Making Friends with Fear
I am four, and I am being chased by a giant mask. It looks like the mask of tragedy, with a huge downturned mouth and sad eyes, but it’s the size of an adult, with arms and legs. I am terrified of it, and I run, shrieking, through our house, trying to elude it. Finally I find a space behind the dryer and hide there, but no sooner am I tucked away when the mask runs behind the dryer and hides with me. Horrified, I realize something even scarier is chasing it.
This is one of the first nightmares I can remember, but it was far from the only thing scaring me at the time. I was an easily frightened child, spooked by things both benign (dogs, dragonflies, my bedroom closet) and theoretically, if indirectly, dangerous (raised voices, gunfire on TV, the dark). I had vague nameless fears, and fears that were just plain weird (at one point, I was afraid of the elderly, the infirm, and anyone using crutches, a wheelchair, or any kind of assistive device). Because I spent most of my time with adults, there was a period when I was even afraid of other kids.
With age and distance, what I see most clearly is that most of the things that frightened me posed no actual, specific threat. Just as I was being chased by the giant mask, I spent much of my early childhood being chased by my own active imagination. That nightmare illustrates it beautifully: as much as anything else, I was running from fear itself. Even more interesting, that scary thing on my heels had fears of its own, too. I can try to flee from my fear, but my fear, fed by its own terrors, races along with me.
As long as I keep running, I allow my fears to run me.
So what’s the answer? It’s actually surprisingly simple: stop. Turn around. Watch in amusement as fear, startled and confused, screeches to a halt and maybe even slams into you. It’s okay, even if it knocks you down. You know how to get back up again.
And when you do, open up a conversation with the big scary monster: So, how you doin’? What’s up with you? Are you real, or even true? Are you just small and scared, too?
It might go something like this:
Fear: OMG! Look at your bank balance! You have GOT to stop spending money and, like, go get a job at WalMart or something!
Me: Oh, hi. I remember you! You’ve been chasing me for years! How you doin’?
Fear: ?!!? Stop with the small talk! You’ve got to DO something! NOW! Or you’re going to wind up living in your car and going through dumpsters!
Me: Hmm, interesting. Okay, let’s say that really happens. I wind up living in my car and going through dumpsters. Then what?
Fear: Well, then, uh, uh…well, that would be terrible! That would be the end of the world! What would people think!
Me: It wouldn’t be comfortable, and it would be challenging, but it wouldn’t kill me. And it doesn’t matter what people think.
Fear: But…but…the money….it’s going to run out! You’ve got to do something!
Me: I hear that you fear money is finite.
Fear: Well, yeah.
Me: And that I am not capable of making more.
Fear: Uh…I guess so.
Me: Is that true?
Me: Has it been true in the past?
Fear: Well, no.
Me: In fact, if you add it all up, I’ve made quite a bit of money over the years.
Fear: That’s true.
Me: So if I’ve been doing it all along, I can probably keep doing it. Seeing as how I’m still the same person with the same brain and skillset and all.
Fear: But…the economy—
Me: Yes, I may have to be more resourceful and creative. I’m capable of that.
Fear: You are?
Me: Absolutely. Hey, look over there! Squirrel!
Fear: Cool! Uh, what?
And there you have it. Turn around. Face your fear. Make friends with it by acknowledging the possibility of a negative outcome and its likely survivability (there will be only one time in your life when this won’t be true—so the odds are with you). Challenge your fear’s assumptions, reassure it that you’ve got things under control, and then distract it.
Fear is a necessary passenger as we journey through life. It gives us useful information, feedback that can keep us safe from poisonous snakes, hot stoves, and runaway buses. But because fear can’t discern actual from imagined threat, don’t let it take the steering wheel. Put fear in the backseat, where it belongs. It makes for a much more enjoyable ride.