the one about the orphan. The abandoned child; the lost and vulnerable waif. Who, no matter how hard she or he tries, can’t make their way in an unforgiving world.
If you think this isn’t part of you, think again. Because each of us confronts the existential inevitability that we are ultimately alone. Even in spite of our families and friends and connections, we’re the only ones responsible for our lives.
Tag, we’re it!
And if that’s not enough to throw you, to leave you feeling overwhelmed and insufficient at times, and yes, occasionally fearful, then I don’t know what is.
So, nine times out of ten this is the gas that makes fear go. This primitive story is in the driver’s seat when we say things like, “I’m afraid I won’t measure up” or “I fear making a mistake” or “Why bother, it won’t work out.” The story tries to convince us that we’re not up to the task, that basically, we’re not enough (like the orphan). And if we try to go for it, we’ll be overwhelmed, abandoned, and confused.
Now, mind you, the orphan character doesn’t normally sit on us every morning and tell us to pull the covers over our heads because the world is such a big, hard place. Rather, it operates at a pretty deep level in our psyches.
Nevertheless, as much as we might not want to admit it, we’ve all got it, no matter if life to date has been a comedy or a tragedy or something in between. And that’s actually a good thing. Isn’t it comforting to know that we’re all in this together? That this archetypal story stretches back far beyond our individual histories and experiences?
I think so, because it is exactly this communal experience of the story that gives us the gumption to step back and locate it outside of ourselves. To make it less about our personal problems and more about the story itself, thus changing the meaning of the fear.
LOCATING THE FEAR STORY OUTSIDE OF OURSELVES
Are you still with me? If you are, then you probably recognize times when the orphan story has been operating beneath your own fears. And you’re willing to consider that it’s a universal story as much as a personal story. Just making that leap gives you breathing room to start a dialogue between the story and yourself. You can begin by asking yourself a key question:
How can I stop cooperating with this story?
At first glance this may seem like a simple question. In some ways it is. But putting it into action is quite another thing. So I’m going to sign off for now and give you a chance to ponder it. Even take a stab at answering it, if you like. And then I’ll continue the conversation next time.
WHY NOT START NOW?
It’s human nature to push fear into the recesses of our minds – we try to ignore it. But experience should tell us that fear confronted always seems to diminish. Facing the fear and dealing with it is almost always less terrible than the thought.
Hi Mike – Welcome. Thanks for joining the conversation. You’re right, we do often overestimate how terrible it will be to face the fears.
This is indeed a word – a concept – worth chewing on! It is something we all experience, many times, throughout our lives. It creeps in constantly, in our thoughts, in our dreams, in our living – starts out as a silly little doubt, and when left unchecked, mushrooms into full blown fear.
In my constant quest for simplicity and not wasting time on crap I don’t really have time for anymore, I’ve lumped fear into my small group of “f” words and ban-uh-shed them from my head! (One other “f” word – shhhh – is failure.)
Thought provoking post!
Hi SuZen-Thanks! I really like how you follow its course, from a little doubt into a a big mushroom cloud. Good plan to make it a small “f” word. Just curious – how do you do that? I’d love to hear. Hugs right back at you.
In a word? Practice! If that seems too arduous try distracting yourself from that whole line of thinking. OR take the “I’ll think about this tomorrow” route as the famous line from Gone With The Wind. It’s true that doubt leads to fear. I just don’t let it in! Adapt a fearless I CAN do this attitude. It’s my mantra.
Oh boy, I was rolling good with your last post, then you thrown in this monkey wrench of “How can I stop cooperating with this story?” I was hoping I could come back with something witty, but I’m a bit stumped.
This may not be the direction you are going, but to me, I believe that everything happens for a reason. We rarely know or understand the reason when it is happening, but later we can look back and learn the lessons. So, to answer your question, my way to stop cooperating would be to recognize the lessons and learn from them.
Another thing that keeps popping into my head is a “Call to Action.” A warrior phrase as you’d likely call it. It seems to me that if things keep happening that you dislike, you must take some action to change.
Hi Eric – You are right on. See you’re always one step ahead of me! Recognizing the lessons is such a smart way to change the meaning of fear. And I don’t think of a call to action as the act of a warrior, but rather as the act of a magician. The power to transform. But more about that next time. Thanks.
Patty, you’re not kiddin’ around with this FEAR business! Your message is piercing and dead-on that I almost want to leave this page without commenting before actual fears creep up. To stop cooperating with this story, I know I need to knock fear from center-stage because beyond it lies all kinds o’ good stuff. Knowing and doing, though, are two very different things.
Hi Belinda – Isn’t that the truth? If only it were easier to go from knowing to doing! I think you’ve got it, though – knocking it from center stage and letting some others in the cast of internal characters play their parts. I mean, they want their time in the spotlight too, right?
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It is great to know that fear is mind generated and NOT real like monsters and big bad wolves. Fear lives in my head and what lives in my head can be changed.
I now know that my mind can only hold one thought. So I go and do something like cleaning that literally take my mind of fear when I think fearful thoughts. It works every time.
Patty — You really tagged me with this post!! I liked the way you moved through this post, pulling us deeper. I really liked The Orphan Story and how it reminded me of my choices about this story and the role it plays in my fears.
I loved this question: How can I stop cooperating with this story?
I’ll be thinking about this as I head for your follow up post:~)
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