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For better or worse, fear is a prime motivator in the lives of many individuals. In my practice, the majority of the issues that I see my clients grapple with are fear-related. Many choices and patterns in a person’s life are directly related to fear.
Some of the most common types of fear:
- Fear of failure: Staying in unhealthy relationships or situations because you equate leaving with failure or quitting. Not pursuing dreams or goals because you don’t want to risk having the experience of failure.
- Fear of personal responsibility: focusing on others so you can avoid your role in the problem. I see this in couples or family therapy, where each person blames the other but does not want to look at their contribution to the problem. Another example: Adults who “have not launched” and are still dependent on their parents although they are fully capable of taking care of themselves.
Fear of personal responsibility is related to fear of failure. When you accept personal responsibility for how things are turning out you are able to consider that you are at least partly responsible for how things are turning out. For many people, the fear of failure is so strong that they are unwilling or unable to accept personal responsibility.
- Fear of feeling: In order to avoid the experience of difficult feelings such as sadness, anger or anxiety, people will go to great lengths to distract themselves. Instead of dealing with their grief when someone passes away, an individual may throw themselves into a relationship, social media, work activities, or excessive exercise. Or after a divorce, a person may begin to shop, gamble or abuse substances. These activities represent coping mechanisms designed to avoid or numb emotional pain.
- Fear of loss of love or approval: Individuals will refrain from sharing their true thoughts or feelings, or go along with things they don’t approve of in order to avoid the loss of love or approval. People will live beyond their means to maintain their social status to “keep up with the Joneses,” or belong to a religious or political group in order to be accepted and to avoid the negative reactions of others.
- Fear of change: Often people will stay in situations or relationships simply because this is easier than having to deal with change or the unknown.
Why is fear so powerful?
There are two existential themes connected to fear. James Hollis, PhD, Jungian Analyst, describes these themes are abandonment and the possibility of being overwhelmed by painful emotions. Regardless of the specific fear, one or both of these themes lie beneath the surface. These themes are existential because everyone struggles with them and they are part of the human condition.
Here are examples of how abandonment and painful emotions underlie fear:
Rick avoids commitment in relationships because he “hasn’t found the right woman” or because his “career is the priority.” On a very deep level, Rick avoids meaningful relationship due to his own fear of being abandoned and then being overwhelmed by painful emotions.
A semester away from graduating, Maria decides to drop out of college even though earning a college degree is one of her life goals. Her husband Jake said she did not need a degree because he would take care of her. Jake wants Maria to focus on caring for him and their home. On a deeper level, Maria does not want to risk losing her husband’s approval as this would be a form of emotional abandonment that could lead to literal abandonment. Upsetting her husband would mean that Maria would have to deal with his disappointment and anger.
Although she is a gifted writer, Sasha does not submit her manuscripts to publishers. She says that she is happy working in retail, that writing is just a hobby, and there are already too many authors. On a deep level, Sasha fears that her writing will be rejected or criticized (abandonment) and cannot cope with the feelings associated with that (fear of being overwhelmed by painful emotions).
How do I work with fear?
To begin to lessen the grip of fear in our lives it is helpful to have a conscious awareness of how it is showing up. Sometimes this is clear, often it is not.
- Consider where in your life you are stuck (hence the phrase “paralyzed by fear).”
- Reflect on your experience of anxiety. Where there is anxiety there is fear, and where there is fear, there is a place of “stuckness.”
- Once you have identified your fears (and there is often more than one), go deeper and ask yourself: “What’s the fear beneath the fear?” How are the themes of abandonment and being overwhelmed by painful emotions connected?
- Use the Bus Metaphor, a technique I use with my clients that is helpful in managing fear.
- Imagine that all the parts of you are passengers on a bus. You can’t kick anyone off or kill anyone.
- When you are feeling anxious or find yourself in stuck in an unhealthy situation, ask yourself “What part of me is driving the bus?”
- If fear is in the driver’s seat, ask yourself “What happens on this ride when fear is driving?” Where do I end up? What sights do I see? Do I get lost, go in circles, get in accidents? What is the road like? Is there a traffic jam?
- Ask yourself “What would the journey be like if another part of me was driving?” This other part of you could be the part of you who wants a healthy relationship, or the part of you who values authenticity, or the part of you who wants to be treated with love and respect. What is the ride like then? How is the journey different when fear is not driving?
Who’s driving your bus?
There are times when it makes sense for the fearful part of us to drive the bus. The experience of fear can be normal and healthy. Fear is valuable and significant as it indicates when there is danger and tells us to proceed with caution.
Fear is harmful when it creates a life journey lined with poor choices, unhealthy relationships and situations, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Fear makes it impossible to experience an authentic journey and to reach a destination that supports and honors who you are.
Overall, fear is in the driver’s seat of many people’s vehicles, determining where they go, the experience of their journey and the stops, detours, and traffic jams along the way. When fear is driving and making decisions, it can completely alter your journey.
How would your life be different if you paid attention to who is driving your bus?
If you took the wheel from the fearful part of you?
If fear no longer drove and went to sit at the back of the bus?
Pay attention to who is driving your bus. If it is the fearful part of you, gently escort fear to the back of the bus. Let the fearful part of you know that they have been driving for quite a while, but they don’t need to anymore. Choose a different part of you to be the driver. Choose a part of you that will take you on a journey and destination that aligns with health, meaning and authenticity.