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.

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.

Where “fear” came from…

Word-nerd alert:

The English word “fear” is very old. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (or, “The Tome,” as I prefer to call it), “fear” was first defined as “a sudden and terrible event” and was first found written in English in 1068. A hundred years later, in 1175, the word meant “the emotion of pain or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger, or the prospect of some possible evil” and had become “the general term for all degrees of the emotion.”

It is interesting the shift from the presence of fear (an event) to the prediction of fear (“impending,” “prospect”). In 1068, fear was something that happened which was “sudden and terrible,” but by 1175 fear was a feeling that something could happen that was dangerous or evil.

I dug a little deeper into fear’s etymology (word genealogy) and found that the base of the word is pre-Teutonic and is probably a form of the Aryan root per [“fare” or “there”]: to go through. That’s interesting!

If fear is something we go through, that would include the approach (hasn’t happened) and the passage (it’s happening). To me, this hints at something in our cultural heritage as English speakers (native and learned) that links feeling fear with going through something that is sudden and terrible.

So what difference does knowing fear’s etymology make to…anything?

Well, many linguists, particularly George Lakoff, have pointed out that our language informs (brings to form) our reality; that is, how we experience our lives changes when we change the words with which we define and describe that experience. Psychologists tend to concur and we now have popular memes urging us to practice saying “thank you” to be happier, and paying attention to what we call a person (“girl” or “woman”; “Indian” or “Native American”; “terrorist” or “troubled”; etc.) to see why we behave in particular ways toward them (yes, including what pronouns we use).

As this relates to how we experience fear in various forms, let’s look at another word that is deeply rooted in our experience: intuition. Although “women’s intuition” tends to be debased as fantasy in much of our culture, the root of the word “intuition” (“tuere”) is directly related to the role of real fear – “to guard, to protect.”  The “gut feeling” of intuitive fear is qualitatively different from anxiety, worry, and panic, according to Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear.

In his book, de Becker emphasized that our ability to explore the links associated with what triggers different “feelings” will define our ability to survive and thrive. Neuroscience in Michael Gershon’s The Second Brain supports the value of intuition, of these “gut feelings,” as more accurately “gut thoughts” in our “second brain.” Gershon shared research that shows that our intestines contain more neurons than our cerebellum; our guts are literally already thinking before we know it. (Brings a whole new perspective to the condition and care of our innards…like when we’re full of s…) Women’s intuition is our deep knowing that a threat is present, even if that knowing has yet to reach our conscious brain.

As I pointed out in “We never have a thought without a felt,” by the time information reaches our consciousness, it has already had to travel through our feeling center. Indeed, the information may have entered our neural network even before that via our gut. In situations where time is of the essence, acting on our gut can literally save us or those we love before we know what we are doing.

So when we feel we are going through something sudden and terrible, we are getting loud signals that we need to guard and protect, that we need to pay attention to what is happening before we our consciousness can apply words and labels to it. Reversing this process is what gets us in trouble. When we think (consciously apply words and labels) to something that might be sudden and terrible, we charge up fear responses that have been programmed or trained into our brains. We then pay attention to what we’ve been told to be afraid of and churn our guts into an acidic mess that garbles any “gut thoughts.”

Even though, as my colleague Brandi Painter put it, “we can’t think our way out of what we felt our way into,” our linguistic (thoughtful study of language) heritage offers clues to breaking the cycles and feedback loops of our American fear factory. It is with an appreciation of irony that I can declare that changing the way we think about fear changes our experience of feeling fear, and that when we think before we feel, we act on a manufactured fantasy rather than what is actually happening.

Word-nerd out.

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)

Here there be monsters…

We’ve been taught that fear is the enemy, “the mind-killer,” to be avoided or obliterated. Fear is a monster to be defeated so that we may be free, happy, and prosperous. Monsters – they’re a problem, an old problem. The problem of monsters is as old and complicated as any human story.

Monsters are grossly out of proportion, ugly, smelly, contorted and distorted from anything “natural” we have ever met. They lurk, hide, loom, and jump out unexpectedly. Some appear enticing at first, only to reveal themselves as utterly destructive and, well, wrong. We’re afraid of monsters and we all know what monsters are, even though they aren’t “real”; or too real. Most monster stories are accounts of theft – not just of princesses or gold, but of identity and connection.

The Minotaur was a prince with a birth defect who was banished by his own father to the labyrinth so the father wouldn’t have to be constantly reminded of his transgression. The monstrous son, a tiny boy, was left in the dark – alone.

Medusa was a goddess of those other people, those non-Greeks who were dark and had strange hair. She listened to snakes – which are always bad – who shared direct communication from Mother Earth, in which they made their homes. She was kidnapped by the Greeks and banished with her sisters to an island, severing her connection to her land/people.

Dr. Frankenstein created a monster by stealing life from death.

My friend, Kate, shared the insight that when you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you create a monster; this resonated deeply as I thought about what has happened to fear. Before all the heroism there was betrayal, pain, abuse, abandonment. It was only then that the monsters emerge and must then be destroyed after harrowing adventures and struggles. Other stories tell of similar adventures and struggles that ultimately reveal the monster to be a sympathetic, misunderstood creature or person in pain.

The witch alone in the woods accused of eating children is a midwife willing to defy church teachings to save women in childbirth.

The hunchback seen as cursed by God for his grotesque, cursed appearance is the whipping boy and scapegoat for the sadistic, revered community leader.

The old man who stays in his house and scares all the neighborhood children with his gruff warnings to keep away lost his entire family to violence and is haunted by those images and voices.

These latter stories show us that something or someone can be a monster not because that is what they are, but because of what happened to them; that they emerged because of fundamental, sacred violation. In stories, these monsters are redeemed rather than destroyed…sometimes.

The problem of fear in our culture is related to the problem of monsters. We have institutions that depend on our dependence, which create more fear (reducing our freedom) in an attempt to manage fear (increasing freedom?). In this way, we have been robbed of our most trusted ally, that which made it possible for our ancestors to survive everything that befell them. Once taken from us, the concept of fear has become other than an emotion, it has become a monster. It is a monster that keeps us isolated, venerating our individualism as an unassailable American virtue.

Studies of fear tend toward attempts to count and control experiences of fear that have become obviously detrimental to our efforts to be happy and healthy as individuals and in groups. Spiritual advisors, politicians, educators, parents, “experts,” and various counselors have attempted to reduce the experience of fear to quick fixes and techniques for severe curtailment and/or elimination of fear – efforts to destroy the monster. These efforts are often in response to perceived “problems” with fear, just feeling afraid is seen as weakness. However, most often these problems are the result of the artificial, even pathological exaggeration of our basic emotion into a weapon of control by individuals and organizations which are benefited by our distraction from their efforts to gain even more power and money, with no consideration of anyone’s well-being. The theft must be reconciled and we deserve a chance to reveal the friend within the monster.

Within the maelstrom of super-sized and manufactured fear, we have lost our ability to clearly discern what is actually scary – what we actually need to pay attention to in any given moment. In our fear of Muslims and immigrants, we don’t hear the climate emergency sirens. In our fear of dark skin, we don’t see how our humanity is being diminished. In our fear of missing out (FOMO), we miss sublime experiences of deep connection that takes time. There are many things and people that are truly scary, that we need to pay attention to so we can make choices that keep us and our loved ones safe and, ultimately, alive.


We never have a thought without a felt…

Whenever we have an experience, however we take in an experience via our myriad senses, it arrives in our awareness already awash in colorful emotions.

Our experience processing network, aka, our nervous system, takes in far more information that our consciousness can handle. We only see a tiny portion of the light spectrum, we only hear a narrow range of sound waves, and we hardly smell anything at all. Our big, expensive brains need a way to receive really important information – that which impacts our ability to protect, provide, and procreate – so we can make effective choices before we even think it.

Thanks to our successful ancestors, we are able to act before we think based on basic emotions. We literally feel before we think as experiences pass through our amygdala (our emotion center) before reaching our cortex, let alone our pre-frontal cortex where executive decisions are made. Regardless of what any scientist, teacher, or parent has ever told you – all of our decisions are emotional. Rationality is useful and requires intentional practice, and it is still colored by emotion. So in situations of stress or danger, our most reliable ally is our most basic emotion.

Welcome fear.

We have few, if any, ancestors who were fearless, because fearless people die early. Fear’s function is an alert or alarm system. Regardless of what we do about it, fear shows up with a neon flashing sign telling us “PAY ATTENTION! THIS IS IMPORTANT!” Whether it’s a jaguar, a speaking engagement, a courtroom, a gun, or a visit from the in-laws – fear gets us focused on what is really important in this moment.

Then we fight or flee, right? Maybe. This is another falsehood we’ve been fed that defies our actual experience and capabilities. We actually have at least SIX stress/fear responses. The fight-or-flight response model was actually based – I kid you not – on experiments in the U.S. in the 1950s exclusively carried out with male…rats.

Now I hold rats in very high regard overall and have known some very kind, brilliant, fine rats; however, they are not human. Humans respond to fear in different ways to accomplish different outcomes. So what are they?

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 is always scary and, therefore, bad.

We all use all six of these in various ways, frequencies, and circumstances. I know that when I get extremely scared, I get pissed (fight). Seriously – don’t scare me, you’ll get hurt. As a kid and into early adulthood, my chaotic environment taught me to freeze and allow the crazy to go by and maybe not notice me. In other situations where I’m facing a challenge to my worldview, when someone tells or shows me that what I think is true is not, I get curious and connect with the real fear of losing my grip on reality.

When you reflect on real feelings of fear, what do you notice? What do you do? How does that serve you?