Fear—as an emotion— is part of everyday life.
From mundane experiences like driving down the freeway, going to a dreaded medical appointment, or applying for a new job, the variety of experiences and situations that bring up fear are endless.
Although uncomfortable, fear is a helpful emotion. Gavin de Becker wrote a wonderful book entitled The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence. de Becker says:
True fear is a gift. Unwarranted fear is a curse. Learn how to tell the difference.
Fear can signal that you need to protect yourself—or take care of something you’ve been neglecting. Fear can be a wake-up call that you’re ignoring an intuitive hunch or a persistent, nagging feeling.
And when you’re the survivor of betrayal trauma, you have the added fears of:
- Has he/she done more than he/she’s disclosed to me?
- Is she still lying?
- Will he act out in the future?
- Will she slip or relapse?
- Will he ever be trustworthy again?
Although fear—like all other emotions—can be helpful, it can also be debilitating.
When fear begins to dominate your life or becomes overwhelming, you’ve probably fallen victim to the runaway nature of fear cleverly expressed by these F.E.A.R. acronyms:
This F.E.A.R. acronym describes what not to do when you’re feeling fear, as well as what to do instead:
And here’s another F.E.A.R. acronym we’ll use to explore how to think about, process, and respond to fear:
If you don’t acknowledge what’s real and authentic in the moment for you—whatever it is—there is no way you can heal it. In fact, acknowledging what’s true for you is the foundation for all intimacy—with ones’ self and with others.
The simple task of looking at your fear is to acknowledge that fear is present. It can be as simple as “I’m aware that I’m feeling fear.”
Some people have more difficulty than others with facing fear. Most men—when they were growing up—were ridiculed by parents, teachers, or coaches when they were afraid, and learned not to show or acknowledge fear. Or, if you grew up in a family where one of your parents raged, you may have learned over time to override or ignore fear as a matter of survival.
Fearlessness is dangerous. A fearless mindset will lead you to take extreme risks, and to be unconscious of danger—both for yourself and those you love.
If you struggle with simply acknowledging fear, remind yourself that fear is a basic, healthy, human emotion. Fear is not weakness. In fact, there is no courage without fear.
To explore your fear means to discover as much about it as you can.
You can start by noticing the physical sensations of fear—which are usually many. Where do you feel fear in your body? Some of the physical signs of fear include a rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, or a sensation of cold in your extremities (hands and feet). Some people physically shake when they’re afraid. These are all ways that the body expresses and discharges fear.
Once you’ve explored fear on the physical level, you can move to your thoughts.
One of the first, best questions to ask yourself when you’re exploring fear is, “Is the situation that’s causing me fear within my power or control to change?“
If the answer is no, you may be tempted to become even more fearful. However, knowing what you don’t have power over is good, clarifying information that helps determine what to do next. If the answer is yes, then follow up with this question, “Is there anything I want to do about this now, or in the near future?” (We’ll get to what to do in #4 Respond.)
I sometimes ask clients who are overwhelmed by worry or fear, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Although this is a question we may want to avoid asking, the answer often brings a sense of relief.
After facing fear and exploring the nature of it, you simply accept fear for what it is rather than minimizing, discounting, or denying it. You can say to yourself, “I’m feeling fear, and that’s okay. All my emotions—pleasant and unpleasant—are welcome.”
Your fear may be unfounded. You may be afraid of something you have absolutely no power over. Perhaps you’re catastrophizing or awfulizing—”He’s three minutes late, I’m sure we’re getting a divorce!”
On the other hand, your fear may not only be well-founded, it may have been knocking at the door for a very long time. You may have the power to do something about it.
Regardless, simply accept fear as your reality in the moment.
Once you’ve accepted “this is fear,” you can even thank your fear. After all, fear—as an emotion and a warning signal—gives you helpful information that keeps you safe and protected.
The last part of this F.E.A.R. acronym is so powerful. When we take action around what we have power over, it changes everything.
If you discovered when you were exploring your fear, that you have power over some—or all—of what is creating fear for you, find out what action you need to take.
For example, have you been worried that you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection but haven’t done anything about it? If so, you could call your doctor or a local clinic to make an appointment. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about divorce but you’ve been frozen by fear about how you will take care of your children. Why not call an attorney and make an appointment for a consultation?
If you’re powerless over what you’re fearful of, the invitation is to accept powerlessness.
Easier said than done.
On a practical level, when you’re powerless over the situation that is causing your fear, simply acknowledge it and then re-direct your thoughts and attention to anything that is life-giving, nurturing, or even fun! Distract yourself by listening to music, an audiobook, calling a friend (without nurturing the fear by talking about it), or engaging in an activity you love that puts you in the zone.
Although accepting powerlessness can feel like defeat, the truth is that when you offer the situation to your Higher Power, you are freed up to focus on those things over which you have power—creating the life you’re meant to live.
“I say I am stronger than fear.”
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2017)
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