We had some pretty intense discussion happening in the comments section of last week’s talking truth to fear post.
And not intense in a bad way. The opposite, in fact. Really good points being brought up, people showing up and respectfully debating ideas and, in some cases, respectfully disagreeing. I’m loving it.
These intelligent, compassionate conversations have been continuing in email exchanges and on other people’s blogs, and it was really cool to see how my thoughts inspired a ton of other blog posts which work with these concepts and take them in different directions.
One of the weirder things that’s coming up, though, is that several people have been writing in to thank me for getting them to face their fears.
And yeah, it’s completely awesome that they’re having breakthroughs (yay, breakthroughs!) and of course it’s always sweet when someone gives me credit for sparking or facilitating that kind of fabulous moment of bing!
It’s just that I’m feeling a little bit worried that maybe my actual point was lost.
Or partially lost.
Because I’m not trying to get you to face your fears. I don’t even think you have to face your fears. In fact, I think that — quite often, at least — facing your fears is totally the wrong approach.
Of course it might be that we’re actually all saying the same thing, and it’s just a semantic misunderstanding.
Because words can be pretty loaded with subtle, often hidden connotations. And I totally get that what one person means with a certain word can be very, very different than what another person means. So I’m going to do my best to be very clear about what I mean by “face your fear”, and then we can see if we’re all on the same page or not. And who knows, maybe we are.
The problem with “Oh, you should face your fears.”
Actually I have two problems with the “you should face your fears” sentence. Both from the linguistic standpoint and the more theoretical change-yer-habits standpoint.
The first thing not working for me with this sentence is the “should”.
There are no shoulds in habits work. You don’t have to face your fears.
Sure, you can if you want to. If it’s empowering for you and it works. But you don’t have to. There are plenty of ways to resolve fear and even to heal it that don’t involve direct confrontation or meeting it face to face.
Face being the second issue I have with fear-facing. More about that.
“Facing” fear is scary. And not fun. And often not even necessary.
To “face” your fear is, in fact, a thing which causes fear. Which it should. Because it can imply direct confrontation. Face down. Face off. Face up to. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
Sometimes confrontation involves violence. Or at least potential violence. Standing up to a bully. Readying yourself for a classic old-timey Western movie showdown. Pistols at dawn. Stuff like that.
And sometimes a confrontation is more about the emotional discomfort. Like holding an intervention to get someone to realize he has a drug problem.
Either way, this kind of uncomfortable facing stuff isn’t something most of us would actually want to do with our fears. Which is good, because you don’t have to.
So I vote we reframe this whole “facing” thing so that it can start working for us instead of tripping us up. And yeah, if it’s not tripping you up and you’re having fun chasing dragons, go for it. As long as you’re feeling good about it.
What we want to do with fear is meet it.
Meeting, facing, whatever. It’s all the same going right into the horrible, right? Actually, no — it’s not. This might seem like a small distinction, but it is in fact huge. This part is important.
Meeting fear is not like facing down a dragon outside of its lair.
It’s not like holding an intervention.
It’s like noticing that there’s a trapped and terrified kitten in your closet.
When you face fear, you have weapons. You’re prepared to fight. Someone’s going to go down and it might be you.
When you meet fear, everything is different.
When you meet fear, you just acknowledge that it’s there. You say, “Hey, there you are! I know you!” You remember that it’s natural and normal for you to be scared, and you agree to let that fear stay there just a little longer until it gets its bearings.
You remember that you are not your fear, but something larger than your fear. Something larger than any thought or feeling or idea. That you, in fact, have created this fear for a reason that must have made sense at some point, and then you try to figure out what that reason is.
You talk to the fear. You talk it down calmly and quietly, with sweetness and logic and as much compassion as you can stand.
And eventually the scared kitten calms down enough to find its way out of whatever tangled pile it got into, and then it curls up in a little ball and dozes off.
How not to deal with fear:
This is one way the “facing fear” scenario can go, if you’re not careful.
Fear: Arrrrrrgh! Crap! Everything is going horribly wrong! You screwed it all up! You’ll never be good enough and you’ll end up living in a box on the street and everyone will say I -told-you-so and they’ll be right! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!
You: Shut up shut up shut up. I’m the boss around here, so you’d better start listening to me right now. You have no right to be scared. Everything is going to be fine because I said so.
Fear: Oh, yeah? You’re a moron. I’m not listening to you. Remember that one time that you messed up everything? Remember how horrible that was? Remember how you couldn’t even do that one basic easy thing that everyone else could? Aaaaaaaaaaaagh!
You: I’m hit! Man down!
Here’s another way that works somewhat better:
This is how I try to do things. Not that I always remember to do it (in the heat of the moment, and so on), but at least I’m in the process. And more often than not, we manage to talk things through.
Havi’s fear: Arrrrrrgh! Crap! Everything is going horribly wrong! You screwed it all up!
Havi: Wow, you sound really upset and worried. I’m noticing that I’m really frightened right now when I think about the stuff you’re saying. It’s hard for me to concentrate when I’m so scared.
Okay, fear, I just want you to know that I know you’re there. I see you and I hear you and I feel you. And even though I hate it when you show up, and part of me wishes I could just kick you to the curb, I know that this is temporary and that you’re here for a reason.
So I’m just going to let you be here — just for now — and I’m not going to be impressed by all the stuff you say about me. I’m just going to try and have a conversation and figure out what useful information I need to get from you.
Havi’s fear: God, you are such a stupid freaking hippie loser. Don’t even bother trying that stupid I-feel sentence crap on me. You know, you were way more fun when you were a drunk. Right now you suck.
Havi: You’re probably right. I was more fun. Listen, I get that you’re upset with me. I’m also sensing that you’re worried about me.
It seems like there are two things going on. One, you’re worried about me because you think I’m not going to be safe and taken care of, and two, you’re worried because you think I’m going to lose our sense of humor and become a boring grown-up.
Is that true? Because if it is, it’s kind of sweet. Would it help if I promised you that I’m going to do everything in my power to stay fun and keep enjoying things?
Because it’s kind of easier for me to be in fun mode when I’m not scared of all the impending disasters you keep telling me about.
Fear: Oh. Well, I just want you to be safe from harm and not to be a boring loser that I’ll be ashamed of.
Havi: Oh. Okay, I can live with that. How about I promise not to be a boring loser and you do your best to express your concern in ways that don’t hurt so much?
Fear: Whatever. That works. I’m going to come out of this closet and take a nap now. Please rub my belly.
Summing this up:
Your fear is not intentionally out to get you.
It’s just scared that things are going to go horribly wrong and that no one will be there to take care of you.
And it doesn’t know how to say that in a helpful way, because no one ever taught it how.
When you face it — in a confrontational way — you put it on the defensive, and it’s going to become louder and more forceful. When you use violence, it will fight back. When you apply guilt and manipulation it will fire that evil stuff right back at you.
When you meet it — in a conversational way — (I know, it’s crazy) you learn stuff!
You’re not kicking yourself out of the comfort zone, you’re interacting with discomfort from a safe place.
I’m not saying you have to be all mushy and goo-ey and lovey-dovey. You don’t have to love your fear or be happy that it’s showing up. You don’t have to think the whole world is made of pink ribbons and dancing bunnies or whatever.
You certainly don’t want to be fake or dishonest. What you do want is to be working on consciously and intentionally meeting the fear and noticing that it’s hurting. Reminding it that it’s hurting you.
Belly rubs for everyone!