“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR
What if what you fear the most is what eventually will kill you? Of course, arachnophobes rarely die from spiders, but there is something to the idea that our fears are slowly killing us. If you knew this about your fears, wouldn’t you finally want to face them and rid yourself of them, once and for all? Our fears are slowly killing us, stealing our present, eroding our relationships, undermining our bliss and negatively impacting our health. They are the elephant in the room, eating away at us. Fear keeps us from becoming our best selves.
Name your fear, explore it, embrace it.
I have found that allowing what I fear to exist independently of my fear of it, is extremely helpful. This is called bracketing, popularized by Heinrich Husserl. Bracketing is used in research and is part of Husserl’s philosophy called Phenomenology, which I studied as an undergrad. Simply put, we can take our fear of something out of the equation, bracketing it, temporarily separating it from its other parts, so we can examine and study it with greater objectivity. If I fear Spiders, I can bracket my fear and look at the other parts of spiders, they each insects, they live everywhere, they are beautiful and delicate, they make amazing webs, etc. Bracketing is part of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapeutic (CBT) process as well. For instance, I have explored the fear artists often have, which go something like, “what if I’m no good,” “what if my idea doesn’t work”, “what if I waste all these expensive art supplies,” etc.? Fear of failure is very debilitating and it is very common. To look at failure, separate from our fear of it, can be very helpful. What is failure to you? What is your idea of failure? What does success look like? You may find you are more afraid of success than you are of failure.
Let’s take another fear of mine as an example of how we can name, explore and embrace our fears. For the last several years, I have suffered from chronic pain. I’m afraid pain is taking over and controlling my life. How do I learn to coexist with something so omnipresent, like chronic pain? By exploring the component parts of our fears, using bracketing and other techniques, we can learn to understand and eventually embrace them. When I say embrace, I am talking about integrating our fears into our lives in a way that they no longer control us. Here are a few suggestions I have about facing our fears in a healthy way:
1) Name it. Make a list of all the things you fear. I am afraid of ______. List the things we think we fear and explore each one by bracketing the fear and examining what it is you fear. Lay it bare. If you are honest with yourself and willing to do a little emotional digging, the fears we think we are experiencing may lead us to the actual fears that are debilitating us. Arrange them in order of what you consider the most severe to those that are not that big a deal.
2) Explore it. Next, ask yourself what you can do about them, one at a time. Determine what is within your power to mitigate each of these fears. Some things you cannot control. So, try to determine those things you can control and think of ways you can change them. Make a list and check them off as you do them.
3) Allow the fear to be, without giving it more power than it deserves or requires. Recognize that fear is not a real thing, like a mountain. It may feel like a mountain, but that is only a metaphor. It is an idea and Ideas can change. It is our feelings about the thing we fear that seem real. But feelings, though absolutely valid, are mostly the product of our imagination. They start with thoughts, which can be changed with a little effort. Teasing apart what is real about the thing we fear from what we have added to it by our conscious or subconscious mind is sometimes quite a process. But this is how we learn to understand our fears. I find auto writing is an excellent tool to get to the bottom of our fears. Write down everything you know about the thing you fear.
4) Face it. Learn about the nature of what you fear. Research it. Question the veracity of your fear. Is it really all that big and scary? Use that amazing intellect and reasoning power God gave you in this process to deepen your understanding of the thoughts behind your fears. I highly recommend a counselor to guide you through the really big fears. For me, the biggest fear I faced was my fear that I was “damaged goods,” because of the CSA trauma I experienced. I was afraid the only answer for me was suicide. CBT and Exposure Therapy are among the many reasons I am here today.
5) Embrace it. Don’t let fear stop you from doing what you love. Separate the fear of something from the thing itself (bracketing). The best remedy for many of our fears is doing the thing we are most afraid of doing. We start in a safe place and expose ourselves, little by little, until the discussing and/or experiencing the thing we fear produces little or know fear. Exposure therapy is great for phobias. It’s also great for facing and embracing (integrating) our deepest fears. Keep this mantra close at hand: we are not our fears. It could be argued that we are made up of some combination of the things we love and the things we fear. What we consume/believe is who we are. Integrating those things we fear, accepting them, understanding them and embracing them, puts them in a place where they can no longer harm us.
Here are a few more examples of very deep and scary fears you may share with me: I’m afraid I will die before my time. I’m afraid my spouse will leave me. I fear my children may die before me. Or my wife. I fear that my legacy will die with me. I fear dying alone. I fear I am failing as a father. I fear there may not be a heaven. I fear for the future of my country. These are but a few of the many fears I have named, explored and embraced, using the steps above.
The process of dealing with our fears and insecurities leads quite nicely to developing self-love and eventually to loving others. That’s because at the bottom of every fear is a desire for love. We cry only in the face of beauty. Integrating our fears allows us to learn the lessons they are meant to teach us. For instance, by integrating (embracing) my fear/trauma around CSA, I learned greater empathy, self acceptance and I found peace. The path can be difficult but discovering and embracing our fears will lead us inevitably in the direction of peace.