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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Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare

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