Recently, I’ve been thinking about fear. Some interesting blog posts here and here and here got me thinking a lot about the subject, and I revisited an earlier article of mine that offered several effective methods to get past your doubts and fears.
Duff McDuffee wrote at Beyond Growth about the “inner critic“, that negative voice that tears you down, plays up your fears, and otherwise stands in the way of your forward progress in life. Cody McKibben wrote at Thrilling Heroics a very honest and heartfelt post about a romantic relationship ending, and how that situation was both the cause of and the result of certain fears.
Both of these articles provide an intelligent and balanced approach to handling those negative voices of fear within – those annoying voices that tell you you “can’t do” something, you’re “not good enough”, or that “you’re going to fail”.
One of the key things to recognize is that all your fear is just a part of you. This is true, whether we’re talking about that high adrenaline, fight-or-flight instinctual fear, or that more subtle feeling of uneasiness and discomfort that your mind associates with those imagined bad things that you really don’t want to happen. In both cases, fear just doesn’t exist at all in the world outside your head. After all, it’s not an intrinsic feature of bears, high buildings, car crashes, dark alleyways, or the number 13.
This fact is very important for two main reasons.
First, it means that although you may not yet know it, you do have the ultimate power over all your fears. After all, they are just phenomena in your unconscious mind.
Second, it means that a lot of popular strategies that people use to handle their fears are actually counterproductive.
The recent collaborative article at The Art of Audacity presents several strategies for dealing with fear. There’s some use of warlike language, like “decimate”, “dominate”, “smash”, “conquer”, and “destroy”. However, most of the guest posters ultimately seem to encourage more ecological strategies – “embrace”, “acknowledge”, or “admit” the presence of your fear, and in so doing, take away its power over you.
What does it mean to “crush”, “defeat” or “destroy” your fear, when those aggressive techniques are aimed at a part of yourself? Crushing, defeating, or destroying a part of your unconscious mind doesn’t seem like a very good idea, no matter how annoying or inconvenient that part is at the moment. I even made a mistake like this in my earlier article – although the tactics I suggested were both effective and not particularly hostile, I used the phrase “Five practices that destroy fear” as a heading. Oops.
In fact, going to war with a fearful part of your mind can make you feel powerful in the moment, and may make you think that you’re getting useful results. However, in the end, it can create a feeling of separation and disconnection among different parts of your unconscious mind.
So what then? How can you turn down your fear to zero, when your fear is actually an intrinsic part of you? Does that mean that you can never get over it – that you’re fated to feel fear about a given situation forever? Actually, it’s not that bad. After all, most of us had various fears when we were children that are no longer with us after growing up. Those old fears, like your current fears, were expressed by the voices of your unconscious mind, and eventually those old voices quieted down in response to new knowledge and new experiences.
The same thing can happen with any of your present and future fears as well. The key is to engage with those parts of you that express the fear, rather than to go to war with them. You could compare this process to turning the volume on the stereo down to zero, rather than taking an sledgehammer and smashing it. The most annoying track in the world might still be playing, but if the volume is turned all the way down, does it even matter? (I leave that question to philosophers – as a practical guy and a coach, I’m most interested in results. )
The following are some questions that you can ask yourself in response to a feeling of fear.
What is the part that feels fear trying to teach you? Instead of pushing the fear away, can you learn what it’s trying to tell you? The part of you that generates the feeling of fear has a good reason – at least from its own, possibly limited, point of view – to try to bring something to your conscious attention. While there are some situations where ignoring a feeling of fear and charging forward is truly the best solution, usually some dialogue with the fearful part of your unconscious mind can be useful. In general, it’s a good idea to assume a positive intention on the part of your unconscious that creates this feeling of fear. It wants the best for you as a whole person, and creating a sensation of fear is the best way that it knows how to draw attention to what it wants. If you listen carefully, you may be able to interact with this unconscious part of yourself and learn why it feels the need to create this sensation of fear.
How does the fearful part communicate to you? Perhaps you can look within, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and relax, and figure out where the fear is located in your body. Are there specific sounds, sensations, or images associated with your fear. For example, if you have a fear of flying, is the fear associated with an image of the wings shearing off the aircraft, the feeling of heat from the flames of a damaged engine on fire, or the sound of the aluminum body of the airplane tearing open on impact? (If you actually have a fear of flying, you probably stopped reading about twenty words ago. Sorry for the description – I wanted to create a vivid mental image of what a specific fear might look, sound, or feel like.) Does the fear speak in words? If it did, what would it say to you? Learning what kind of sounds, sensations, images or words the unconscious part uses to speak to your conscious mind can help you pin down the specific area of worry that this part wants to express.
Can you make peace with the part that feels fear? Given that the part of you creating the fear has your best interests in mind, it’s almost certainly a good thing for you to make it into an ally. (In contrast, the “crush your fear” approach might well make that part into an enemy.) By listening to the fearful part and taking its concerns seriously, you create a greater wholeness in your unconscious mind, and begin to integrate the part that creates the fear more effectively. If the part is able to be heard in a way that enables it to communicate more quietly, the fear can often dissipate as the unconscious part feels heard and acknowledged.
Can you feel the fear and do it anyway? In some cases, the unconscious part of you that creates the fear may not want to give up its point of view. Depending on how important your objective is – for example, you may be afraid of flying, and yet want to attend an important wedding across the continent – you might have to ignore the fearful part’s objections and just go ahead with whatever it is that you had planned. This will probably be uncomfortable, but fortunately facing fears and passing through them, is also a great opportunity for growth. In this situation, you can acknowledge the unconscious part that objects to whatever you’re going to do, and then, in the words of Susan Jeffers, “feel the fear and do it anyway“. (A very good book, by the way.)
When you’re working with different parts of your unconscious mind – even badly behaved ones that do things like create feelings of fear – methods that improve communication and wholeness are much better than approaches that emphasize domination, punishment, and destruction. Of course, you can use the questions I described above with any undesired emotion – anger, resentment, envy, and others. Rather than attacking or pushing away the desired sensation, finding out why part of your unconscious is creating this sensation is the key. Then you can address the real problem rather than the symptom.
For a more structured approach to interacting with different parts of your unconscious mind, the Core Transformation method described in Duff McDuffee’s article is an excellent place to start. I’ve used this method in my coaching, as well as on myself, with very positive results. As Connirae Andreas writes in her excellent Core Transformation book, “even if I do manage to defeat this so-called ‘enemy within’, then I will be left with a ‘loser within’!” The more we are able to create wholeness and unity in our personal growth journeys, instead of inner conflicts, the better off we will be.
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