Show Fear Respect As You Learn Appropriate Responses

As submitted for publication in Recorder Community Newspapers, June 6, 2005

I will not fear
I will not fear
Say it in a voice that’s loud and clear
Sing it out for all the world to hear
I will not fear
I will not fear

These were the words that John Flynn heartfully sang at the Watchung Arts Center a few weeks ago. He was moved to write the song soon after September 11, 2001. The lyrics capture a surge of national courage that flowed in response to this lightning rod event. The need to be strong is reflexive even now, almost four years later. This compulsion to respond with courage reveals our often-unseen storehouse of strength to fight fear. Unfortunately, this strength frequently remains hidden in our mundane lives.

Whatever the situation, fear often results in what psychologists call the fight or flight response. That is, you want to protect yourself by fighting your enemy or running away. While this makes sense if your enemy is a hungry mountain lion, it doesn’t work so well if your “enemy” is your boss who is waiting to hear the report that you just completed.

Whether you are speaking in front of a group or confronting someone with what you really think, you are likely to feel fear reverberating deep within. Some fears, like the fear of rejection or making a mistake, might be a part of your routine life. You might be so used to it that you do not even realize the fear exists. Rather, you instinctively do things to keep yourself safe. How could anyone reject you when you are constantly going out of your way to make them happy? Or, how could anyone judge you as being wrong when you are always vague?

You might be tempted to wish away your fears, but that would be a mistake. Fear has its place. Just imagine if you were granted your wish. With no fear, you would not feel a need to protect yourself. With no fear, you might walk right into that hungry mountain lion’s mouth. So, unless you want to be lunch, or a perpetual victim, it is best to keep your fear.  What I’d suggest you do, instead, is show it lots of respect.

Redirect the charge of energy that comes from fear. Acknowledge the threat, evaluate it, and respond effectively to it. This is, of course, easier said than done.

Acknowledging the threat is probably the trickiest of these steps. How can you acknowledge those insidious fears that you don’t know exist? And, when you are aware of your fears, then you are acknowledging them, right? The answer to both of these questions lies in the importance of knowing yourself.

As for the fears that seem to meld into who you are as a person, some part of you undoubtedly senses that they exist. If you take a long, honest look into the mirror, you can see if you are trying to outrun something.  For some people, running is working endlessly, overeating, being perfectionistic, or tirelessly caring for everyone around them. If you recognize yourself as “a runner,” perhaps it’s time to ask what you are running from. What do you fear will happen if you stop the behavior? Perhaps it is humiliation, realizing that you are worthless, or that you won’t be able to cope with whatever life brings.

Once you know the answer, allow yourself to sit with that fear instead of distracting yourself from it. Why? Glimpses of the fear allow you to acknowledge that it exists, but that is not enough. You cannot acknowledge the actual fear until you know something about it. So, focus on the fear and get a good look at it.

Now that you are well acquainted with the fear, get some emotional distance from it. Breathe. Note when it arises, much as an impartial observer would. Find a safe place to ponder and evaluate the situation. If you become incapacitated, confused, or too emotionally overwhelmed, then give yourself a break. But return to thinking about it.

Ask yourself: If I face my fear, what’s the worst that can happen? Can I live with that? If you can live with those consequences, then you know something important as you face your fear. It might not make the fear disappear, but you now know that you can cope with whatever might occur.

If you cannot live with what might happen, then what are your options? Think about the steps you can take to help you face your fear. But always remember that you are making a choice. In the end, you might decide to live with your fear. (I rest comfortably in the knowledge that I fear jumping out of well functioning airplanes.)

If you have chosen to face your fear, now is the time to act. Most often, fear fades AFTER you face it. Direct the energy from your fear into action. This action can then propel you through your fear. When you look back, you will find that facing your fear was less scary than standing still, incapacitated.

Fear is by definition scary. What’s less obvious is the storehouse of energy and opportunity it provides. In facing your fears, you are challenging yourself and growing. Without a doubt, living life takes courage. It is this courage that I heard in John Flynn’s song about 9/11. As he sang out, I understood him to be repeating a mantra we would all benefit from: I will face my fear and I will overcome.

The Recorder Newspapers has over 250,000 readers and publishes weekly editions in 19 newspapers, which cover Morris, Somerset, Essex and Hunterdon counties of New Jersey.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Basking Ridge, NJ