What I Have Learned from Fear
Fear is an uncomfortable and unwanted feeling that I have spent most of my life trying hard to avoid. As I became so successful at suppressing my fear that I became virtually blind to it, and the effects it had on me. But once I became awake to my emotions, I was amazed at just how much fear I was constantly suppressing. Lots and lots of little fears, about stuff I made up regarding the future, or what people were thinking (about me). And big fears, too, about how I must be broken, wrong, and deserving of abandonment. All of it, of course, was made up stuff, with little to no basis in fact, but I convinced myself that it was all either The Truth, or pretty likely so. I don’t think that I, as an adult male in this culture (perhaps most cultures), am unique in living by swimming in an ocean of fear, and often avoiding facing that fear. But that has its consequences, on ourselves, in particular, and on the rest of society in general. And over the years, my perspective on fear has changed dramatically.
Modern neuroscience has shown that fear has a specific location in the brain: the amygdala, or the old reptilian brain, that is involved with our survival. That’s – as you probably know already- our flight-fight-freeze response. Above that part of the brain is our limbic system, which is involved in our emotions, and particularly with our sense of (or lack of) belonging in a group. This is tuned to our sense of tribe and belonging, and it is a strong driver for finding the people that look like us, think like us, or smell like us, etc. What is “foreign” or different, is often a source of fear and distrust. This is all instinctual survival stuff, and we developed our brains around it for reasons of pure survival, and the ability to successfully pass our genes on to another generation. We don’t think about this stuff: it is pre-verbal. And you can see clearly that certain demagogues are adept at appealing to these innate fears and using them for their own purposes.
We also have the gift of a neocortex, the part of our brain capable of planning, logic, and anticipating the future. This part of us, this voice, is fairly dispassionate. It can give ‘reason’ to take defensive action; it can also give sense to go completely counter to the reactivity of fear for survival and safety in ‘tribe’. The neocortex, when resonant with our circumstances, has a completely different feel to it. [Okay, I’m ad-libbing here, as I have not studied this subject to this depth, but I am speaking to my own experience]. When it makes sense to our logical notion of the universe, things resonate with a heady “Yeah!”. And when things resonate with our heart sense, there is a different, deeper surety, a “Of Course!” sort of knowing. And if not in resonance, there is a fear response of trying to survive a threat.
I have distinguished between this enlivening fear and fear for survival. I should make one other distinction, between enlivening fear and habitual thrills, the sort of fear and excitement that comes from risky behaviors like gambling or illicit drugs. That is something completely different, ego-centered, often hidden in shadow behavior, satisfying a greed or lust rather than opening hearts. Pursuit of such fears/thrills does not co-create more possibility in the world, quite the opposite!
So, when confronted with a new possibility for action or commitment, oftentimes the first reaction we experience is one of fear and rejection of that possibility. Our survival instinct (amygdala) knows that certain historic behaviors got us safely to our pillow yesterday and days previous. Anything new might challenge that ability to survive. So, we find a ‘reason’ to reject that possibility! It is the same thing with crossing the street and seeing a vehicle hurtling in our direction: flight, fright or freeze. This is how we survive…but as humans, it is also how we ultimately feel trapped and miserable, caged by our fear.
So, what I have learned to do with my fear is to notice it, and ask myself: “Is this truly about my survival or is this about a new possibility to which I’m reacting fearfully?” Let me share with you an example from my experience:
I already knew that I wanted to make more commitment to working in the field of human transformation. I had staffed many trainings where I witnessed people having tremendous breakthroughs, with miracles like shedding 20 years off their bodies in the span of a few minutes. I just could not see a path to doing this work and earning a living at it. A friend referred me to “thecoaches.com”. I asked what that was, and he just repeated the web address. So, I knew that I was not getting any more out of him until I visited the site, which I did that day, and began to learn about coaching (this is the website for Coaches Training Institute). As I studied their material, I realized this might just be exactly what I’m looking for as a means of earning a living by doing transformational work with people. I enrolled a few people in my company to support me in this as an educational development. The day came when I picked up the phone to register for the coach training course, and suddenly my hand was shaking so badly I could not hold the phone. I put it down, pushed myself back from my desk, and took stock of myself. I self-inquired: “John, what is going on here? Why am I shaking? What is so scary?” A moment later it dawned on me that I was meeting my Destiny. The stakes were personally very high. I took a deep breath or two, and completed the call, sharing my experience with the person on the other end of the line.
There is no doubt in my heart or mind that moment was a meeting with Destiny. My fear served to waken me to the importance and significance of the moment in my life. Now, when I feel that sense of unease and fear, and I see that it is not about my safety and survival, I’m very likely to step forward toward the source of the fear, knowing that this is where a new realm of possibility lies for me. Fear, for me, has become a source of enlivenment, a call to open my heart and risk being fully alive and in the moment. Life for me has become less predictable, but also more fulfilling, more adventuresome, and so much more satisfying. I find it a small price to pay for living with the discomfort of having fear perched on my shoulder and frequently poking me wide awake. I have learned that fear is a gift that must be fully accepted for me to be fully alive.