Witnessing Your Own Fears


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by Jayaram V

To know yourself better, you need to know your dominant thoughts, desires and emotions. Even they do not reveal much about you unless you overcome your internal barriers to self-awareness. We have already touched this aspect in a previous article when we discussed the mental filters we use in making sense of the world.

One of the truths about our emotions is that except for a few primary ones, such as fear or anger, we cannot distinguish most of them, because in most situations we experience mixed emotions of different intensities rather than one pure emotion. Thus, one may experience fear and sadness at the same time, or anger and fear, or fear and guilt, and so on.

Studies show that emotions disrupt our thinking and temporarily block our active memory whereby we can neither think nor act rationally until the blockage is cleared. Our knowledge and perception of situations also influence our emotions strongly. For example, in the middle of a group or in a familiar place you may not experience fear as much as when you are alone or in an unknown place. You may also experience more fear or insecurity, when you already know that the place or the situation in which you are is unsafe.

The mental dimension of fear

Criticism, What Will You Do With itEmotions play an important role in our survival. Indeed, despite our rationality, we cannot resolve our problems or identify threats without feeling emotions. Emotions teach us a lot about our environment and impart meaning to the situations we face. Hence, emotional intelligence is considered an important aspect of human intelligence, which helps us to respond and adapt to situations. Of the emotions, fear is the most frequent one we experience. The following are a few well-known facts about human fear.

  • Fear is a universal and natural response: Fear is part of the self-preservation instinct, which is common to both humans and animals. Everyone experiences fear.
  • Fear is a conditioned or learned response: We are conditioned to respond to certain situations with fear. Examples are, fear of authority, fear of law, fear of conventions and customs, fear of disapproval and criticism, fear of the unknown, etc.
  • Fear is caused by various factors: Both internal and external factors are responsible for our fears. For example, fear may be caused by our thoughts, irrational beliefs, or by situations that are unknown, unfamiliar, or extreme.
  • Fear has many forms: Fear arises in us variously from mild to intense levels as anxiety, distrust, worry, phobia, etc. Since, fear is situational and experienced at various levels physically, mentally, and emotionally, some even say that there are as many fears as there are situations.
  • We can change our response to fear: While it is difficult to suppress fears, it is possible to change our conditioning, thinking and our response to fear.
  • Fear has a subconscious presence: Fear dominates our minds most of the time. Even when we are asleep we are not free from it, as we experience mild to extreme fear in our dreams also. Fear is also responsible for many defensive mechanisms we use in our daily lives to protect ourselves rather unconsciously from threatening, painful, and stressful situations.
  • Our bodies can affect our fears: Studies show that our fears can affect our bodies and our bodies in turn can affect our fears.
  • Some fears are persistent: However you may try, certain fears cannot be simply overcome with simple measures.

Fear is also the most dominant emotion we experience, followed by greed, anger and envy. It is also the dominant emotion in the animals. Fear is responsible for our flight response and anger for our fight response. Using both the responses according to situations and perceptions, we prepare our minds and bodies to reach our goals and fulfill our desires. One may argue that fear is not an emotion or a feeling but an impulse or an instinct because it is closely aligned to our survival instinct. There is even an argument that most of the emotions we experience, such as guilt, worry, or anxiety are different forms of fear only because they mostly arise in association with fear or in response to fear, while many positive emotions such as happiness, joy or elation appear in its absence.

Beneath the surface of our lives, consciousness, activities, achievements, hopes, and desires, fear resides like a coiled serpent and rears its head whenever we are weak and vulnerable. Fear makes us aware of the threats present in our environment, but at the same time reminds us of the need to act courageously when it is necessary. On the negative side, fear is destructive and self-effacing. It can prevent us from being who we are, and from using our talents, resources, and skills or pursue our goals. Whether we are happy, unhappy, angry or envious, fear is always present somewhere deeply in our consciousness, regardless of what is happening in our lives.

Positively speaking, fear keeps us within our limits and comfort zones and prevents us from taking undue risks and harming ourselves or our interests. Fear influences our risk taking habits, and extreme lifestyle choices that may harm our minds and bodies. Fear also plays an important role in keeping the world and society in order, and a majority of people bound to certain norms of behavior. While fear is healthy and essential in some situations, excessive and abnormal fears interfere with our thinking and ability to deal rationally with the problems we face. Fear influences the following four important functions of your mind.

  • Perception: Your fears filter what you perceive, and how you perceive.
  • Cognition: Your fears determine how you perceive and understand situations and threats.
  • Expectation: Your fears shape your expectations about yourself, others and your relationships.
  • Performance: Your fears affect your motivation, goal setting, commitment to goals, and motivation to achieve them.

Fear is both physical and mental. It is felt at various levels physically, perceptually, cognitively, and memorially. It is experienced by both humans and animals. Irrespective of their nature, it can be induced artificially in people through conditioning and repeated exposure to stressful situations. There are three stages in the experience of fear. They are, perception, reaction, and expression. The reaction is both physical and mental, and so also the expression.

The spiritual dimension of fear

Long time ago, the Buddha declared that desire was the root cause of human suffering. Many eastern traditions, including classical yoga, recognize desire and attachments as the main cause of our emotions. As we become involved with the material world, fulfilling our needs and desires, accumulating things and acting selfishly, we experience various types of fear, such as fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of criticism, fear of the unknown, fear of future, and so on. As a result, we spend a lot of time trying to deal with our fears, manage them, suppress them or forget them. From a spiritual perspective our fears are caused by the following factors, impermanence, judgment, expectations, attraction and aversion, irrational beliefs, and conflicts with our morals and values. Let us examine them one by one.

Impermanence: We live in a transient world, where we can hardly take anything for granted. We grow up seeing people, the world, situations and ourselves changing constantly. As we deal with the uncertainty arising from change, we suffer from fear, insecurity, worry and anxiety.

Judgment: Many times people avoid taking action or initiative because they are afraid of the criticism, ridicule or disapproval they may face from others. They also experience fear, self-doubt, negativity and anxiety because of their own negative self-talk and self-criticism. Therefore, they prefer to avoid situations rather than engage in them. Avoidance, withdrawal, submission, shame, guilt, worries, distrust are our typical responses to fear, which are caused by the judgments we pass against ourselves.

Expectations: You may experience fear when you expect negative outcomes from your actions; when you have over expectations about the actions, talents and skills of the people with whom you compete; when you expect to achieve goals that are either unrealistic or exaggerated; and when you have negative expectations from the people you deal with.

Attraction and aversion: We are afraid of coming into contact with the things that produce pain and discomfort, and of losing things that make us happy. Fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of adversity, fear of diseases, fear of separation from the near and dear, fear of the unknown and the unfamiliar, and fear of aging, are some examples of attraction and aversion which we experience.

Irrational beliefs: Several years ago I had a fear of elevators. I would worry that I would be accidentally crushed between the doors while entering the elevators or going out. I am not sure what was responsible for that. My dog is afraid of vacuum cleaners. When he hears its sound in the house, he runs away and watches it from a distance with suspicion. I tried to make him realize that it was not an animal, but he could not be convinced. By nature he is friendly and playful and likes human company. Many people experience such irrational fears, like fear of ghosts, spirits, psychic attacks, animals, heights, strangers, crowded places, etc. Some suffer from persecution complex, or the nagging belief that they are being criticized by everyone. Some become delusional and begin to worry that they are being constantly watched and monitored by an agency or by a real or imaginary person who intends to harm them.

Conflicts with our values: People experience fear when they are in conflict with their values and believe that their actions might bring them spiritual or physical harm. Fear of sin, negative karma, immorality, destructive habits and evil actions arise when we are in conflict with our highest values and ideals and the religious beliefs we practice and uphold. They create in us feelings of remorse and guilt.

Understanding and controlling fear

Identifying your specific fears is the first important step in controlling them, and limiting the damage they do to your wellbeing. Since fear is the most dominant emotion of your life, you can learn a lot by paying attention to it and knowing how it influences your thinking and actions. Following are some useful suggestions to understand and deal with your dominant fears.

  • Embrace your fears: Fear is a natural, human response. There is nothing shameful or guilty about it. Everyone fears. Society may worship courageous people, but courage actually means the ability to act in the face of fear.
  • Understand and identify your fears: Your fear arises variously. Each time you experience it, pay attention to the feelings and sensations it creates, and see whether you can identify its causes and label it clearly under a specific category.
  • Listen to your fears: You can learn a lot about yourself from your fears, by knowing why you fear and what thought processes create them, aggravate them, or sustain them.
  • Resolve your fears: If your fear is genuine or caused by really threatening situations, you must resolve them by taking appropriate action.
  • Analyze your fears: Examine the irrational beliefs and habitual thought patterns that aggravate your fears and perpetuate them.
  • Change your thinking and responses: Since fears are conditioned responses, you can change your thinking and attitude, by changing your beliefs and expectations, and your habitual responses to fearful or threatening situations.
  • Practice visualization: Recreate in your mind situations that produce fear in you, and visualize different responses and approaches to deal with them.
  • Use positive affirmations: You can use positive affirmations to ground yourself in reality and deal with your negativity, irrational beliefs and tendency to exaggerate your fears and their outcomes.

Many people prefer to ignore their fears or bury them deep in their minds to avoid the disturbing feelings associated with them. Let us admit, fear serves a useful purpose in our lives and we cannot impose upon it our own value system. We should break free from the traditional mindset that regards all fears as unwanted or shameful or a sign of cowardice. F

ear is a natural human response. They serve the same purpose as messengers and spies who keep a tab on the enemies and report about their activities. You should not silence them. Our fears will not just go away if we ignore them or avoid them. Since we are vulnerable to many threats, we are bound to experience them. Let us not delude ourselves with false notions of courage and suppress our fears. We should deal with them only if they are seriously interfering with our normal lives.

 If our fears are valid and have a rational basis, we should respond to them realistically and rationally and resolve them as part of our self-preservation and survival. However, we should be concerned about those fears, which arise from irrational beliefs, delusional thinking, or hyper active reactions, and produce self-limiting thoughts, negative expectations, and low self-esteem.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Source: Reproduced with permission from the book Think Success by Jayaram V. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher or the author. Want to purchase the book? Please read below.

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