The Power of Fear
I had realized I didn't have joy. What next?
Next was the realization that there was an undercurrent of fear running through my life. Imagine an underground stream that you accidently discover because water bubbled up in an unexpected place.
To say I was surprised would be an understatement. As I have mentioned, by this time in my life, I fancied myself a superhero.
I had no idea what I was afraid of, but once I discovered the underground stream, I found it impossible to ignore. It was always with me. And now that I knew it was there, I felt it.
I told my Mom about my realization. At the time, she was the ONLY person with whom I shared my fears, anxieties, vulnerability, and exhaustion. When I came to end of my rope, I would reach out to Mom, and she would help me ground once again and muster the energy to press forward.
Mom wrote this affirmation and sent it to me.
Fear is extraordinarily powerful. When we are afraid, when our brain thinks we are in danger, we resort to any number of potentially damaging and destructive behaviors in an attempt to escape.
Maybe we shove our emotions down so deep and hold them there so long that they develop power of their own and take us hostage in our own life. Maybe, we shut down our negative emotions without realizing that we are also trading away positive emotions (we cannot shut down one with shutting down the other).
Maybe we spend all of our time and energy and money running from the fear. Maybe we self-medicate with food, drugs, shopping, etc. Maybe we become addicted to work. Maybe we become unable to ever sit still because we are afraid of what will happen if we do. Maybe we become addicted to our smart phones or computer games or Netflix.
Maybe we are unable to be present in our life in the moment. Maybe we become overwhelmed with anxiety. Maybe we shut down completely. Maybe we make terrible errors in judgment or make decisions we would never, ever make under "normal" circumstances.
Maybe we distance ourselves from the very people whose community and connection we need to support us as we face our fears. Maybe we attack and blame other people. Maybe we try to take them down because we perceive them as a threat.
Escape takes on many shapes and forms. And the bad news about escape is that it is only temporary. When we turn around, our fear is still there, and so we begin running again.
Maybe we keep running until we get sick and cannot run anymore. Maybe we self-destruct.
Over the years, since Mom wrote that affirmation for me, I have faced, and survived, the realization of my deepest, most strongly held fears. Fears I didn't even know that I had.
What I have found is that the FEAR (and the coping mechanisms we use in response) is more damaging to us than the thing of which we are afraid. Time and time again I have learned that when we turn and face our fear, when we allow ourselves to contemplate the worst possible outcome, when we sit with those terrible emotions that feel like they are going to swallow us whole, when we turn and step into our fear instead of running away--the fear actually loses its power over us.
In the midst of a six-month PTSD episode, I had a thought: "And the darkness said to me, I will not let you go, until you stop trying to get away." At the time, I spent every day feeling physiologically like I was running from a bear. Adrenaline rushes. Night sweats. Nightmares. Spinal cord buzzing. I was exhausted. There were many days that I could barely move.
And I didn't even realize I was still running. I didn't realize I had still been fighting the darkness. But when I finally, consciously surrendered, the power of the episode began to lift. Almost immediately.
I have also seen the recognition of fear to be a step toward healing and aligning "opposing" parties in their shared humanity. When dealing with a difficult, long-standing cultural conflict in an organization, I finally asked our stakeholders what they were afraid of. What I learned was that the "us" and "them" in this scenario had almost exactly the SAME FEARS. When we were able to call out the fear for what it was, and to see that everyone involved had the same fears, we were able to connect in community--and behind our shared goals--in a completely new, more productive way.
Facing our fears can be a powerful, liberating, and unifying experience. I have come to believe that only in embracing our fear do we have the opportunity to live "free of fear." Otherwise, our fear will continue to hold enormous power in our lives and in our organizations.