Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fear (but were afraid to ask)

An Article by David Cornfield

During the summer of 1983, I created a series of six masks as part of a workshop on clowning. Working the clay with my eyes closed, the masks emerged as powerful expressions of my unconscious mind, untempered by inhibitions from my rational mind.

Each mask was the starting point for the development of a clown personality. Five of the masks led quickly and easily to a story and a character. The sixth seemed impenetrable. I left the workshop having found only five of my six clowns, and, on returning to my office, I managed to hang the masks so that the sixth was hidden from view.

I still have that mask. Looking at it now, there is no question in my mind about what that mask is all about. The fear it expresses is almost palpable. The eyes are startled, the hair stands on end, the mouth is gasping. Yet at the time, I refused to acknowledge the terror in the mask. I wanted my terrified clown out of sight and out of mind.

Denying fear is not unusual. In our society, to be afraid is considered shameful. Many people hide their fear, from themselves and from others. Yet, fear has survival value. It is there to warn us about danger so that we can take precautions to minimize risk. Ignored, it tries to protect us by finding ways to prevent us from taking risks. It blinds us to an opportunity, or makes us arrive late, or makes us forget an important detail, or makes us inarticulate, or ... the variations are endless.

In my work as a coach for people making the transition to self-employment, the issue of fear is of central concern. An entrepreneur is someone who is able to take risks. If fear prevents you from taking risks, you will not succeed as an entrepreneur. Period. It doesn't matter how marketable your ideas are or how well you understand business concepts. To survive as an entrepreneur, you have to learn how to live with rising levels of fear and not be immobilized.

The best way to deal with fear is to stop pretending to be fearless. Paradoxically, the more you deny fear, the more likely it is to dominate you. Tune into your fear, give it a voice, enter into a dialogue with it, do what you can to reduce the risk, and you will find yourself more able to take risks.

Listening to fear is more easily said than done. We all have a repertoire of defenses that help us deny our emotions. Addictive behaviours are all based in a desire to avoid feeling, and as we know, they are hard to shake. If you avoid feeling your fear by lighting up a cigarette or by getting busy, you have lost the opportunity to respond to your fear. Learning to deal with our fear reduces our need to resort to addictive behaviours.

Fear is visceral. One way we deny our fear is to numb our bodies with muscle tension and shallow breathing. Over time, numbness becomes chronic. In this depressed state, we don't feel fear, but neither do we feel enthusiasm or pleasure. The fear hasn't gone away. We just don't feel it. And if we don't feel it, we can't listen to it. To prevent fear from stopping us in our tracks, we need to learn to relax our bodies, deepen our breathing, open up to feeling. Body-based expressive psychotherapy, and relaxation techniques such as massage and yoga are ways to regain lost feeling so that we can be more responsive to our legitimate fears.

Not all fears are legitimate. Legitimate fear is fear that pertains to a real danger in the present. Some fear is an understandable but incorrect response to inadequate information. Ignorance breeds fear. The more informed you are, the easier it is to decide if the danger is real and what precautions you need to take to reduce the risk. If you have a fear about something, get more information.

Some fears belong to unfinished situations from the past. For example, if you were hurt by a man with a beard, you may be triggered into fear every time you see a bearded man. There are a number of ways to deal with old fears. One is to finish the unfinished business in therapy, diminishing its power to distract you from responding to the present. Another is to use meditation to develop your capacity to view your fear with detachment so that you become aware when it is irrational. It also helps to get the perspective of other people - people in a support group, or friends who you really trust.

Some fear is pervasive low-level fear that you carry around with you regardless of present circumstances. If you were abused as a child, or overprotected by fearful parents, or even if your parents weren't there to back you up, you may feel inadequate and just want to hide away. Again, counselling can be useful to help heal wounds that diminished your self esteem and hindered your full growth as a human being.

Keep in mind that emotions come in pairs. Hurt and anger go together. So do shame and desire. Behind fear lies excitement. As Sam says to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the stories that stay in the mind are about ordinary folks who say yes to the adventures that lie in their path, those who go ahead despite the dangers. Risk is a call to adventure. If you listen to your fear and do what needs to be done to avoid unnecessary danger, you enable yourself to embark on the exciting adventure that is your life.

David Cornfield, Creative Edge

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fear (but were afraid to ask) was first published in Eye for the Future Magazine. It was reprinted in The Reading Portfolio, published by Houghton Mifflin, in 2004.

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