Thought Catalog

Fear Loves You… Like A Straightjacket

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This morning I went surfing. Sitting on my board, just past where the waves break, I was pretty much all by myself when I saw a tail-fin slice up out of the water. When you see a fin rise from the ocean without warning, you’ll suffer a primal response.

A fin? …Is that a shark?

You feel the Fear. A rush of adrenaline hits your veins. Fight or flight?

But everything was cool because it was a dolphin. It was about 15 feet from me. Just slowly making its way north. The dolphin blew air. Took a breath. And slid back under the surface before the next wave crashed.

If it had been a shark, Fear prepared me. To do what exactly? I have no idea. What would I do? Fistfight a Great White? Nevertheless, Fear had me primed, ready to respond to the threat.

You’ll notice I capitalize Fear because it’s a nameable thing. It’s important you recognize Fear is a true and loyal friend. Fear loves you. Fear only wants what it thinks is best for you. Safety. And it’ll gladly ruin your whole life to keep you safe.

Fear loves you so damn much, like some psychopath ex-lover, it can’t stop itself from becoming your greatest enemy. Under Fear’s influence, you grow afraid of getting hurt. You don’t take risks. You close-off. You tense-up. You’re no damn fun.

Life is one long series of risks. And then you die. For some reason, Fear doesn’t understand that. Fear acts like maybe, if it does its job really well, you just might live forever. Fear may be cunning, but it’s sure not smart.

Like some sleepless, paranoid meth-head with bad ideas, Fear needs constant action, things to obsess about, and sensations to consider. It stalks your dreams and it’s there to greet you when you start your day. You wake up… and Fear asks if you’re worried that you’re late. Fear begins its speed-freak dialog before your feet hit the floor.

Why does anyone listen? …Well, you can’t help it.

Fear is a very important evolutionary survival mechanism. It got us this far. Without Fear, we would’ve never made it out of the ocean, let alone come down from the trees. Of course, we also wouldn’t have done any of that without Confidence. They’re the twin influences that shape your whole life… Confidence and Fear.

Anger, resentment, bitterness, sadness, despondency, neglect, apathy… all of these emotions/reactions share the same source… Fear. In each case you’re afraid of something. You shrink away from the world or fight for your life. Focused on avoiding pain or loss, Fear is quick to feel threatened. And Fear is slow to suggest you move, unless it’s to run.

Kindness, generosity, silliness, joy, cooperation, selflessness… with all of these emotions/responses you notice an expression of Confidence. You move towards the world. You open up. Confidence motivates you to be positive and focus on gain. Because it feels safe, Confidence motivates you to action.

And all day long, Confidence and Fear offer suggestions to your Imagination of how events could play out, or how they did play out. Your Imagination projects these mental movies to help you decide, what to do, how to move forward, and who to trust.

My sister called me the other day. She was scared and angry. She was upset with her fiancé. He and his ex-wife have young children and she was really making things difficult. Using the kids as leverage. My sister explained the situation and why she was mad and hurt. But it sounded like Fear was using my sister’s Imagination against her, twisting events into dramas.

Our primal response to Fear is deeply hardwired. You don’t need to see a shark to trigger your fight-or-flight mechanism. You can just imagine the shark. This is how things like relationships trigger your Fear. Imaginary things can be just as frightening. Sometimes much more so.

For instance, in a relationship you might feel vulnerable, your emotional needs are exposed like raw nerves, and you grow as frightened as you would be swimming through a school of Great Whites. Physiologically speaking, your body doesn’t know the difference. Turns out, emotional pain and physical pain are processed by the same structure in the brain. All pain is the same. Heartbreak hurts as much as a heart attack. Which means you have the same drive to avoid emotional pain as you do to avoid gunshots and third-degree burns.

Frightened by imaginary future outcomes, feeling vulnerable, having no control over events, wanting to fight or run, my sister was in the grip of emotional Fear. So I repeated her words back to her, and added a big brother’s opinion, “If you think- ‘This is bullshit. This isn’t fair! She shouldn’t get that. I should get that!’ That means you’re seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Only children believe the world is fair. Adults know it isn’t fair. So it’s ridiculous for an adult to expect fairness. If you hear yourself say any of those things, just take a pause. And then reconsider what story you’re living.”

Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In eight words she nailed it. That’s exactly it. You spend your life telling yourself what’s happening.

And you discount how much your attitude at any given moment affects not only your perspective but it affects the telling of the story, depending on whether your attitude is Confidence or Fear. Their storytelling styles are totally different genres. It’s the difference between Mark Twain telling your story and Stephen King telling it.

I suggested to my sister, “Perhaps, if you remember you were once a child who went through a divorce and how much that sucked for you, it might help you keep in mind that you want to protect your fiancé’s children from similar pain. Ignore the ex-wife. That way you won’t get stuck thinking of how she affects you. You won’t be competing, and mad that you’re losing to her. You won’t be afraid of getting hurt. Instead you can remember you’re one of many people affected by a shitty situation.”

It’s really sucks how Fear is far more committed to doing its job than Confidence is. No matter how much you may need its help, Confidence sometimes just disappears. It’s hard to tell yourself you’ll be okay when you’re left alone to argue with Fear. It knows you so well. Fear knows exactly what to say to you. But somehow you don’t know what to say to defeat Fear’s relentless whispering.

For those times when it seems like the world is shitting all over your morning cereal, remind yourself, “This too shall pass.” It’s a simple acknowledgment of the mystery of time but it seems to release Fear’s grip on your future. If you have to, keep telling yourself, “Nothing lasts forever.”

When I told her this, she argued that it wouldn’t help her because she constantly felt pissed off. No matter what she did, her mental weather was cloudy with a high chance of profanity.

I suggested to her, “Anger is just Fear acting tough. Fuck fear… it’s all bullshit.”

She laughed and said, “Thanks, Deepak Chopra!”

I’d tossed out one too many bumper-sticker slogans and now I was down to my last one- “Fuck fear… It’s all bullshit” But her laughing was a good sign. She was coming around. I suggested she decide what story she was living in. Either, she could choose the story Fear was whispering to her or the one Confidence was telling her.

I said, “You respect him for the sort of man he is. He’s taking care of his children. He’s looking out for everyone involved. This is the sort of behavior you expect and respect from your partner. This is part of why you love him.”

Then I had to reach down deep and toss in some of her childhood, to help her change her view completely.

I said, “Remember that movie you love, Auntie Mame. Be Auntie Mame. Just be relentlessly determined to enjoy yourself. Be confident you’ll have fun no matter what the occasion or circumstances. What does she say? …Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving.”

“…to death. In the movie, she says- ‘Live! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.’ I can’t believe you’re quoting Auntie Mame.”

She was right. That’s the line. And I could tell my sister was feeling better.

Whether it’s emotional Fear or whether you’re afraid there’s a shark in the water with you, real or imaginary, you’re stuck arguing with irrational Fear. And most of its ideas suck. For instance, a friend once invited me up on a roof. Knowing I’m terrified of snakes, he placed a rubber one on the roof to surprise me. Everyone knows snakes don’t generally hang out on rooftops. But the joke was on my friend when he watched me walk right off the roof, trying to get away from that rubber snake. I realized what I’d done when I was in mid-air. Fear is the king of stupid ideas.

And it has only one goal… keep you safe. But dumbass Fear fucks it up. Kinda like throwing on a straightjacket, because it thinks you’re cold.

Usually, Confidence can overcome Fear. But it often ditches you when you need it most. As if it has somewhere else to be. And then you’re left looking around, and can’t find Confidence if it was tattoo’d on your left-hand. When that happens, your best move is to shove Perspective in its place.

I told my sister, “Soon this will all be in your past. For now, don’t get mad when and if things don’t go your way. There’s not your way, or her way, or his way… there’s just whatever way it plays out. And most importantly, remember… Fuck Fear!”

“Yeah, okay… Fuck fear. I’ll remember that. You’re an idiot by the way. And you should write down what you just told me. It might help someone else. You’re like that guy who was on Oprah all the time. I’m gonna call you Zee-pak Chopra.”

My sister’s the funny one. She doesn’t take life too seriously, so when life sneaks up on her, she’s caught unprepared. But the only way to get back in the water once you know there are sharks out there… you just have to say, “Fuck Fear!” TC mark

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