Fear is perhaps the most useful of the “negative” emotions. Fear tells me what I need to be careful about, what can harm me, what is dangerous, what I need to avoid. And it gives me the energy I need to be able to protect myself and do what I need to do. But fear can also be hurtful to me. It can make me avoid doing what I need to do. It can keep me from addressing problems that I need to address. In extreme amounts, it can keep me from leaving the house, interacting with other people and fulfilling my responsibilities. 

Fear is the trickiest of all emotions and the most difficult one to manage because sometimes it must be listened to and quickly followed with no time for reflection; other times it must be questioned and investigated to see how we should respond to it.

One way of understanding this difference is to draw a distinction between rational fear and irrational fear. The one enables us to stay alive and kicking; the other keeps us from living the way we want to live, keeps us from being aware of what is going on inside us and outside us. The hard part is knowing the difference. How does one know the difference between rational and irrational fear? I once asked a personal growth program guru that question. His answer: “You just know.” Not very illuminating but perhaps the best answer I could get.

One way of getting some help with this problem is checking it out with another person, someone you trust and who knows you well. Tell them about your fear and see what their reaction is. I received that kind of help from my therapist. Back in 1984 at the age of 44 I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had gotten a Master’s degree in Public Administration at age 28, spent 10 years managing city, urban and regional planning activities, precipitously quit a management job at which I had been quite successful, gotten scared and quickly taken another similar job, finally been reorganized out of that position, spent three years nominally as an external consultant but really focused on singing, dancing and acting and had now decided I was going to become an organization development consultant. I knew that pursuing that goal would take me away from the city which my wife loved and didn’t want to leave. In a therapy session I reported two dreams. In one, I had slapped an elegantly dressed woman who had just emerged from a limousine at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street in Manhattan, slapped her so hard that it had spun her around. She put her head down and walked away without saying a word or uttering a sound. In the other I had just laid down on the floor of my office for a short nap and closed my eyes. The vision that appeared was of my wife’s face being hit so hard by a hoe handle that it was distorted as if being seen in one of those mirrors you see at a fun house. My therapist’s response was “Those are good ways of scaring yourself.” I took it to mean that I was scaring myself unnecessarily, that I was in danger of stopping myself from doing something that I wanted to do. In the years that followed, my wife and I found a way of protecting our relationship without requiring her to leave her beloved city or me to abandon my pursuit of organization development consulting.

Some people refer to this process as “walking with fear”, a useful and comforting metaphor. It’s not that you push fear way, beat it off or run away from it. Rather you say “Hello” to it and bring it along with you as you do what you have set out to do.

Another way of knowing the difference between rational and irrational fear is to ask yourself: “Is this fear that I feel related in any way to the ways in which I block myself, get in my own way?” One of the keys to psychological health is knowing how you get in your own way, especially how you use thoughts and feelings to stop yourself from doing what you want to do. One of the things I learned in therapy is that I have some fear of being successful and exalted because it will fuel my father’s jealousy of me, a jealousy that was very harmful to me as an adolescent. Given that at the time I became aware of that fear my father was in his late 70's and had turned into a somewhat curmudgeonly but basically mellow and sweet guy, that was certainly an irrational fear. But it was getting in my way nonetheless.  My therapist helped me get in touch with that fear by saying from time to time; “You wouldn’t want to be disloyal to your father by being too successful, would you?”

So these are examples of times when it made sense for me to walk with my fear and not let it stop me, to say “Hello” to it, bring it along with me and let the energy in it help me do what I needed to do. But what about times when I shouldn’t walk with it, when I should pay attention to it and let it stop me? The story is told of Edgar Cayce, the famous psychic, waiting for an elevator. The elevator doors opened, he looked into it and then stepped back without getting in. The elevator then plunged to the ground floor killing everyone in it. Somebody asked him why he hadn’t gotten into the elevator. “Those people had no aura,” he replied. In that case, it was a good thing that Mr. Cayce didn’t walk with his fear.

A final way of distinguishing between fear that you should walk with and fear you should carefully heed is to ask yourself the following two questions:

What is it exactly that I am afraid of?

What is the worst thing that could happen if I walk with this fear?

If you are clear about what is scaring you and if you can live with the worst thing that could happen, it makes sense to walk with the fear.

This excerpt was taken from pages 25-28 of Lighten Up. Dance With Your Dark Side. Click here to buy the book.




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