I’m familiar with fear. We’ve been together for a while now.
Growing up, I was an anxious child. Quite literally afraid of the shadows (in post-Soviet Georgia, where I grew up, there were a lot of power cuts. Every time the power went out, and the shadows appeared, apparently I ran away to hide).
I spent my teenage years in England, attending school and then university. I didn’t realise this at the time, but I used fear to motivate myself through both of these things. I focused on what would happen if I didn’t make the “right” grades, rather than what I found interesting or exciting about the subjects that I was studying.
Unsurprisingly, fear followed me into adulthood. It helped me decide which jobs to accept and which relationships to stay in. Sometimes, I would even catch myself feeling afraid of feeling afraid.
So I know fear. I’ve lived with it, shared a bed with it, eaten alongside it. But I still didn’t like it.
Love Your Enemies
Facing my fear has been the work of a lifetime. Figuring out what fear means to me, and how I relate to, was often a challenge.
I read some inspirational books on the matter, such as Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, a book in which Susan Jeffers advocates using fear as a spur to action, a sentiment reflected in Gloria Steinem’s amazing book The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!
Here, Steinem writes: “Being brave is not being unafraid, but feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Fear is growth”.
But still, the uncomfortable relationship with fear persisted. The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t do things because of fear. Fear never let me get that far. The problem was that I didn’t want to feel any fear, and everything else became secondary to that.
In other words, the problem was my relationship with fear.
The New Deal
It took me a while to realise that I couldn’t get rid of fear. It also took me a while to realise that I couldn’t follow the advice of Jeffers or Steinem or numerous others, who advocate pushing yourself past fear, and into action.
Because pushing past fear still involved touching it, facing into it. And that is what I was afraid of.
Instead, I had to come up with a new way. I had to develop a new relationship to fear.
First Step: Feel the Fear, and Love It Anyway
So I asked myself: What would it be like to stop living alongside the enemy? What would happen if I choose to see fear as an ally instead?
And the answer suddenly became clear: life would be much simpler.
So this is my relationship with fear now. It’s a work in progress, but, whenever I am faced with fear, I don’t try to push it away, or push past it. I try to figure out what my fear is…well, afraid of.
I have stopped treating fear as an unwelcome part of myself, and started seeing it as an over-anxious parent or friend instead.
I figured out that while my fear may be a little over-dramatic, it’s ultimate message is usually a valid one. I tried to understand that underlying my fear is an instinct for self-preservation, no matter how misguided or outdated. And underlying the instinct for self-preservation is the illusive quality of self-love —because we protect the things that we love.
This is how I see fear now, or at least try to. My fear is trying to protect me. Therefore, my fear is a sign of self-love.
This was the first step.
Second Step: When Is Fear Good for You?
I do agree with Jeffers and others. Sometimes fear is a sign that you should do something. Sometimes you need to feel the fear and do it anyway.
But sometimes fear is a genuine warning.
Learning to distinguish between the two has been a valuable skill to develop.
This is the second step.
Developing this capacity to distinguish between fear that is present and fear that is outdated, a ghost of past defence mechanisms, was crucial for learning to understand myself. And learning to understand myself was crucial for figuring out the difference between healthy fear, and hindering fear.
Practice Makes Perfect and Confidence Makes Real
Two things were needed for this — practice and confidence. Here’s my approach to each:
Getting to know myself has been a marathon, not a sprint. Initially, it was hard to drown out the outside voices for long enough to listen to my inner one. But with practice, it became easier.
Meditation often focuses on stilling your mind. I developed a slightly different approach for myself. Instead of trying to quieten myself, I focused on making myself louder. I tried to really listen to my inner voice, and raise it above the level of external chatter.
For five minutes a day, I would focus in and listen to myself. Over time, that voice became more and more familiar. It became stronger. I came to recognise it as my instinct.
My instinct helped me distinguish between valid and overprotective fear. But it was my confidence that enabled me to listen to my instinct.
Confidence is like a muscle that grows with practice. But there are some NLP techniques for growing the muscle that I found helpful, such as Modelling, Anchoring and Reframing Limiting Beliefs (I have written in more detail about these HERE). In this sense, NLP is like a gym for your confidence muscle.
Confidence and Instinct — Relationship Therapy For Fear
Instinct and confidence are equally important in distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful fear. Without my instinct, I wouldn’t have been able to differentiate between the two types of fear. But, without confidence, I wouldn’t have been able to trust my instinct.
In other words — without instinct, I wouldn’t know what to listen to. Without confidence, I wouldn’t know that it was worth listening to.
In a much-quoted line by Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor and founder of Logotherapy (a type of therapy that focuses on living a purposeful and meaningful life):
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Or, to misquote another famous line: “to fear is human, to enjoy it is divine”.
I realised that, while I couldn’t switch off my fear, I could change how I viewed it. I realised that there are many relationships to be had with fear. And, for me, viewing it as an ally is the best one.
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