One of my clients, Ed, a sales manager, came to see me in a state of barely-controlled panic. A recent round of layoffs at his company had left him with fewer sales agents and even greater demands for bottom-line results, for which he felt personally responsible. “I know there’s pressure in every job,” he said. “But I’ve never felt like this before. This feels like I’m literally drowning.” As we got into the session, he confessed that he had been experiencing panic attacks at home, when he was supposed to be away from work and relaxing. As he explained it: “I’m just tired of being scared all the time. I am tired of being afraid.”
Fear is a part of our biological makeup, hardwired through millions of years of evolution to keep us safe from extinction. Some fears are probably very healthy, like the fear of snakes or poisonous spiders or woolly mammoths. But many others serve only to keep us stuck – robbing us of our health and happiness. Fear of losing our job. Fear of being in over your head. Fear of success. Fear of unworthiness. Fear of rejection. Fear of terrorism. Fear of aloneness. Fear of illness. Fear of losing the people we love. Fear of death. This is the quotidian stuff that most of us are working with all the time. When it comes up, it’s important to remember that we are not drowning, or going crazy. Fear is simple evidence that we are human. What’s important is how we handle that fear.
And how do we do that? Well, too often we seek to numb, distract or run away from it – also known as the path of least resistance. A holiday in Mexico, an expensive pair of shoes or a spanking new widescreen television can do wonders to distract us from our fears. But will they alleviate our suffering when the suitcases are unpacked and the novelty of the new TV has worn off? Probably not. Most of us will do anything to avoid the terrible discomfort of confronting our most deeply held fears. But whenever we give in to that impulse, our life shrinks a little bit more. Every time we give in to fear, we cease to truly live. What can we do to alleviate some of this suffering?
Never Worry Alone 90% of all our fears are born of loneliness and fatigue. There’s a remedy for that. Get some proper rest and reach out to someone – a coach, mentor, support group – anyone who will listen without judgment about what you are currently experiencing. Resist the temptation to push people away while you “get your head together.” You will lose perspective, get depressed or make bad decisions. If you’re sharing with friends, just make sure it’s an even exchange. Nobody wants to be dumped on all the time, but a good friend is the one who lets you be yourself, in whatever mood you come. We may not always be able to change a particular circumstance, but with the perspective of another trusted person, you may choose a different interpretation.
Write it down Ask yourself “What am I afraid of?” Then write it all down. Nobody has to read it but you – so make a list. By naming the unnamable, it will automatically lose half its power over you. Do this over a couple of days if necessary. But don’t be afraid to look it in the eye. Do you notice any thematic thread to some of these fears? Can you just sit with your worries and look at them in a direct, compassionate, and objective way? Like a reporter trying to understand a story? You don’t have to have any big answers right away, but the very act of naming something can be enormously liberating. The monster under the bed is always more frightening than the one we can see standing right in front of us.
Worst Case Scenario Our most primal fear is that of losing control, because safety is fundamental to our survival. Safety means our home, our source of income. The limbic part of our brain – the reptilian lizard brain – is very good at detecting these threats. But in most cases, these threats to our perceived “safety” are largely without merit. So you lose your job, now what? Ask yourself what is the worst thing that can possibly happen here? Go on, imagine it. Prepare yourself to accept this, if necessary, and then calmly try to improve on that situation. Most of these scenarios, if they were to occur, are never as catastrophic as we imagine them to be. If “it” happens, you’ll deal with it. But the act of trying to control variables beyond our control is what robs us of present moment enjoyment and fulfillment.
Take Action It’s critical that we learn to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy fears. Healthy fears are those that keep us alert and motivated. Unhealthy fears – those whose outcome we cannot affect – tend to cause paralysis and depression. They do not allow for growth. Learning to identify and LET GO of these unhealthy fears, we can then turn our attention to constructive solutions for those outcomes we can affect. Indecision often fertilizes fear so any measure of action taken, however miniscule, is worthwhile. When facing a predicament ask yourself, “What can I try to do to correct the situation?” Gradually you’ll gain momentum. A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. So resolve to put your energies into creating mini-goals, and then get busy. It’s almost impossible to worry while you are preoccupied doing something that requires planning and thinking.
Fear is not the enemy. But how we handle it can make the difference between a life of fulfillment and a diminished life of quietly suffering desperation. The choice is always ours to make. If you need help to combat the fear, there are a number of options to choose from.
In the words of Hafiz, the Sufi teacher and poet: “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I want to see you living in better conditions.”
* Image courtesy of Maurice Sendak