Fear: A Master of Disguise

Fear: A Master of Disguise

In this blog, I’m going to encourage you to examine how you respond to fear?

How does it operate in your life?

How does it hold you back?

How does it move you forward?

How do you use fear, as a source of fuel?

How does it keep you in relationships and dynamics?

How does it participate in the status quo?

I’ll be frank, for most of my life I have had an intimate relationship with fear. If I am honest, fear was my most trusted guidepost. In my career, I have used fear as one of my primary sources of fuel.  I used fear of failure to dig deeper and embrace the pain cave of ambition and drive. Leveraging the upside of cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, I used this neurobiological cocktail to access motivation, discipline, and relentlessness.

Fear was the first of many neurochemical highs I would chase throughout my life. It was hard for me to give up this style of orbiting in the world because it was “successful” in many ways. In the years in which I was in the vice grip of this unconscious pattern, I achieved a lot of really great “things”-college, masters, and doctorate.

But just because something is successful doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Achievement and success don’t insulate us from using toxic and short-burning fuel sources. Eventually all cheap fuel sources lead to burnout or breakdown (think adrenal fatigue and emotional exhaustion).  

By the end of this blog, I hope you will reconsider your relationship with fear and let it, once again, takes it’s place among the pantheon of other feelings we experience that participate in transforming our lives and shaping our trajectory. I want to encourage you to let fear take the ranks with our other intense emotional experiences such as intuition, love, and curiosity.

Here’s the thing though, fear isn’t intoxicating like love, or adventurous like curiosity, or even grounded like intuition. 

Fear is bold, it’s intrusive, and it disrupts. So disruptive is this feeling that we are often “taught” or modeled (read: imprinted) that we must numb it, suppress it, repress it, deny it, or avoid it (this is a huge tendency with fear. To read about avoidance click here). At all costs, silence that feeling.

And so begins the journey where we rate, and judge, and collate our feelings on a scale of good and bad, scary and not scary, healthy and unhealthy. These cognitive structures (the thinking about feeling part of being human) then serve to shape and herd our trajectory through the defense mechanism we use, to the interactions we allow our self to participate in, to the risks we are willing to take in order to self-actualize. 

Fear especially gets a bad wrap nowadays, with the movement towards (forced) positivity and gratitude. It’s often discussed as something we need to overcome, silence, medicate, or ignore it in an effort to “manage” fear.

In my office, I see it all day long. It’s easy to cast fear out, use avoidance, or other defense mechanism that keep us distant from its intensity…booze, sex, drugs, denial, masochism, suppression, repression, and on and on, in my office (and in my life) it’s all the same.

So let’s define fear.

Fear is a feeling. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s a state of awareness that alerts our brain and body to danger. From a neurological perspective, it is thought to originate in the Amygdala and then, like the brain is so eloquent at doing, it rallies and initiates a complex and cascading network of other neurological centers.

The feeling of fear communicates with our body (heart pounding, butterflies in stomach, pupils dilate) and our thoughts or cognition (holy shit, I am in danger, etc.). In this way, fear is a primal indication of our mind/body/brain connection, as it initiates networks of dialogue that were, moments earlier, dis-integrated (or disconnected). Fear is your friend. It’s your greatest teacher. Fear, like pain, participates in keeping us alive.

We all know the overt and obvious ways that fear operates, such as phobias, panic attacks, and the like. But in this blog we are going to examine the covert language of fear. You see, fear is also a master of disguise. It cloaks itself in other more seductive costumes, like bravery, perfectionism, arrogance, anger, people pleasing, FOMO, and adrenaline junkies (to name only a few). Often the very parts of our personality we are most wedded to are derivatives of fear. And most of the time, because of the power of the unconscious, people are completely unaware of how these dynamics operate in their life. (Click here if you don’t already know my stance on the unconscious or need to be convinced of its existence.)

Let me unravel this for you in a concrete way. Because I was someone who felt compelled to move towards my fears, thus why I didn’t develop a phobic personality style, I was considered, and I suppose at some level I am, brave. Fear is a pre-requisite for bravery. It isn’t brave unless you feel afraid, right? For me, I liked that association. I felt good about being considered brave. Brave felt like a really close cousin to strong, and strong felt like it held the promise of being invincible, and invincible felt like it was close to…wait for it…perfection.  When I traced my fears back to their origin, for me, there was often the fear of not being “perfect.” It wasn’t until my early twenties that I began to unpack this contract I had with fear, perfectionism, and bravery.

If you are someone who thrives on the feeling of conquest, if you enjoy the hunt, feel seduced by achievement, if you are drawn to adrenaline, thrive under pressure, you’re likely burning more toxic energy than you think (or feel), generated by complex and (often) unconscious efforts to circumvent or control your response to fear. You won’t be able to sustain this pace and fuel source endlessly. Sure you can white knuckle it for a while. But eventually, you will burnout or your vessel will breakdown. 

In fact, a lot of the psychiatric symptoms that come through my door are actually more related to the fact that we have become so intolerant of our feelings, most especially the ones that we deem bad or too intense. Fear holds a special place in this ranking, because it is so primal, because it is so bold.

But here’s the thing-If you want to liberate yourselves from the patterns that bind you to an orbital pull that no longer serves your best self, you must navigate towards those feelings. Then you must sit. You must listen. You must tolerate a certain degree of discomfort. No challenge, no change. That’s how this works.

Any person, program, book, or course that promises you growth and evolution, without the need to develop the capacity to tolerate a diverse emotional landscape (emotional pluralism)—and that means pain, hurt, grief, sadness, anger, and yes, even fear, is selling you a bunch of bullshit. Buyers beware.

There, I said it. 

I know what you are thinking, okay, so what do I do to change this dynamic?

I’m already hundreds of words over the suggested blog word count, so I am going to keep this simple.

Start with just observing your interior world. Carve out ten minutes a day to just be in your own skin and bones. No technology. No music. No special breathing techniques. Nothing. For god sakes, please don’t try to control your thoughts in any way. Don’t regulate your experience by forcing positivity or gratitude. Just be.

Do that for a month.

Every. Single. Day.

Please don’t tell yourself you can’t find the time. It’s not lost so stop looking to find it. I want you to create the time. It’s an action verb for a reason. It takes action to create change.

And make no mistake about it, this will be the hardest thing you’ve done in a good long while. As a therapist and as a human, I have come to realize that feeling my feelings is the hardest task. To be open to all my feelings is the bravest act I’ve done. It’s brave to be emotionally honest.

This effort will start re-acquainting you with your feelings.  All of your feelings. You will eventually be able to observe how your thoughts hijack and influence your experience of your feelings. But this takes time. Attempt patience.

If you want to read a book that unpacks these dynamic and provides many tactical strategies that are helpful along the way, click here. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to outline every strategy I use and employ in my private practice. Thank you Kristen for your bold and provocative book.

But I’ll reiterate, if you don’t attempt the first step I outlined above, all other attempts will be moot. First and foremost, start to feel your feelings. Tolerate intensity.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

 

3 Comments

Sharon H

I have learned through the years that anger can be very empowering. Perhaps fear can be as well?

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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

We can’t help them if we don’t know what’s happening in their world, and entry will be on their terms - even more as they get older. As they grow, they won’t trust us with the big things if we don’t give them the opportunity to learn that we can handle the little things (which might feel seismic to them). They won’t let us in to their world unless we make it safe for them to.

When my own kids were small, we had a rule that when I picked them up from school they could tell me anything, and when we drove into the driveway, the conversation would be finished if they wanted it to be. They only put this rule into play a few times, but it was enough for them to learn that it was safe to talk about anything, and for me to hear what was happening in that part of their world that happened without me. My gosh though, there were times that the end of the conversation would be jarring and breathtaking and so unfinished for me, but every time they would come back when they were ready and we would finish the chat. As it turned out, I had to trust them as much as I wanted them to trust me. But that’s how parenting is really isn’t it.

Of course there will always be lessons in their experiences we will want to hear straight up, but we also need them to learn that we are safe to come to.  We need them to know that there isn’t anything about them or their life we can’t handle, and when the world feels hard or uncertain, it’s safe here. By building safety, we build our connection and influence. It’s just how it seems to work.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting
Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

It’s completely understandable that new things or hard things (such as going back to school) might drive thoughts of falls and fails and missteps. When this happens, it’s not so much the hard thing or the new thing that drives avoidance, but thoughts of failing or not being good enough. The more meaningful the ‘thing’ is, the more this is likely to happen. If you can look behind the words, and through to the intention - to avoid failure more than the new or difficult experience, it can be easier to give them what they need. 

Often, ‘I can’t’ means, ‘What if I can’t?’ or, ‘Do you think I can?’, or, ‘Will you still think I’m brave, strong, and capable of I fail?’ They need to know that the outcome won’t make any difference at all to how much you adore them, and how capable and exceptional you think they are. By focusing on process, (the courage to give it a go), we clear the runway so they can feel safer to crawl, then walk, then run, then fly. 

It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparent
Never in the history of forever has there been such a  lavish opportunity for a year to be better than the last. Not to be grabby, but you know what I’d love this year? Less opportunities that come in the name of ‘resilience’. I’m ready for joy, or adventure, or connection, or gratitude, or courage - anything else but resilience really. Opportunities for resilience have a place, but 2020 has been relentless with its servings, and it’s time for an out breath. Here’s hoping 2021 will be a year that wraps its loving arms around us. I’m ready for that. x
The holidays are a wonderland of everything that can lead to hyped up, exhausted, cranky, excited, happy kids (and adults). Sometimes they’ll cycle through all of these within ten minutes. Sugar will constantly pry their little mouths wide open and jump inside, routines will laugh at you from a distance, there will be gatherings and parties, and everything will feel a little bit different to usual. And a bit like magic. 

Know that whatever happens, it’s all part of what the holidays are meant to look like. They aren’t meant to be pristine and orderly and exactly as planned. They were never meant to be that. Christmas is about people, your favourite ones, not tasks. If focusing on the people means some of the tasks fall down, let that be okay, because that’s what Christmas is. It’s about you and your people. It’s not about proving your parenting stamina, or that you’ve raised perfectly well-behaved humans, or that your family can polish up like the catalog ones any day of the week, or that you can create restaurant quality meals and decorate the table like you were born doing it. Christmas is messy and ridiculous and exhausting and there will be plenty of frayed edges. And plenty of magic. The magic will happen the way it always happens. Not with the decorations or the trimmings or the food or the polish, but by being with the ones you love, and the ones who love you right back.

When it all starts to feel too important, too necessary and too ‘un-let-go-able’, be guided by the bigger truth, which is that more than anything, you will all remember how you all felt – as in how happy they felt, how loved they felt were, how noticed they felt. They won’t care about the instagram-worthy meals on the table, the cleanliness of the floors, how many relatives they visited, or how impressed other grown-ups were with their clean faces and darling smiles. It’s easy to forget sometimes, that what matters most at Christmas isn’t the tasks, but the people – the ones who would give up pretty much anything just to have the day with you.

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