I love fear. Not because I’m a masochist, but because I recognise it for what it is: an important messenger. Fear is good, but you wouldn’t think it, to read the statements that frequent the self-help literature and lifestyle magazines:
“Feel the fear and do it anyway!” (Oh really? Even if the fear that tells you not to drive too fast round a hairpin bend?).
“The only thing to be afraid of is fear itself!” (Tell that to someone who’s being chased by an angry lion.)
“Fight your fears!” (What, even the ones that send you into such a panic that you’re physically incapacitated?)
Such headlines trumpet their opinions confidently: fear is to be got rid of, got round, ignored. In short, fear is a bad thing and is to be avoided. That is, if you want to have any hope of being happy and having a halfway decent life…
Give me a break! No one goes through life achieving anything of significance without experiencing fear – and that’s exactly as it should be, because fear is one of our greatest allies. So I say: “let’s hear it for fear!”
Here’s why you should never fight your fears.
Fear is one of the key feelings which make up your emotional compass. Happiness, anger, pain, and sadness (which is emotional pain) are the others. Virtually every other emotion you can conceive of (such as guilt, joy, and embarrassment) either represents varying degrees of those key feelings, or is a combination of two or more of them. For example, joy is an extreme form of happiness, and pain (in the form of emotional discomfort) and happiness (in the form of emotional pleasure) can combine to create embarrassment.
With the exception of times when you’re suffering from extremes of emotion – and even then, only with great care and professional guidance if necessary - you should never fight, shut down, ignore, or disrespect your feelings. They are what guide you through life; to the things you like, and away from the things you don’t. Your emotional compass is an essential part of your primal life toolkit, and for it to work for you, you need to be in touch with the full range of your feelings, including fear.
One reason it’s important to trust your feelings is because sometimes they’re all you’ve got to guide you, especially when you know where you want to go and you’re struggling against society’s received wisdom, peer pressure, or criticism. Fear can propel you away from circumstances that aren’t right for you, even when they seem idyllic to others, and it’s often the experience of a specific fear – such as getting stuck in a job or relationship that’s diminishing you - that brings you to the point of following your dreams. But fear can help you in more subtle ways, too.
To find out what those ways are, it’s important to realise that fear comes in two forms: rational fear, and irrational fear. Let’s take a quick look at each.
A man jumps out at you in a dark alleyway, brandishing a big knife. “Give me all your money, or I’ll kill you!” he snarls. In a moment like this, you’ll experience an intense form of rational fear. Your heart rate will increase, adrenalin will flood through your bloodstream, your muscles will tense in preparation, and you’ll be ready either to fight your attacker, defend yourself, or run away. In short, you’ll be experiencing the same fight-or-flight response that’s programmed into our DNA and which kept our ancestors safe from sabre-toothed tigers (the fact that you’re sitting here now, reading this, proves that your ancestors were adept at avoiding danger at least long enough to reproduce). The fear you experience is entirely rational; you are in a dangerous situation, and could get hurt, or even be killed. You don’t need to think about it. Your body, wonderful survival apparatus that it is, instantly responds by creating the sensation of intense fear in order to move you away from danger.
You’ve been asked to be best man at a friend’s wedding. As part of your duties, you’ll be expected to give a speech. The very thought fills you with dread. On the day, you stand up in front of the assembled wedding guests, your hands damp with sweat, your mouth painfully dry, your mind a blank. It takes all your effort of will to keep your hands from shaking as you hold your papers in front of you, and begin, voice quavering. You’re experiencing irrational fear. Nothing really bad is going to happen to you – there’s no threat to your life – but all the same, you are frightened. It’s important to note that irrational fear is not unreal fear. It’s real all right; just ask anyone who’s ever suffered from a panic attack.
Why does it happen this way? Simply because, the part of your brain that controls fear is very powerful, but it’s also very primitive; it can’t tell the difference between the sort of physical danger that would genuinely threaten your safety, and emotional pain. Whether it’s trying to keep you safe from a knife-wielding maniac, or perceiving that you’re doing something unknown, and potentially dangerous, it responds with the same fight-or-flight reaction.
Your job then, isn’t to get rid of fear, but to understand it, because it has a message for you, and it’s always trying to keep you safe.
In the case of rational fear, it can be carrying a very simple message: “you’re in big trouble, get the hell out of here!” But in the case of irrational fear, you probably have to go digging underneath it, because the chances are the fear is masking another feeling. In the example I gave above, you’re unlikely to come to any lasting harm, but – if the speech goes badly – you could very well feel like a fool. Your fear is trying to keep you safe from an uncomfortable emotion that it perceives as being dangerous to your sense of yourself. It’s no accident that we often hear people talking of “dying of embarrassment”. Whether it’s your physical body that’s in danger, or your emotional coherence, fear rises up like a lion to warn you away from risk.
Fear of this type can also be a mask for feelings other than embarrassment. You might be frightened of succeeding because it’ll make you feel guilty about spending time away from the people you love; you might be scared to receive praise because it’ll make you feel sad about other people in your life who aren’t happy with their lot; you might even be experiencing a fear of happiness – usually because you’re suffering from the erroneous belief that if you get too happy, fate will strike you a blow just to take you down a peg or two.
There’s a very good chance that you won’t consciously realise that any of these things are happening, because the fear masks the other feelings. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to any feelings of anxiety you’re having, so you can find out what they’re trying to tell you.
And here’s the funny thing. Once you identify the feeling that your fear is trying to keep you away from, and deal with it, the fear starts to melt, like an icicle in the sun. That doesn’t mean it’ll go away entirely – although sometimes it will – but it should at least diminish to a level that allows you to think more clearly about what you should do next.
How do you “deal with” your feelings? That depends on you, the circumstances, and the level of intensity of the feelings. Sometimes you just need to let yourself feel them; sometimes you need to question the assumptions that lie beneath them; and sometimes you need to express them, so they can move through you and disperse. If they’re particularly powerful and scary, you might need support from a counsellor or therapist as you work your way through them.
It’s a journey worth taking. Once you’ve done it, you’re left with a choice: to keep going in the direction you were going; or to decide the fear was genuinely warning you away from something that was wrong for you, and to take the opportunity of charting a new course.
Either way, you’ve done something far more empowering than fighting your fear. By really listening to your fear – whether rational and a real signal of danger, or irrational and a mask for something else – you’ve taken a powerful emotional compass reading that’ll enable you to set your sails in a way that moves you forward along the only path that ever matters in life: your own.
© Brian Cormack Carr, 2010*