When I opened my email this morning, I came across an inspirational message from Karen Salmonsohn that really struck a chord, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. The message was “Don’t fear change. Change fear.” By now, all of you are well aware of how fear controlled my life for 35 years. No matter how much I've read about fear, or how much I've talked about it in therapy and 12-step meetings, I was never able to extricate its tentacles from smothering me and relegating me to a smaller life.
In AA, we have an acronym for “FEAR” as “False Evidence Appearing Real”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that over the years, but it’s only recently beginning to make sense. What’s been most helpful to me of late, is the Buddhist practice of not judging something or someone, but merely accepting it for what it is. In doing this, I can approach fear not as an obstacle but as a teacher. The Dalai Lama expresses this beautifully: “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” One of the most moving examples of this belief put into practice is evident in my support group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is incredibly powerful to hear a survivor say that (s)he is no longer afraid of, or angry with the perpetrator of the abuse. Whereas fear is stagnation, empathy is the gateway to understanding why someone behaves in such a way, and this is the clearest path to dialogue and acceptance.
Rationality is no match for fear’s insidious grip on our emotions and freedom, and we see this play out daily when we hear of potential job losses, when we stand by the window wondering why our child isn’t home yet, when we get the news of a troubling diagnosis, or even when that little voice inside whispers that we’re not good enough.” There is no doubt that all these all too common scenarios affect us deeply, but is this fear? And, if it is fear, what is the lesson it can teach us? To understand what’s really going on here, we first need to make a distinction between the meaning of fear and anxiety. The best way to illustrate this is through a simple example. Imagine you’re in your car barreling down the highway when suddenly you hit a patch of black ice and your car skids out of control. As you’re spinning erratically, and your car is careening towards oncoming traffic, your heart rate accelerates and all your senses are heightened. Fortunately, your car skids safely to the shoulder of the highway and you emerge unscathed. Now the next time you drive by that stretch of road, your heart starts racing and your palms feel clammy, and you might even start to hyperventilate. Are these two situations the same, and this “fear” present in both? In the first scenario, faced with immediate danger, your body has initiated the fear response in an attempt to save your life. In the second scenario, there is no immediacy to the danger, simply an anxiety response to what had happened. I believe we can learn a lot about how we internalize anxiety by examining this significant distinction between fear and anxiety.
When there is real, imminent danger, fear is a rational response that can “teach” us something and potentially save our lives. Fear’s ugly cousin is anxiety, and no matter how we might “dress it up”, it is still an irrational response in which I often react to by burying, avoiding, or succumbing to its odious effect on my life.
I can use this new understanding to shine a spotlight on every facet of my life. My wife and I recently celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never realized this subtle distinction in my approach to our marriage. At its core, love is fraught with anxiety, insecurity, and ultimately, uncertainty. I’m starting to realize how I can be such a better partner, and husband by embracing my love for my wife through authenticity and vulnerability. Instead of being mired by insecurity with thoughts of “what if she finds out she doesn’t really love the real me”, “what if one of us gets seriously ill”, “what if she doesn’t find me exciting anymore”… it would be so much better, healthier, and let’s admit it, easier, if I silence that evil voice of anxiety whispering in my ear, and focus on what’s really in front of me. It’s as simple as reframing the question from “what if someone leaves” to “what made her/him come into my life in the first place.”