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.

Dear Brené Brown: Fear is not the answer…

I am a big fan of Dr. Brené Brown. Her courage and grace in not only living her topic but also sharing it with humor and humility is a mage level to which I aspire. That is why I need to disagree with her.

In her book Braving the Wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone (which I read in a single sitting), she takes on the dire situation of our (American) spiritual crisis. I couldn’t agree more that our factionalized, lonely existence is a mortal, potentially existential, threat and means “we’re in trouble in a number of dimensions that may be related, and we need to understand all of them if we want to change that;” and that “(a)ny answer to the question ‘How did we get here?’ is certain to be complex.” I agree 100% and cannot begin to count the number of intersections that show up in this question.

So why does she then spend the rest of the section in an effort to “identify one core variable”? Brené (if I call her Dr. Brown I get distracted by flashes of Back to the Future) calls out fear as the culprit. I get it. I’ve spent over a decade studying fear, too, and am impressed by what the American Fear Factory has accomplished. And it is a factory – manufacturing “fear” the way a turbine manufactures “lightning.”  Fear and lightning/electricity are power and neutral; it is what we do with them that causes benefit or harm.

And this is where I disagree with Brené; fear is not the answer to how we got here. Yes, all those “fear of…” scenarios are real and have real consequences for all of us; however, our basic emotion and power of fear is not at the core any more than electricity is at the core of our digital malaise. It is what it’s been used to do.

Fear is our alert system and we have at least six responses to this primary alert that says, “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Vulnerability is important. Getting hurt is important. Disconnection is important. Criticism and failure are important. Conflict is important. Not measuring up is important. Fear tells us this and is core to alerting us to pay attention to these things. But what is happening is that it keeps happening – our alert system is overloaded and then some. Innumerable media channels are blasting us with threats and millions of things that are important – and we can’t attend them all. So we stop attending any of them or focus our fight on the easiest target. When you keep mashing on the alarm button, it gets stuck and eventually stops working.

Brené writes that trauma and violence actually bring us together – for a short time. This is also true physiologically. Our biochemical response that we interpret as fear only lasts for about 90 seconds. If we are feeling afraid for more than 90 seconds, that’s a choice that’s been trained and patterned into us. An alert is not needed for very long and what we do as a consequence of being alerted to something is as varied as humanity. We are not all “fight or flight,” the easy target or disengaging; we are also caring, connecting, faking, and freezing. These other responses offer us ways to heal and reclaim our own buttons.

What if instead of responding to fear – to an alert to pay attention to something important – by trying to destroy or distance what is scaring us – what if we got curious? What if we kept asking empathetic questions about what motivates terrorists – both domestic and international? What if we, as Brené suggests, “talk openly about our collective grief and fear – if we turn to one another in a vulnerable and loving way, while at the same time seeking justice and accountability”? Fear is still present in this scenario, but here we apprehend an opportunity to transform trauma into healing. We need fear to bring our attention to the importance of what we are facing, that is all. After we face it, what we do is up to us.

Because, ultimately, we can’t be brave or courageous if we are not first afraid – if we can’t tell what is actually important to each of us in every moment.

(what did you make of that picture at the top? it is unlikely that you saw the sun shining through the backboard of a basketball hoop – stay curious)