Thursday, July 24, 2008

Facing Fear: Engaging What Limits Us

“Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” — Marie Curie

What if I said that fear could be your friend? Well, OK, not friend exactly (you don’t have to like it), but it could be your ally. Let me explain.…

Fear offers information that something needs your attention. Its purpose is to help you survive, either physically or psychologically. Unfortunately, what starts out seeming like a fortress can end up becoming a prison, shielding us from potential pain while at the same time making our worlds so much smaller. What we want to do, then, is to look deeper at the fear to discover what response is going to move us toward freedom and out of bondage.

So, what are you afraid of? Pick an issue that, if it were resolved, would substantially improve the quality of your life. Take a few minutes if you need to mull this over and then write a brief statement in your journal describing the fear.

Here are some further questions to ask yourself:

1) In what circumstances does this fear arise?

2) What other emotions, if any, accompany this fear? (anger, shame, despair, etc.)

3) When did you first experience this fear?

4) Is the fear based on an experience you had or were you taught to have this fear?

5) Is the fear in response to what is happening in this moment or to an imagined/projected event?

6) Is this fear about your physical survival (that bear chasing you through the woods) or to your sense of self (like fear of how well you will perform a task)?

A handy model I was taught about emotions is this: first there is a stimulus (situation or experience), followed by a thought about what the stimulus means, followed by an emotional reaction. Got that? Stimulus> thought> emotion. The part that is often overlooked is the one in the middle—the thought. With awareness, that’s where we can learn to choose and exercise control.

Here’s an example: A dog walks into a room. There are two people there, one of whom loves dogs and another who is afraid of dogs. These people are having entirely different reactions to the dog, but the dog is the same. Why? Because, of course, they have different beliefs about dogs and we tend to filter our experiences to confirm what we already believe.

In my workshops and coaching sessions I often begin by saying, “Don’t believe anything that I tell you.” This usually gets a chuckle. I then go on to encourage people to examine what I say to see if it really is true for them and also to see whether what I’m saying is actually useful. If my ideas don’t meet both tests, please disregard them. That’s Part A. Part B is—are you ready?—don’t believe what you tell yourself either without administering the same tests. Ah!

Invite your fear in and ask these questions: What am I telling myself this stimulus/situation means about me? What evidence do I have that what I believe is really true about this situation? How does this fear benefit me? What does my current response to this fear cost me? Is it worth it?

Compassion and a sense of curiosity are a must. A sense of humor helps, too. What, you’re a human being having a human experience? Welcome to the club!

Practice exercise:

Who is the fear inviting me to be? In other words, what qualities am I being asked to develop in order to meet this fear? Look past the discomfort and aversion. Find out where your fear is directing you to create more balance in your life and develop new capacities. There is much energy there, waiting to be set free.

Copyright 2008 Eugene Y. Smith, III. All rights reserved.

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