While fear can be real, the vast majority of the fear we feel is false and this false fear leads us to distort our reality and make decisions that are bad for us. Indeed, fear is not a private affair because it drastically affects our health and wellbeing and those of people around us. It has tangible effects. In this article, I will outline how fear affects people’s lives and what you need to do to face your fears to be able to express who you really are, make the most of your lives, and develop true relationships.
The acronym given for false fear is often: False Evidence Appearing Real. False fear is an emotional experience to a present situation that is based on a painful past experience. In an attempt to try and avoid a similar painful experience the mind seeks to pre-empt the possibility of this occurring in the present situation, leading to feelings of worry, stress, and anxiety. Our inaccurate interpretation of the present causes us to act inappropriately, although we usually cannot see that that is what we are doing.
The fear of being wrong is a very powerful emotion. Fear, and the actions that stem from this fear, can be seen as survival mechanisms of the mind. It is the mind’s way of trying to keep a semblance of coherence to one’s perspective, identity, and place in the world. For some people, therefore, admitting they might have been mistaken is almost impossible. But unless you face your fears you will not experience a fulfilling and meaningful life.
How fear distorts reality
I have designed, developed and delivered emotional education courses for over 40 years now. Participating in courses of this nature entails having to face your fears by having your view of reality, or your construct of yourself and life, frequently challenged. People find this uncomfortable and confronting. In order to deal with these vague feelings of discomfort people develop various strategies that are designed to defend them from their perceived danger surrounding them.
As I watch course participants coming into the room on the first day it is interesting to observe where they choose to sit. Do they hide at the back or go straight to the front? Do they avoid other people or find someone to talk to? Do they talk nervously or present a laidback and cool demeanour? Do they look hostile, or nervous? How do they perceive themselves and others and interpret the situation they find themselves in? Do their minds detect danger and switch into survival mode, and how does that manifest itself in terms of their behaviour? Each person copes with the uncertainty of embarking on a two-weekend quest for growth and personal power in a unique and often quite humorous way – to the people observing, that is!
Excuse me, says Alice loudly, when the group is all assembled and I settle down to give my introductory talk. I don't like the way these chairs are arranged. I think they should be in a circle.
Jean: Oh. Why is that?
Alice: I feel a bit hostile actually. It feels to me like a revivalist meeting, like I’ve seen God, you know, and I find that a bit unpleasant. I was talking to Jack just now – well actually I didn't raise it – he felt it was like being back at school when we walked in. I have had very unpleasant experiences at school. This set up seems very formal to me compared with some other kinds of groups. It all seems very much the school audience and that sort of authoritative figure and those watchers at the back (assistants). It makes me feel very uncomfortable actually. I am trying to be open minded about it, but it raises my hackles a bit. The last group I went on we were in a circle, and that was a very good course.
Jean: Okay. So maybe this course is not like the other courses you have been on.
Alice: No, well it obviously isn’t. I appreciate that.
Jean: I have got the seating arranged this way at the moment because it is less intimidating for people that way. Maybe this is a useful incident to use to start to explore the question ‘Is the way I see things necessarily the way it is?’
Alice: Well, that’s fine, but I like it less formal.
Jean: Maybe it doesn’t have to be ‘formal’ this way.
Alice: I would find it less intimidating to have the chairs in a circle, that’s all, and I’ve talked to other people who think so too.
Jean: Who else agrees with that?
Only one hand is raised. Alice looks amazed.
I went on with Alice to explore with her the possibility that her mind was comparing the situation she had walked into with a similar situation in her past that she had found very threatening. Maybe she had been made to feel stupid, ridiculed, or had her self-image damaged.
The mind is a pattern matching machine. It is constantly scanning present information and relating back to past experiences, memories, feelings etc. to predict what may happen in the future. Frightening situations - such as a car accident or robbery - can be used as a significant reference point for the mind in evaluating the present situation.
In Alice’s case the incident which had caused her to experience trauma or threat to her survival was not so obvious. It was far more subtle. However, it seems clear that what was happening was her mind had compared the situation now with the one that did the damage in the past and sent out warning signals: this place is dangerous. Alice then looks for some way to try to make it feel safe for her. She attempts to persuade me to rearrange the room so that it looks less like a schoolroom and more like a therapy group, or workshop, where she had felt safer.
Once Alice had realised she was actually distorting reality – filtering what was happening through the framework of her past experience – she was able to sit down and accept the way the chairs were arranged. But it took her about 20 minutes to arrive at this position. Of course she still had other fears that came up from time to time during the course and affected her participation, but this initial encounter enabled her to be more open to the possibility that things were not always the way they seemed to her to be.
Alice has told me since that she found this a very valuable experience. So too did other people on the course, who then began to realise that maybe the way they saw things was not always the way things were. Their fear was standing, like a roadblock, between them and reality. In this case the strategy that Alice was using to defend herself was distortion.
Unconscious fear-based behaviour (and how these lead us to make bad decisions)
To be able to face your fears you need to be able to identify your unconscious fear-based behaviour and how this is getting in your way. The means of avoiding situations perceived by the mind as dangerous are:
- Physical avoidance
- Regression (retreating into childish behaviour such as temper tantrums, sulking and thumb-sucking)
- Denial (an absolute refusal to admit that anything is going on at all – this isn’t happening).
When we start to feel uncomfortable we tend not to stay with and explore the feelings to see what they are really about. Instead we allow our dislike of this discomfort to drive us into one, or more, of the strategies mentioned above.
you can either have your feelings, or they can have you
In other words, most people allow life decisions to be determined by how they feel, rather than being able to look at what will best serve their interests and their growth.
When people come to the courses I offer they are usually operated by their feelings – as indeed most of us are when it comes to making decisions or doing what we know we need to do, in order to be effective or to keep to promises made. The problem is that most of our feelings are based on fear and what we perceive as a threat to our survival.
Alice’s feelings were based on the threat to her identity which she experienced at school and the erosion of her sense of worth and significance, which can ultimately lead to a feeling of annihilation and non-existence – the death of self. This led her to not respond to the present but instead to her past experience.
This phenomenon was explored by Watson who was a very early behavioural psychologist. Watson experimented with a small child (whom he referred to as Little Albert) in a way that would be ethically unacceptable by modern standards, giving the child a white rabbit to hold and simultaneously administering an electric shock. The child quickly learned that white cuddly rabbit equals pain. However, it did not stop there. Watson observed that the child generalised his fear response to anything that remotely resembled the rabbit; anything white and fluffy – fur rugs, furry slippers or gloves – all became objects of terror to him. I believe that Watson then reversed the process and so the tale ended happily for Albert. Unfortunately for most of us the ending is not so happy. The process is not reversible, because we are barely aware that it is going on and we certainly do not know what created the fear in the first place.
All of us have been conditioned in similar ways. We may all over-react very unreasonably to issues and experiences in our lives, and it is probably because some element in the current situation will have sufficient connection with an early life threatening, or emotionally threatening, incident to trigger off a past experience. It is like pressing the button of a juke box. Something happens and the mind says ‘This is a number 28 incident’, and on to the turntable the record goes. It plays right through while you wonder what it is all about. There are probably millions of these records in the stack of the mind. That is why it is important to start becoming educated about what the stack contains. To face your fears you need to start with noticing when you are reacting to situations, or, in fact, not reacting at all.
To face your fears you have to observe and explore your mind and emotions
But if we develop the capacity to observe and explore the mechanisms and functions of our own minds, we can start to begin to understand the complex and powerful instrument at our disposal and learn how to operate it more effectively. Our mind could let us communicate perfectly, allow us to express ourselves authentically and lucidly, enable us to be in touch with what we really want to do with our lives.
Yet for most of us the mind churns out thoughts incessantly. We can’t seem to switch them off when the thoughts are irritatingly repetitive or self-destructive. A friend of mine was unable to sleep because she kept monitoring her performance of the day, criticising herself for what she had said to people, wondering if she had been inappropriate, wishing she had not said some of the things she had said. Her internal critic would not keep quiet and let her rest.
Many people fall badly short of realising their potential and living the lives they want to live because they believe the self-defeating thoughts and beliefs that churn around in the mind and often cause them to have uncomfortable feelings of, for example, anxiety, embarrassment and unworthiness.
We need to learn what affects the functioning of the mind – what makes us decide to develop one view of life rather than another, or believe certain things about ourselves and dismiss other thoughts. How did we develop the identity that we have adopted? In what ways are we influenced by the culture and the people close to us?
To face your fears you have to express your true self (no matter how hard)
Maslow believes that if certain basic necessities are not met early in life, human beings will continue to seek them throughout their existence, and this is the underlying motive behind the majority of our actions and decisions. Seldom are we conscious of these driving forces, although we frequently find apparently reasonable explanations for what we do. These rationalisations mask our true motives and lead us to follow paths which do not serve our best interests, since we are looking for something we feel we do not have and are attempting to find it from outside ourselves, rather than expressing our true selves, or our true potential, by finding it within.
In other words, if I want to experience being loved I know of no better way – indeed I know of no other way – than to give love. Only in giving of yourself will you discover who you are. Only when you discover who you are will you relate authentically to others, and only when you can do that will you experience being in a true relationship.
If you relate inauthentically with others then no one is in a relationship with you – they are relating to your act. You therefore never experience being loved or liked for who you truly are, and so you are convinced, as are many people who come on my courses, that, if you were really yourself with people, no one would like you or want to know you. In this case the fear that you will not be liked is the roadblock that stands between you and the development of deeply intimate and powerful relationships.
To face your fears you have to take responsibility for your life
Most people do not want to harm anyone else, but we certainly will do so until we can take responsibility for what is happening around us and stop trying to find something or someone else to blame for it. Unfortunately people are just too afraid of admitting their inadequacies, of owning their mistakes, of recognising their blindness and ignorance.
Other people are too afraid of being judged, of telling the truth about their lives, in case the glittering facade they have built tarnishes and disintegrates before their eyes and they have nothing but their pain, loneliness and emptiness to share with others. As a rule the step into the abyss of fear is too great, and they retreat into their bunkers, put on their tin helmets and settle down to wait until the war is over and it is safe to come out. They will probably wait a long time and die wondering where their lives went.
If we want to live a fulfilling and meaningful life and relate to people in satisfying relationships then we have to accept that we are human, that we are not perfect, that we make mistakes, that we do not get things right all the time, that we are to blame sometimes, and we can be the problem - and that these are not the end of the world! In fact, these are things that make us real and relatable. We need to accept them and take responsibility for them for fear to no longer have power over us.
To face your fears you have to not resist the pain
A frequent phrase used in the est training was ‘What you resist persists’. It is so with thinking. Too many of us resist our thoughts; and make judgments about them. They are bad and we shouldn’t be thinking them. All this serves to increase the fear that generated the thoughts in the first place. Now we can feel more out of control and more helpless than we did to start with. Once we attach significance to our thoughts they grow in power and can become overwhelming.
It should, by now, be clear that it is extremely difficult for human beings to become aware of and identify their fear because: (a) in the culture’s view of normality they are not supposed to have fear and (b) they don’t like it when they get it. And so they flee from it, using the methods described above, and it never gets handled. Hermann Hesse addresses this phenomenon in a very powerful passage in his diary in 1918, and he suggests a solution:
Suffering only hurts because you fear it. Suffering only hurts because you complain about it. It pursues you only because you flee from it. You must not complain, you must not flee, you must not fear. You must love. You know all this yourself, deep within you, that there is a single magic, a single power, a single salvation and a single happiness, and that is called loving. Well then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it... It is only your aversion that hurts, nothing else.
I remember walking up a mountain in Ireland many years ago with a group of people. It was drizzling and the going was steep and difficult. Most of us were complaining about the fact that our legs were aching and we were out of breath. The man in front, who was a tough, outdoor type, turned round to me at one point and said, with a totally unsympathetic grin on his face, ‘It’s only pain’. I remember feeling furious at his crass insensitivity and his smug superiority. What a stupid remark to make. What an idiot. And then, ‘What does he mean it’s only pain? Only pain? But surely pain is significant, dangerous.’ This was a moment of freeing realisation for me. I did not have to let this pain assume horrendous proportions. I could treat it as what it was – only pain. I did not have to add anything else to the experience. I could simply experience it – and carry on walking.
I could ‘love my suffering’, but loving it did not need to mean giving in to it, or mollycoddling it. It could simply mean acknowledging it and then allowing my legs to go forward. As I continued up the mountain the physical struggle continued, but the psychological struggle ceased. I was going to the top and it would hurt. It would not be pain-free and easy. I believe that most of us flee from suffering because we do not believe it should be there. Once we understand the inevitability of pain and suffering, it becomes much easier to accept. What an amazing analogy for life.
To face your fears you have to find a purpose
Giving up fear can be highly demotivating. Our fears are tied to the very nature of who we are and who we are connected to. The unconscious strategies we have developed to manage the fear we experience are highly personal. Just think about a time when someone challenges a deeply held belief you have about yourself that is perhaps not true e.g. you are not good enough at something, not clever enough, not pretty enough, not ‘whatever’ enough. You will likely feel that these thoughts are true and having them challenged can be very hard to accept because it is like the other person does not understand us, does not get us, does not really see who we are. But it is more likely that the truth is that we do not see ourselves as we really are and that the fear that we are not good enough and our strategies that we have unconsciously devised to manage those thoughts and feelings are holding us back. If we give up our destructive survival strategies, it can feel that we have nothing else to live for.
The solution to this is to have a reason to live that lies outside of ourselves. We need to find a purpose for our lives and live towards achieving that purpose. Not only does this give our lives meaning but it also gives us a reason - and makes it easier - to give up the fear we have been holding on to and change the behaviours we have that are not helpful.
False fear is inevitable and is an experience for everyone. Unless you are able to see it as false fear, however, it will cause many problems in your life and relationships. This is what we mean when we say you need to face your fears.
To face your fears you need to start with a mindset that the perception that you have that is causing the fear may not be accurate. You need to engage in an ongoing process of exploring your past experiences so when you come to experience fear you can observe how your past is influencing your perception and feelings. Once you have explored your past, and are able to observe your mind and emotions in the present, to face your fears you need to: act in way that is true to who you really are, no matter how hard that may be; take responsibility for what you have said and done, no matter how uncomfortable that may be; and not resist the pain that comes with this. Finally, to face your fears you need to have a purpose in life that acts as a sign post to know which direction you need to take, no matter how difficult it may be to go in.
Together these actions will allow you to not only face your fears but overcome them. Such a process is not an easy one and it is one of the reasons we run emotional education courses. If you really want to do work on yourself to face your fears and overcome them, then you really need to enrol on our courses here.