Some fears keep us safe. Others cause distress. Can you tell the difference?
Famous author Stephen King is the author of 81 books, including an excellent craft book titled On Writing. It’s a book I’ve read several times since I switched from writing non-fiction to writing mysteries featuring police psychologist Dr. Dot Meyerhoff. On page 169, King suggests that good stories start with the question, what if? He gives some examples.
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? What if a cleaning woman suspected of a murder she got away with (her husband) fell under suspicion for a murder she did not commit (her employer).
Stephen King is a great writer, but he’s not a psychologist. As I often do, if you find yourself asking what-if questions, you are likely starting a daisy chain of catastrophic thoughts, not a novel. What if I get Covid-19? What if my vaccine didn’t take? What if my car breaks down? What if the stock market crashes, my house goes underwater, and I live so long my savings run out? These what-if questions are not creative. They are crazy-making.
Since cave person-days, human beings have been wired with a negative bias override. This means that to keep your genes in the gene pool, you better be able to spot danger. The cave person who ignored a rustling in the bushes might have been eaten by a saber-tooth tiger, while the cave person who ran away lived to tell the tale. What difference does it make if a harmless rabbit caused the rustling and the cave person felt like a fool? Better to be embarrassed than to be someone’s supper.
In a rapidly changing world filled with visible and invisible threats (think Covid-19), there are many things to fear and many erroneous ways to think about them. Is it possible to separate your imagined fears from the real ones? The answer is yes. One of the ways to do this is to increase your awareness of how your mind works. I first wrote about this in a blog titled Stinking Thinking. After describing various tactical thinking errors, most of which tend to scare us or make us sad, I suggested modifying these thoughts by using the following three C’s. Capture the thought, Challenge it (Is it really true?), and Change it to something reasonable yet realistic.
My meditation teacher, Buddhist scholar Gil Fronsdal recently gave a talk about fear. What follows is the acronym he developed from the word FEAR. He offered it as a guide to practicing or meditating on fear. You can hear his whole talk here. I’ve added additional resources.
F: Fear is your Friend. It sounds a bit odd, but Fronsdal suggests that you help your fears feel safe and respected by investigating rather than avoiding, hiding, or shaming them. It is important not to over-identify with your fears. When contemplating your fears, try saying “There’s fear” instead of “I am afraid.” Fears rise and fall. You are so much more.
Clearly, some fears protect us. It makes sense to be afraid of saber-tooth tigers. Gavin de Becker, famed security consultant and author of The Gift of Fear, advises his readers to hone their instincts to stay safe. He especially encourages women to listen to their gut feelings rather than succumb to the social pressure to be polite.
E: Explore. Is your fear helpful, ethical, healthy, or debilitating to yourself and others? Helpful fears keep us safe, keeps us from harming ourselves and others. Unhelpful fears cause us to hurt others, shut down, injure our sense of integrity, and violate our own principles of non-harming. A healthy fear would be the fear of harming others or harming oneself. Fear of harming others is a good reason not to drink and drive or to have a designated driver if you are going to drink.
Fear of harming yourself would be a good reason to avoid arguing with your spouse when you’re in a bad mood. You risk over-reacting, saying something you will regret, and violating your own intentions to be kind. Sometimes, you may need to consult a trusted friend to sort helpful fears from unhelpful ones.
Ask yourself, what am I afraid of? Is it real, is it happening now, or is it a product of my imagination? Be clear about what is being threatened? Is it your physical safety? In which case, you need to protect yourself. Or is it your ego? Are you afraid of making a mistake, looking foolish, being rejected, or feeling criticized? Can you adjust your expectations? Perhaps relax your attachment to your self-image as—if these descriptors don’t fit, add your own—strong, brave, independent, perfect, happy, smart, and beautiful.
A: Allow the fear to be, recognize it. Identify where it is in your body. Familiarize yourself with fear as a way of detaching and lessening the power of fear to run your life. How do you know when you are afraid? Learn the signs and symptoms. Friend it, respect it. Don’t react, run, or shame yourself. Just sit with it. This may be easier if you have a meditation practice.
R: Release. When the threat is gone, release the fear. Robert Sapolsky, author, and professor of biological sciences, neurology, and neurological sciences at Stanford University, has spent years studying the effects of stress on health. In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he explains that after a lion has killed and eaten a member of the herd, the other zebras go on grazing. They don’t ruminate over what just happened. They don’t ask themselves, “What if it were me?” “What if it is me the next time?” “What if it’s my fault that other zebra is dead?”
Summing Up with some Do’s and Don’ts: Many fears are justified. We need to pay attention to them and do something to protect ourselves. But many are irrational. Consider excessive worry. Buddhists say that worry is like arguing with the future. In other words, what will be will be, worrying about it won’t change a thing. This concept is often mistaken for encouraging passivity. The point is not to be passive but to be discerning. To separate what you can control from what you can’t.
As I said earlier, many of our fears are based on ego and clinging to self-identity. Too often, we crave approval and try hard to avoid disapproval. We need to be right. We pressure ourselves to be perfect. We allow our imagined fears to inhibit us, shut us down. We let our ego determine our actions. We allow our minds to continue churning. We identify with our fears.
Don’t choose to be right over being kind or free. Don’t hesitate to start that novel, make that speech, leave a relationship or start one because you’re afraid of failing. Don’t let fear inhibit you. Just let it be.
Do get vaccinated, wear your mask, and stay out of crowds. Buckle your seat belt. Don’t drink and drive. And don’t pick up hitchhikers.