“All of us live with fear. Whenever fear takes over, we’re caught in what I call the trance of fear. As we tense in anticipation of what may go wrong, our heart and mind contract. We forget that there are people who care about us, and about our own ability to feel spacious and openhearted. Trapped in the trance, we can experience life through the filter of fear, and when we do, the emotion becomes the core of our identity, constricting our capacity to live fully.”
– Tara Brach, PhD
What is fear?
Fear is our inbuilt warning system. So basically, fear is good. Perhaps we fear something and because of that, we act in a certain way to protect ourselves. If we have to cross a multi-laned street, fear makes us choose to do so at the next traffic light. Wonderful!
Fear tells us that something important to us is in danger. Interestingly, because fear is uncomfortable, we might tend to avoid knowing our fear and instead simply try to feel safe again as soon as possible. However, if we don’t ask our fear what is so scary, we miss learning more about something important to us. It’s helpful to see clearly what scares us and not to avoid that knowledge.
Fear as an emotion
As with every emotion, our healthiest approach is to meet what we feel with an open, compassionate, and understanding attitude. Fear activates stress, and a loving approach reduces fear. If we’re able to support ourselves in a compassionate way, we feel less paralyzed, worried, and alone. Compassion and space in our experience enable us to notice any emotion (including fear) as it is. In this way we don’t fall into habitual avoidance, blame, and shame. And if negative inner reactions towards the fear appear we can also notice these with open, accepting attention.
Fear as a guide
Fear tells us something about our limits and our horizon. If we notice that something is scary for us, we can feel into that and see what is so scary there. What is the worst case scenario? Often there really is something scary that could happen, but it’s also not very likely. Sometimes later we find what was so frightening a bit funny. There is a story about an old man who looks back and reflects, “I have been afraid so many times in my life, but so few of the things I feared ever happened.”
On the other hand, our fear also points out what is important to us. What do we actually long for in a situation? What is the best case scenario that we are afraid won’t happen? As a next step we can investigate what we can do to help that to happen. In this way our fear can actually inspire us and motivate us to actively move towards our goals. We can use the energy of the fear for our development instead of being driven by it.
“Fear is excitement without the breath”
This statement may seem quite surprising, but we can experiment with it and see the truth of it. If we are in a normal situation but we are feeling fear, we can observe our breathing. It might be flat or we might even tend to stop breathing for a moment. For example, in a testing situation, we have nothing to lose by observing our breath. We can consciously deepen our breath and see what happens. We might feel the challenge a bit more, we might notice racing thoughts and burning insecurity, but we will also notice more space, clarity, and energy. Maybe we’ll find it easier to rise to the challenge and do the best we can. Our competencies might be more available, too.
We all experience fear in different situations for different reasons. If we observe what helps children when they are afraid, we might find the key to our own best self-care. If a fearful child hears he should not feel fear, he feels lonely, ashamed, and maybe even more scared. But if he receives understanding and loving care, he feels safe, protected, and connected. This is a big difference in the same situation. The child can relax the stress of fear and learn how to help himself in the face of fear in general. If we react to our own fear in the same way, many things can be much easier.
The more I’ve learned to understand my fear and not to judge myself for having it, the easier it has become to deal with it. I’ve also found so much more play room and resilience in this process. If we don’t habitually allow shame and judgment to take over, but stay open and curious about what is happening, we will be so much more calm and flexible in the face of our emotions. This also allows us to be open with others and open for their emotions. We all have to deal with fear and it’s wonderful when we receive a supportive reaction from each other as we do so.
I wish you a good week!