To try to identify if I had a “fear of heights”, I jumped out of a plane. As it turns out, the sense of anxiety I felt in the plane just before I skydived out of it from a staggering height of 10,000 feet, was not a fear of heights but a fear of dying. The wonderful man I jumped with said to me “If you close your eyes at any time, I’m going to tap you hard on the head until you open them again”. He was right – as we were about to jump out of the plane, it felt like I was being pushed and pulled at the same time, and as soon as I jumped, anxiety exploded in a starburst right through fear into a serene version of ecstasy, awe and wonder. If I had felt no fear at any point, there would have been less of a challenge and thus less of a victory and perhaps no revelation at all. No thanks!
I remember the brand “No Fear” and their logo of those 2 eyes. Perhaps people thought it was strong, brave, manly, hardcore blah blah etc. I vividly remember getting a “No Fear” sticker in one of the many Zig Zag surfing magazines I bought when I was young and the only place I could bring myself to stick it was the bin. I personally boycotted the brand and still do, because I think it is destructive for a brand to advocate having no fear. That is as unnatural as it is boring.
Fear is a natural response to perceived threat. Therein lies the crux – perceived threat. We are only as safe as we feel. For example, we as humans may be afraid of a rustle of leaves outside our window that may just be a hedgehog but we conjure up images of a malevolent intruder, whether or not that has happened to us before. We have probably seen a hedgehog outside our window many times (I had, in New Zealand), but on hearing that distinctive rustle when the lights were out, that was not what my brain thought first. My brain told me a story, a vivid, heart-pulpitating, fictitious nightmare, and I believed it. How is it that we believe a story our brain tells us over a reality that we have seen before and is thus far more likely? How is it that rather than immediately check if we are right/wrong and continue with our lives, we allow ourselves to be impacted negatively by a self-created myth? Why is it, in the heat of the moment, sometimes easier to believe something more extreme and negative than to accept something more peaceful and realistic? And how are some people more responsive than others? The famed “fight or flight” overrides our rational mind and suddenly we’re a throbbing mass of adrenaline with dilated pupils and no hope of sleep. All because we believed the lies conjured in our minds. What a waste of blessed sleep! But this happens all too often, in different contexts.
I watched 2 clips recently on fear. The first described how fear is a storyteller and the product of a phenomenal imagination, proposing that it is up to us to choose which stories we believe. The second suggested that a free life was one without fear. This raised the same hairs on my neck that lead me to trash the “No Fear” surfing sticker. I don’t believe in that, nor do I believe it is good to advocate it in any forum.
Fear is natural. If we are about to fall off a cliff, fear is the trigger that warns us of danger and threat. We do not want that to be switched off – it is part of survival instinct. If we didn’t need fear, it wouldn’t be there. If there is no fear, I do not see how someone can stretch their courage and grow into fuller being. If there is no fear, we can land up doing silly things or land up doing average things in silly ways that can hurt us. If we feel the fear and do it anyway, not that is real courage. When I was a teenager, I thought about fear a lot. And in a vivid moment, I saw myself literally facing a fear in a room. I saw that I had crouched down in the corner, and that fear was standing across from me. My body felt constricted and uncomfortable, and I realised that fear looked so much bigger while I was crouched down and looking up at it.
Realising that this was both false and ridiculous, I stood up in my mind, and I found that my fear and I were eyeballing each other, and I realised that I existed before and would exist despite of and beyond that fear, and I felt serene and strong, knowing that I had made a personal breakthrough. While there are genuine phobias that negatively impact lives, where rational thought does not help at all, on a more day-to-day scale, I believe that we give in to our fears too often. This prevents us from growing, from taking risks, and from succeeding. We need to stand up to the fears generated in our own minds and see that we are bigger than our fears.
In relation to fear, I think it is important for us to:
1. Note when we feel afraid
2. To accept that we do and admit it to ourselves
3. To identify whether or not there is an actual threat. We need to question our fears, to get to know them. Be curious about them. Generate new neural pathways that go “hello, fear, what do you have to teach me today?”. I am not being naive in saying this – to develop the internal space and distance to do this requires emotional intelligence and great awareness – certainly worth aspiring and working towards. Often when we get to know something, it becomes normalised and may not actually be scary.
4. To identify the true source of our fear. For example, if I am standing on a cliff about to fall off, is it really heights I fear? No. It is perhaps the thought of never seeing loved ones again or fear of death. For many, fears surrounding the body and other tangible concerns are easier to identify and admit. It is far more difficult to admit when we have fears relating to deep-seated emotional issues such as fear of being lonely, fear of disapproval, fear of loss of control. These may manifest in other ways, by means of other fears.
5. To act appropriately according to the context. If we are afraid of something and it is getting in the way of us living, if it isn’t going to be negative and destructive to us or others, we need to proactively grow through it. We cannot just sit back and watch the show of our life go past.
I challenge myself and us all to be courageous. And I think the most courage is required to be honest all of the time in all situations. WHY are people so afraid to tell the truth? I know that there are countless reasons and contexts, permutations and variables that could form just part of the answer to that question, but we need not complicate the matter. It is simple: We cannot avoid fear in life. Someone who had absolutely no fear may have a chemical imbalance of sorts or a brain dysfunction. I do not want to avoid fear. I do not like feeling afraid but I am fascinated by what feeling fear can do to me, and how I choose to respond. Being able to feel the fear and do it anyway – now THAT is sexy.
Fear alerts us to areas to work on; fear raises a red flag of sorts. Asking WHY we are afraid of things is a good start. No one ever promised it would be easy.
I think fear has a bad rap. I choose to acknowledge the creativity of my imagination and the stories it weaves, and I embrace the challenge of curbing that enthusiasm where necessary. Unwiring a pattern of innate reactivity to develop a new natural inclination of curiosity when the sense of fear rises is a worthwhile step on the path to self-mastery. Without fear, this growth would not be possible. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like feeling afraid, but I reckon there is much to be gained from exploring it and re-wiring our ideas about and responses to fear.
There is far more courage displayed in feeling fear and going forward despite it than there is in not feeling any fear at all. Rather than fearing fear and making it an outcast, we need to befriend fear. We have so much to gain.