(or What I Learned from Fear by Trying to Write about It)
Copyright, Toby Landesman, 2013
In this edition of “Tools of Transformation” I will attempt to address our experience of the “master emotion” fear, which is arguably the most powerful of our emotional experiences. Like shame and anxiety, fear sounds an alarm that warns us that something potentially devastating is happening or is about to happen. Usually induced by a perceived threat, fear is an important response in our basic survival system that activates us to flee from the danger or confront it. In some extreme cases of horror and terror, fear can cause us to freeze like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car, feeling paralyzed or frozen stiff.
Much of the fear that we feel in our present day lives is connected to experiences that we had that were scary to us as children, or to frightening stories that were told to us by our family members or close friends. The more fearful our experiences have been, the more frightening the stories we were told, the more likely it is that our fears will carry over into adulthood. Unfortunately, we are not necessarily aware of our fears. Like shame, fear can remain within us, hidden from our view, or fear can become an almost constant presence in our lives. In either case, it can form either the background or the foundation of our emotional experience.
I usually approach writing my “Tools” blog with a sense of expectancy. I begin writing with a plan, knowing that the outcome of my writing may be quite different from what I planned on. This is exciting because I know that I am going to learn something in the process. So when I approached writing about fear, designated as one of two master emotions by people who make a career of researching our experience, I felt this sense of excitement. I also felt something else that I couldn’t quite identify. For now let’s call it a feeling of uncertainty.
What I planned on doing in this installment was to identify the different types of fears, and then to say something about each of them, moving from the lesser fears like stage fright, and worry, to the more difficult fears like anxiety and the phobias, claustrophobia, agoraphobia and acrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces, the fear of going out in public, and the fear of heights, and then the more severe fears like dread, horror and terror. I planned to present tools and strategies for working with these fears and for liberating ourselves from them. My feeling of uneasiness persisted.
I imaged myself being bold and courageous in approaching fear. I knew fear was a formidable emotional experience that had the power to make people miserable, sometimes ruining a large portion of their lives, plaguing them with anxiety and dread. I felt very fortunate that in some ways I had been spared many of the terrifying and horrifying experiences that many of my friends and clients endured in childhood and struggled with as adults. I found myself thinking of the story of Jacob in the Old Testament, who wrestled with a very powerful Angel, thought by many Biblical scholars to have been God himself. I knew that I was destined, not to defeat fear, but to survive the struggle and emerge with some valuable lessons to pass on to posterity! I’m sure that it is clear to many of you that my attempts to shrink my ego have not entirely succeeded.
Copyright, Toby Landesman, 1995
My love of music often comes into play when I do therapy with my clients and when I write these articles. If I listen closely internally while I am listening to someone working on a problem, I sometimes hear songs and lyrics playing in my head that carry an important message for me about what is going on. As I struggled with the first drafts of this article, Joni Mitchell kept singing to me in her amazingly poignant voice, “I really don’t know Clouds…….at all.” I should have paid more attention to the lyric. When I substitute “fear” for “clouds,” the words turned out to be disturbingly true. So do the words of another very familiar song from my era that was getting some play in my head, “I fought the Law and the Law won.” Substitute Fear for Law, of course!
I continued trying to write this “Tools” installment, inspired by my grandiose ideas about what I was doing and what I could accomplish. Meanwhile I continued to feel this queasy discomfort. As I “forged ahead” I found the writing difficult, and whenever I stopped to proof read what I had written, I felt very critical of the content. Time to regroup, I said to myself. I stopped writing, and started reflecting on what I was feeling. Eventually, I discovered that I was feeling afraid to write this article. I began to suspect I was failing to heed the warning of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I was feeling afraid of fear itself.
As I reflected on my uneasiness, images of scenes from my childhood started to appear in my mind’s eye. An image of my grandmother sitting in a chair close to one of her living room windows appeared. She was nervously looking out on the street below, watching for our family to arrive for Sunday dinner. What made this unusual was that she started watching for us at 5:30 A.M. I believed she knew that we never arrived before 11:30 A.M., immediately after the short drive from Church to her apartment.
I also recalled a later scene that involved my Mother worrying about when my Father would get home from work. We had moved to a lake 60 miles north of Chicago, and my dad commuted by train to and from the city. He usually arrived home around 7:15 PM, but if he had to work a little later, he took a later train, and didn’t get home until 7:45 PM. In my flashback I could see that my mom was near tears and very nervous. “I hope nothing terrible has happened,” is what I heard her saying in my head.
These scenes were easy to recall because they occurred so frequently in my family. My mother and grandmother were very fearful people. The connection that I began to make was that I had reacted strongly to their frequently expressed fears of potential disasters. I came to the conclusion that fear didn’t make any sense. The disasters Nana and Mom seemed to be worrying about never happened, so why all this worry? Even as a young boy, I would try to convince my mother not to worry. “Everything’s going to be all right, Mom,” I would say. “Dad will be home in a few minutes.” By the time I was eleven my strategy was in place. I would not dwell on fear or worry myself, but I would do whatever I could to make them feel better.
As we all know, fear is pervasive in most people’s lives and there are many different things that are potentially frightening. Worry and anxiety are like assassins that threaten many of us and make our lives miserable and draining. Worry could be seen as the fearful thought process and anxiety as the fearful feeling in the body. In my example above from childhood, I am displaying two common strategies for coping with fear: numbing my fear with reason, and attempting to rescue someone else from their fear by conveying strength and confidence. In doing so, I was able to change both my internal thought process and the feeling I experienced physically.
The consequence of my developing this “successful” coping strategy for dealing with my fears, i.e., numbing and rationalizing them, while also playing the role of the Gallant Knight, turned up when I started to write my blog. It’s hard to write about something that you don’t allow yourself to feel. I was aware of my uneasiness, and it affected my writing. But I didn’t recognize it as fear until I slowed down and reflected on what I felt. I could then begin to get a handle on the particular fear that I was feeling, the fear of not being good enough. What if I didn’t have anything meaningful to say about fear? What if I didn’t understand fear well enough to convey any insight? And then I remembered a sentence from a Ted Talk that I had just listened to. “The underpinning of the fear of not being enough is shame.”
This sentence comes from a remarkable presentation on “Vulnerability”. In it the presenter, Brene Brown, a lecturer/storyteller who has a PhD. in Social Work makes an important connection between the feeling of not being enough and shame. She believes that shame is itself a fear, the fear of not being worthy of connection, worthy of love. This idea resonates well with my article on shame. In it, I present Professor Emeritus Tom Scheff’s definition of shame as a warning signal that one of our primary relationship bonds is in danger of breaking. Both of these erudite people were pointing to the same fundamental reality. Our sense of wellbeing depends on our having strong, secure connections to one another. If we feel that we are worthy of connection, and we make and feel those connections, we will feel happy, secure, and confident with real frequency. But if we feel that we are not good enough, smart enough, strong enough, beautiful enough, funny enough, for connection and love, we are likely to feel insecure and inadequate. We may even feel worthless and unlovable.
Each of us has a particular personal relationship with each of the major emotions, whether we are aware of this relationship or not. The five primary groups of emotion are anger, sadness, joy, sexual feelings of pleasure, and fear. We can ask ourselves, and I think it is well worth doing, how do I feel about each of these primary feelings? How do I relate to each of them? As I reflected on my struggle to write this piece, I made a bit of a breakthrough. I had rejected fear. I wanted nothing to do with it. It seemed unreasonable, even stupid to me. I decided as a young boy, without knowing I was doing so, not to feel it. For the most part I had succeeded.
Once I discovered that I was afraid, I decided to use my fear of not being good enough as an example of how we can work with our fears. So here goes. Usually, when we first start experiencing something we don’t want to feel, our first experience of it is a form of uneasiness or discomfort. So step one in working with our fears or any unsavory emotion for that matter, is to notice the uneasiness. The second step is to take the time to pay attention to that discomfort, opening ourselves to it, and seeing where the feeling of uneasiness leads us. I became aware of the song lyrics that I had heard “in my head,” that let me know that I didn’t really understand fear. I had stopped letting myself feel it years before.
The next step is a very difficult one for most of us, owning and even embracing that this inadequacy or failing is true of me. I am someone who rejects fear, and it is difficult for me to recognize when I am afraid of something. Early in my therapy, it was difficult for me to admit that I had any problems at all. I was only in therapy to find out what it was like to experience being a client. This would make me a better therapist after all! What was at stake for me was allowing myself to experience my vulnerability. I believed that to be loved I needed to be strong, confident, and pretty close to perfect. I put a lot of energy into maintaining this illusion. Right underneath it was the shame that Brene Brown talks about. I was not at all sure, at the core, that I was worthy of love.
Copyright, Toby Landesman, 2012
So what do we do now? We’ve felt the unease. We’ve identified where it seems to be coming from, namely shame, the fear that we are not worthy of connection. We have owned that this is true of us. Now comes the self-acceptance piece. I allow myself to experience this fear without judgment, criticism, evaluation, comparison, or analysis. I let myself be open and vulnerable to the experience of the fear, and then I let myself be guided by the experience. This is a process of opening to and accepting whatever this experience is. It is a process of surrendering to the experience, of my letting myself be guided by it. This is an experience of “going with the flow” of my internal sensations, whatever I see, hear, or feel inside, is the key to healing whatever this is for me.
For me, this combination of accepting whatever I am experiencing and going with it, of letting the uneasy experience be my guide, has made me more comfortable with my vulnerability. As I have continued to learn to accept my fears, as well as other unwanted emotions like sadness and shame, I have begun to believe what Brene Brown says about the people she interviewed who lived wholeheartedly. “Whatever makes us vulnerable makes us beautiful.” The acceptance and the revealing of whatever I fear makes me unworthy, transforms my shame into courage, openness, and compassion. When we start to believe that we are good enough, just as we are, we become kinder, gentler, and more loving of ourselves, of other people, and the world we live in. By attuning ourselves to what we really feel, experiencing and owning the feeling, accepting it and giving it expression, we engage in the transformational process that leads us to love and be loved.
Brene Brown, “Vulnerability” on You Tube
In my next installment of “Tools of Transformation” I plan to continue my exploration of Fear, in its many forms. I will be approaching this exploration with a good deal of hard won humility. Here’s a preview of coming attractions from another mind opening “Ted Talk” by Author Karen Thompson Walker.
Karen Thompson, “What Fear can Teach us,” on You Tube
My heartfelt thanks to Toby Landesman for her beautifully intimate and vulnerable photography. See her photographs online.
My gratitude and appreciation to the “Ted Talks” Website.
Great thanks also to Brene Brown for her candid self-disclosure and diligent research!
And many thanks to all my responsive readers!
Article written by Tom Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.