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

 

4 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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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