Fear is optional… (pt4 – the options)

Pay Attention! This Is Important!

What We Can Do

Learn to recognize fear and what it has to tell us. The best place to start is by finding ways to dampen fears that come from things out of our control, such as other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. Unless we’re dealing with a small child whom we could physically control, feeling afraid of what someone else is thinking, feeling or might do is background noise that interferes with our ability to actually “hear” what needs our attention.

Within the din of a multitude of fears, our amygdala goes into over drive and increases the volume of our fears. Over time, this volume damages the organs in our bodies that are responding to our fears, like our hearts, spleens, and joints. Just like hearing loss caused by too much noise, we can lose our ability to “hear” and respond to fear, to our detriment. By dampening fears that are manufactured – by ourselves or others – we will open up space for fear to do its job of drawing our attention to what truly matters for us. Listening to fear will make it possible to hear a wind chime rather than only klaxons.

Watch our language. Our words shape and define our reality. Conditioning ourselves with phrases like “be fearless,” “no fear,” “overcome your fear,” “I’m too scared,” or “fear is a destructive emotion” will create realities in which fear is a monster, rather than a helpmate to our survival. By changing our words, we can begin to honor fear as an aspect of a healthy, thriving life: “This new project really scares me! What’s causing that? What’s important for me here?”

By asking real questions of our fear, we can learn how to navigate daily events, long-term relationships, and incidental surprises. Our culture is filled with stories of heroes encountering monsters that turned out to be, after a few good questions were asked, beings of great power and help. Calling fear a “power tool” rather than a “monster” makes it no less powerful and far more approachable. And, remember to always say “thank you” for what fear has taught you. An attitude of gratitude in regarding fear goes a long way toward turning down the volume.

Ask fear “why?” five times. This is more than getting in touch with our inner two year-old. When we can take time to evaluate our fear alert – which is more often than not – we need to ask “Why is this scaring me?” five times to really get to the heart of the matter, because each answer will likely dissolve into another layer of truth. (As a brief aside, courage is actually a mixture of heart/love and fear.) This is a good practice as we start to work with, rather than against, fear. As we become more practiced with listening to our fear, we won’t need to do this as often.

Use fear to focus our efforts and activities. Once we have dampened the background noise of anxiety (“free-radicals” in the fear realm) and engaged with what is actually scaring us in the moment, we can use feeling afraid to guide our attention and actions toward what really matters. Heart racing when approaching the airport gate? Feeling a bit nauseous on your way to the job interview? We can listen to our actual, possibly pre-cognitive fear (i.e., there’s something wrong on the plane; this isn’t the right job) and access our six fear responses to act appropriately and in our best interests.

Fear is our gift if we treat it as an aspect of a healthy life. It can alert us to new discoveries, let us know what risks to take and what risks to avoid, stir the pot of creative soup, and it can lead us to releasing what is no longer working for us so space is opened up to new integration and growth. We need to appreciate that we can care through fear, that we can make connections with fear present, that we can hold fear without having to do anything about it, and that fear can fuel us to battle that which truly threatens us.

We have options, far more than we’ve been led to believe, when we’re scared. We can successfully move with and through our fears by embracing them with awareness, gratitude and compassion.  We can condition ourselves – our brains! – to learn and grow from fear without having to fix ourselves or anyone else.

We are not broken! Our fears are not bad!

They are there for a reason.  And if we let them, they can actually serve us and our planetary home.

Fear is optional… (pt3)

First, fear is an alert.

To use fear with awareness is to determine how feeling scared can be healthy, a gift, the door to creative solutions, and the ultimate alert system to draw your attention to what is truly important for you right now. In a fog of emotionally-hijacked, constant fear – anxiety – we have no chance of identifying what is actually in need of our focused attention or what action to take. The consequences for this kind of fog are global and devastating.

For instance:

The climate of our planet is changing radically. While the cause(s) are in debate, the consequences are not. The increasing rate and intensity of storms, drought, flooding, wild fires, dust storms, melting glaciers, and loss of land – including entire islands – have all registered alarm around the world. With the alert system activated, i.e., with millions of people fearing for their lives, we are being called to pay attention to what is supremely important and to take immediate action.

Yet, there are millions of people who deny not only the presence but the impending devastation of climate change at this rate. This denial is a consequence of emotional hijacking gone global. Individuals deal with emotional hijacking by running for cover and denying (flight) what is happening and living in avoidance, or are left feeling completely immobilized (freeze) – unable to move in any direction, while others indulge in alcohol, drugs, or food to numb the fear (flight).  These attempts to find relief only result in building false armors of protection and do nothing to change or alleviate the source of the fear. When millions of people participate in these freeze and flight responses to climate change, the consequences for all of us include the loss of millions of lives and the potential for ecological collapse.

We can no longer hear the alert for all the noise.

Because the ability of millions of people to discern real fear and pinpoint its source has been short-circuited due to overload, our entire society and our very lives are in jeopardy. While we are being distracted by pleasing the scary boss, by donning various “costumes” to feel attractive and accepted, and by stuffing and starving our physical bodies to numb our constant anxiety – the intricate systems that support human life on this planet are breaking down without abatement.


Fear is optional… (pt2)

To be afraid of something is proof positive that it hasn’t happened.

– Gavin de Becker in The Gift of Fear

You’re freaking out. The boss wants to talk with you – out of the blue! Shit. It’s 8am and the meeting is at 3pm. You think, “I’m in trouble,” or even “I’m getting fired.” Your heart is racing, you can’t sit still, and you can’t think. It’s now 10am and your mouth has gone dry and nausea feels likes it’s about to get active. You’re afraid and nothing has happened or changed in your immediate environment.

This situation is the most prevalent form of “emotional hijacking” in our culture. Emotional hijacking occurs when our natural emotional response to a situation is artificially stimulated for an unnatural length of time, and usually for unnatural reasons.

Here is how it can play out:

Being in sudden proximity to a tiger can trigger fear.* You need focus (adrenaline), speed (dopamine), strength (testosterone), and painkillers (endorphin) to get yourself to safety. In a matter of seconds your fate will be decided – safely resting or death-by-tiger. You only need your fear reaction to operate for those seconds and, if you survive, your amygdala will have gained a conditioned response to tigers.

Suddenly being called to the boss’s office can trigger fear. You need focus (adrenaline), group glue (oxytocin), and happy juice (serotonin) to get the support and resilience you need to agilely address what your boss has to say. An indeterminate neutral zone lies between now and your eventual sense of rest and safety, depending on what you hear from your boss. You need your fear reaction to align with a group, endurance to thrive, and consciously condition your amygdala response to boss-encounters.

When you apply your “tiger” fear reaction to your boss situation, you become a victim of emotional hijacking. You treat a potential change in your current employment situation as an immediate, life-or-death threat to your existence. Metaphors aside, seeing your boss as a tiger is extremely hazardous; you pump yourself full of biochemicals and ideas that are not only inappropriate but actually counterproductive to the situation at hand.

Fear is critical to our survival. The faster and earlier we can recognize the tiger hiding in the bushes, the more likely we are to avoid “death by tiger”! The problem is that very few people have been killed by their boss. However, because it can feel pretty devastating, the fear response gets stimulated and we may start anticipating “death-by-getting-yelled-at” behind every bush.

In addition to emotional hijacking, we have also been conditioned to believe that we only have two options in the face of any fear: fight or flight. However, further studies (that included people besides young, white males) have found that we have at least four more reactions that are engaged “naturally” by humans.

Our more full range of reactions to fear include:

  • Fight: overcome the source of the fear
  • Flight: flee the source of the fear
  • Freeze: stop to assess the source of the fear or allow it to pass by
  • Fake: change appearance or sound to cause the source of the fear to stop and assess
  • Care: address the perceived needs of the source of the fear
  • Connect: establish a relationship with the source of the fear

The first two responses share the basic action of separating us from whatever is scaring us. The second pair both function to buy some time, if possible. The third pair both keep us engaged with what is scaring us. These additional four responses all share the potential for transforming our experience of fear and even transforming the source of our fear. The initial two, because they separate us from the source and experience of the fear, function to reinforce that the source of fear always scary and, therefore, bad.

The emotion of fear is as rich as the emotion of love and the full experience of fear includes a similar richly full range of responses. We know that when someone says “I love my car” and “I love my child” that they are not talking about the same kind of love. Somehow we don’t have that same appreciation when someone says “I fear falling from this ledge” and “I fear speaking in public.”

*I say “can trigger fear” because there are situations where the tiger or boss are known quantities and safety is not an issue.


Fear is optional…

Fear is part of our being humans. We can no more be “fearless” than we can be “liverless.” It has been with fear that we have survived to evolve into terraformers, artists, and digital tool wielders. Our capacity for fear has also evolved; however, our culture has created a toxic environment that interferes with how we use this powerful tool. At its foundation, fear is an alert system; a sensation of fear says, “Pay attention! This is really important!” in an instant. Fear is present in risk, in love, and in grief. It spans all our lived experience and is BASIC to our survival, as well as an indicator for our thrival.

Contrary to what we have been taught, we have many options when we feel fear. While feeling fear is not optional in our day to day lives, how we respond to it is. On a day to day basis, we feel fear far more often about psychological issues and situations than actual physical threats to our survival.

This Is Your Brain on Fear

The amygdala is a tiny powerhouse in our brain which processes and conditions our responses to fear, addictions, sex drive, search for comfort, anger and many primitive responses that in primitive times kept us safe from harm.   It is the part of the brain that has the power to inhibit the rest of the body’s systems so that you can accomplish the task at hand.  It is our “lizard brain” and rather important for anything that might require energy and focus.

The amygdala regulates the biochemical soup that is released during a fear reaction. Based on prior conditioning, this soup can contain any combination and amount of any of the following:

  • dopamine: rocket fuel triggered by “challenge”
  • adrenaline: mainlined espresso triggered by defensiveness
  • noradrenaline: organic steroids triggered by aggressiveness
  • testosterone: the Hulk triggered by competition and domination
  • cortisol: support staff for adrenaline and noradrenaline triggered by anxiety, frustration, guilt
  • DHEA: happy-energy juice triggered by love
  • serotonin: happy-relax juice triggered by appreciation
  • endorphin: painkiller triggered by intensity
  • oxytocin: group glue triggered by group efforts

However, the biochemical effects of an emotion last only 90 seconds. After that it is your conscious or conditioned choice to hold on to that emotion. While feeling fear is instinctive and necessary, our response is conditioned and shaped by choices over time. Whether our conditioning was conscious or not, was our choice or not, we have the power to change our conditioning with conscious intent.

A fear response that continues to fire without adequate rest affects all systems of the body, resulting in real physiologic changes and dis-ease. Our culture feeds on dis-ease and so is supported by a general fear-state in all of us. Parents, teachers, media, neighbors, and friends all try to “help” us by pointing out that we would be less lonely if we were to dress a particular way and frequent certain gathering places; that we would find a dedicated mate if we lost weight or cleared up our skin; that we would be more financially secure if we just tried harder to please the boss, meet the deadline, and not make waves. This constant and consistent fear-state robs us of the power of fear to discern what is truly important to us, while wreaking real damage to our physical bodies.


Still she persisted…

Elizabeth Warren is one of my favorite accidently-with-purpose heroes. The phenomenon of “she persisted” that caught fire after her attempt to stop yet another  anti-human nominee in the U.S. administration could not have been predicted, but she did prepare for it. Like Rosa Parks who refused to move to make room for yet another white person, Senator Warren has prepared, practiced, learned, and gathered her folk to defy the system that is designed to diminish her.

My friend, Parker Palmer, first highlighted from me the quantum stomp that happened when Rosa Parks refused to continue to participate in her own diminishment. Hers was the third attempt to ignite action by refusing to move on a bus; two other attempts had been made by two other women who were efficiently swept way in to obscurity.

Third time’s the charm.

Rosa had attended Highlander Folk School where she prepared for desegregation and met Dr. King, who was unknown before participating in Rosa’s defense. Rosa was surrounded by support from the NAACP, her family, and the Highlander community. They had prepared and persisted until Rosa Parks became an accidently-with-purpose hero.

My fingers, hands, and arms would all fall off long before I wrote about all the women I know of who have persisted to defy the system that is designed to diminish us. And that’s just the ones I know of…

Still, there are too many women who are continuing to participate in their own diminishment. Who put fragile (white) men and their desires before their own needs. As a white woman, I was fascinated and horrified that mine was the deciding demographic in the 2016 presidential election. This was Stockholm Syndrome writ global. This is how you enslave over half the population. We have been trained, conditioned, and indoctrinated into serving a system that ignores our needs and concerns, uses us as mere objects to please men, and ultimately punishes us for existing.

It’s worked. We spend millions of dollars/euros/yen to be attractive to men, not just for potential sexual partnership but for jobs, medical care, social services, housing, and just going out in public. We live in a world – yes, in the U.S., too – where a displeased or disgusted male gaze can be literally deadly for a woman. The thing men most fear from women is laughter; the thing women most fear from men is murder. And many women have become proxies of men, becoming the hit men for the punishing paradigm and our worst enemies. That any woman still has any sense of self-worth and strength to walk through another day is fucking amazing.

What if we stopped this shit? What if we spent our money on democratic campaigns rather than make-up? What if we bought books rather than botox? What if we spent the time we have dedicated to caring for male egos and spent it on talking with each other about how we can make the world better for children and trees?

I’m done caring for men (except in cases of reparations); they have everything. White men are so privileged that they perceive the loss of any privilege as oppression! Men had this world in thrall for millennia and have thoroughly fucked up our paradise of Earth. It will take persistence to turn the tide of extinction, focus on the possible, speak out, create new habits of care and attention that are independent of male ego. We’re the ones that have more education, who go to religious services most often, who care for children and elders, and who call together community where ever we go. This is what civilization actually is; not masses of monetary wealth, military might, or physical domination. Our culture is not civil; our culture is war. Notice how many times a day you use a military or violent metaphor for things that are not either of those things…

I invite other women, and allies for women, to persist in defying a system of war, degradation, rape, and emotional usury that diminishes all of us…to the point of extinction.

Semi-permeable membranes…part two…

So many of us are expecting to be judged and very fearful that we’ll be found wanting or, even worse, repulsive. We live in a culture where incel-identified men take out their fear-fueled rage on others, and women continue to spend more and more time and resources on being outwardly attractive while taking out their fear-fueled rage on ourselves. For those of us who want to reclaim our fear for our true happiness, retaining the “semi-” state that allows for protection and change is very difficult and needs lots of intention and support.

When we lose the “semi-” we become defensive and closed-off; we become passive and untrustworthy. Openings for new learning decrease exponentially in these states. While judgement is something we fear, we need to reclaim this, too, in order to dance in the possibility of “semi-“. We may want to invoke some Trickster energy to help us reclaim fear and judgement as allies rather than continuing to feed the energy of enemy.

In a conversation I had with Larry Daloz, author and co-founder of The Whidbey Institute,  he shared his approach to  judgement in learning and change:

It [a judgement] depends on the person, their world, their context. You have to be judgmental and not judgmental at once! I get frustrated with people for whom the greatest sin is judgment, is making judgments; but not necessarily. You stop making judgments and you walk out in the middle of traffic! I mean come on! That’s what your brain is for, we’re constantly making judgments, analysis, distinctions, all of that evil cognitive stuff; we’re constantly doing it and it’s a damn good thing we do. The question is when to make them and when to suspend them.

Balancing and negotiating actions and suspensions of judgement is a big part of how Larry creates conditions for transformational learning in the presence of fear. His work in classrooms, workshops, and individual mentoring has developed his acute sense of learning environments as holding conflicting elements in harmony:

I think that settings in which that kind of opportunity for both separation and connection is made readily available are the kinds of settings where more powerful learning can happen. At least that’s a part of the ingredients. We talk often about a mentoring environment, … I think that one of the key ingredients of a powerful transformative environment is a rich mix of differing voices within a safe context, in which the learner can engage with voices different from one’s own, can try them on, ideally can try on the different voices, and step back into what they thought of as their own several different ways in which it’s safe to do that. I think that this process of trying on a voice different from one’s own is probably a powerful transformative action, particularly if the voice is speaking, is trying to say things in a slightly different way that are still meaningful to the learner.

Larry has a sense of welcoming the “other” as other – and honoring difference that keeps the “semi-” in place. There is bounded openness that invites us to become porous to learning.   Larry has thought a lot about semi-permeable membranes and our paradoxical relationship with welcoming and boundaries:

So there are boundaries but there are semi-permeable membranes and that notion of semi-permeable membranes is essential to life; life exists because of semi-permeable membranes…My point is that life is about semi-permeable membranes; it’s about the capacity both to keep out and to take in and always the process of discernment, of discerning what comes in, what goes out and who I become as I do that. That’s what, as far as I’m concerned, the value in transformation…We have to recognize that there are recognizable points of equilibrium at which transformations rest.

The capacity to both keep out and take in is how life functions. We exist between movement and rest, between change and status.When we stop, when we close-off or lose ourselves to the vagaries of fashion and manufactured desire, we stop living. When we recognize and honor the resistance, rather than try to regain some former state of comfort, we can notice it and let it go so we can compassionately engage with “others.”

Learning and changing happens from the inside out, and sometimes the “other” is within; when we ignore, deny, or demonize fear we are neglecting what needs our attention.  Larry helped me to notice the many characters within our psyches that vie for dominance (see the movie, Inside Out), all with different perspectives on what is best for our whole selves to flourish.

Creatively forming an environment of recognition and acceptance of difference and emotions extends from commitment to living in complement with diverse, contradictory, and conflicting elements, emotions, and people. The fear inherent in this world of conflict can guide us to connection, and separate us from what we desire. As long as we numb our fear and judgement of this world through violence to ourselves and others, we perpetuate the very things that keeps us separate and miserable.

Semi-permeable membranes…

Our cells and our planet have semi-permeable membranes to protect us. Our psyches and spirits do, too. The consequences of the loss of “semi-” for cells is death or mutation (i.e., cancer); the consequences for the planet is also death or mutation. The consequences for psyches and spirits are even more subtle and just as consequential.

Fear contributes to the retention of “semi-” when it is healthy, the kind that Parker Palmer referred to in The Courage to Teach when writing about becoming “porous to learning.” The care and maintenance of our semi-permeable membranes is semi-conscious and semi-intentional, and more popularly known as boundary-setting.

Throughout our lives we are constantly bumping or crashing in to boundaries – some give out, some remain painfully in place. We are also moving and shifting boundaries as we and our environment changes. Boundaries are set for us by others when we are young, and by physics when we are…well…physical. All the boundaries beyond the physical are neglected in cultures that value the physical over the spiritual and psychic (i.e., having to do with the psyche). As you might realize, there’s a connection between neglect of boundaries and fear. When we set boundaries it helps alleviate and edit our fears; when boundaries dissolve or are dismantled, we are inundated with fear.  So, even as important as boundaries are, we also need to have openness. This kind of openness shows up in silence, slow pace, or  learning that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable. However, we tend to fill space rather than open it.

A bounded and open presence or space offers an invitation to engage in a space safe enough for fear.  If we can become “hosts” in creating and maintaining such a space for ourselves and others, we can to encourage inquiry, a community of truth, and practice vulnerability. These are “soft skills” that make it possible to hold space that is safe enough to for fear, for apprehension. The “hard stuff” in this space can be: disagreement, confusion, vulnerability, failure, and learning something completely new. These are necessary for inquiry, both reflective and exploratory, and happens in the presence of emotions – in the presence of fear.

Fear pops up when cracks in our understanding or worldview appear, after we have bumped in – or run headlong in – to a concept, perspective, or experience that doesn’t fit. For example, I work for a well-respected non-profit who’s mission is to end poverty in one of the most affluent communities in our country. Our most recent initiatives included advocacy and education to interrupt the systems that perpetuate poverty. However, we depend on donations from the very rich to support our work, from the very same people who benefit from the systems that perpetuate poverty. We risk our funding (i.e., our ability to help people stay warm, fed, and safe) if we interrupt these systems that support our donors and insure we won’t fulfill our mission.

Fear becomes louder when cracks open up to gaps, when our understanding has a clear drop-off beyond which we can’t perceive anything else. Referring to the previous example: so much of our economic (capitalist) system depends on a lot of people being poor (poor as in not having enough money/resources to thrive). If we don’t want poor people, we need to dismantle capitalism.* What else is possible in our vast, diverse society for regulating goods and services “to promote the general welfare“?

Wouldn’t a bridge be nice when a crack or gap appears? Believe it or not, engaging one of our underutilized fear responses – connect – anchors the bridge to possibility. Some might call anchoring in connection in the face of fear “faith.” Connection across cracks, across gaps, and across knowing has drawn Parker Palmer consistently to engage with fear in both his learning and teaching. In a conversation we had years ago, he said that he believes human beings live between faith and fear and that,

…that’s not one you resolve or collapse, precisely because that faith involves the mysterium tremendum, and there’s a very healthy fear that one feels as one walks up to the edge of that mystery…What holds mystery is different for different ones of us…But faith and fear define the dance we all do, and the music goes on forever and we never get off the dance floor.

When we shake things up, boundaries and precious worldviews get cracked. When things get shaky, the best thing to do is dance into the next revolution.

*I’m not going to debate this point here. If you think that capitalism can exist when every child goes to bed every night safe, warm, and fed – then please contact the Gates Foundation or similar entity of international influence to change every enactment of capitalist endeavor in the world. You will not only eliminate poverty, but likely abortion, too.