How to deal with fear – a counterintuitive strategy

by Jack on November 2010

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.

Close up on girl's eyes as she huddles fearfully

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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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lach November 4, 2010 at 12:18

Hi Jack

Hi Jack. This was an interesting read. I see I may have piqued a nerve :)

Crush, smash, decimate, conquer. These are emotive words that make for good headlines, but they are used somewhat rhetorically. Actually, I completely agree with the general theme of your arguments here. If you read the two previous posts at The Art of Audacity (here and here), you’ll see I actually view fear as a kind of resistance that needs to be released, rather than a barrier that has to be broken down and encourage a similar approach to that.

I entirely agree the latter interpretation usually creates unnecessary struggle and difficulty. But the real value of words is the feeling they inspire in you; not the dictionary definition. If the idea of “smashing” fear helps you to feel empowered and excited at the prospect, then it has served its purpose.

Cheers,
Lach

Reply

Jack November 4, 2010 at 12:32

Hi Lach,

Thanks for your comment! It sounds like you got the point I was aiming to make and your article definitely helped me think.

The “warlike” words really have some juice behind them which is useful in some cases. When you’re in an indecisive state and on the brink of a tough decision (e.g. do I stand up in the business meeting and make the uncomfortable point that no one’s addressed? do I walk over to the attractive stranger and say hi?), that kind of warrior language is probably exactly what’s needed. A dialog with your unconscious mind in a live situation in a conference room or a bar is probably not going to work when you have less than a minute to make your decision. (You can always apologize later to your unconscious if you offended it ;) )

On the other hand, when I am in a more thoughtful or meditative state – for example, journaling at my desk – then the “touchy-feely” introspective dialog approach feels like the right way to do it. No need to pump myself up into an Incredible Hulk state when I’m working in solitude. :)

I enjoy your writing and I’ll check out your other articles! Have a good one!

-Jack

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Lach November 4, 2010 at 12:42

Thanks dude! We are certainly in agreement that the chest-pounding, “motivational” approach has its drawbacks. I am of the opinion that such action-oriented methods are something of a cliché and not the best way to find lasting growth.

In the past, I used a very contemplative, self-analytical method as you describe, which, while effective can take a long, long time to work through. I no longer feel that it is necessary to dissect and understand negative emotions in order to release them. For me now, it’s simply a matter of choosing a more empowering, life-giving focus and letting it take over.

Peace!

Reply

Jack November 4, 2010 at 13:23

True, taking a long time to dig into fear and other negative emotions is counterproductive. As I’ve gotten better with the Core Transformation process I’ve found that it can take about 15-30 min, and haven’t felt the need to repeat it on specific issues. Once something’s done, it’s done.

I agree, though, that when you’re focused on something empowering and creative, then you simply don’t have any attention left over for fear… that’s the best way to handle it. :)

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Richard Glover November 4, 2010 at 12:58

Hey Jack,

Very interesting read. I personally just wrote an article about “Slaying your Speaking Demons” to talk about ways of mitigating those worries and concerns that generate our fears.

Fear is an instinctual response, and I’m a pretty firm believer that once we recognize the worries and insecurities that cause fear, we stand a much better chance of alleviating irrational fears, and “doing it anyway.”

The reason that I think the rather violent metaphor works here is because the insecurities and difficulties that hold us back aren’t often the sorts of things that are beneficial. Instead, they’re generally self-sabotaging. It is in our interest to find ways of disposing, not of fear itself, but of the things that cause us to feel fear when such a reaction is unnecessary or unwarranted. “Slaying” or “conquering” or “vanquishing” is, as Lach said, an empowering way of engaging those issues and moving beyond them.

Reply

Jack November 4, 2010 at 13:29

Hi Richard,
Thanks for your feedback! I agree that the emotions (fear, etc.) holding us back aren’t beneficial.

The main concern I have about the violent language is that those negative emotions often emerge from an unconscious part of the mind that really wants the best for us, but goes about it in a counterproductive way.

So when we make peace with that unconscious part of us (while definitely not condoning or pretending we want the negative emotion that it activates), we can often solve the problem relatively painlessly.

Reply

Cody November 5, 2010 at 01:36

Hey Jack, thanks for the mention. You raise some useful questions to ask here. Also I’ve finally started to read The Power of Now at a friend’s suggestion (was long critical) and am finding that quite eye-opening and applicable in this situation, whether it’s 100% “real” or not…

Reply

Jack November 5, 2010 at 07:16

Hi Cody, no worries – thanks for reading. I think your post and those others definitely raised some interesting questions.

The Power of Now is an excellent book for raising questions about what our minds tell us – the main criticism I would level at TPON is that it’s vague about the specific practices we can use to get past the illusions presented by our minds.

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