How to Own Your Fear
"I think we are frightened every moment of our lives until we know him." — Hafiz
One of the most dangerous things about fear is that it loves to masquerade as others things. It does this so seamlessly that we convince ourselves we’re not afraid at all. We go out into the world and make all sorts of choices and do all sorts of things, firm in our belief that we are acting out of reason, or out of wisdom, or out of keen discernment, when in fact we are secretly being driven by fear hidden deep within us, and the actions we take that we think are good, and perhaps even courageous, are actually not good at all. In fact, they can end up being quite destructive, in part because of the actions themselves, but also because of the fear that secretly fuels them, and the way that fear infects others and spreads the spirit of fear into our families, our communities, our nations, and across the world.
All of this happens, ironically, because of our fearful relationship with fear. We don't like to feel afraid. Fear makes us feel powerless, vulnerable, and exposed. So rather than feel our fear as fear, we choose to mask our fear as anger, or as suspicion, on as insight or wisdom, or even as courage. Whenever our fear wears these clever masks, we no longer have to recognize our fear as fear, or even admit to ourselves that there's any fear in us at all. That way we can feel justified in whatever actions we take, however radical or extreme they might look from the outside, because (we tell ourselves) it’s not fear that's controlling us. It's wisdom. It’s courage. It’s cleverness.
But it’s not. It’s fear.
Our self-imposed ignorance of the fear within us makes us twice as dangerous as the thing we are secretly afraid of. Why? Because when we refuse to acknowledge the fear in ourselves, we project it “out there” onto other people. Then we judge them for being afraid, and will sometimes do very harmful things to try to control them or stop their fear from impacting our lives. But when we pass judgment on them, we pass judgment on ourselves, for we carry in ourselves the same fear we deem unacceptable in them. This principle is in part what Jesus was speaking to when he said,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” — Matthew 7:1
This is how our fear can become so destructive—not because fear in itself is dangerous, but because our refusal to feel it is. When we don’t own the fear in ourselves, we scapegoat it out onto the people around us, then try to forcibly control it in them.
The way out of this destructive trap is as simple as it is difficult:
You have to feel your fear.
Whatever darkness you refuse to acknowledge inside you will control you from the shadows. To dethrone the fear that drives your thinking, you have to bring it into the light. You have to recognize what you’re feeling as fear. You have to name, as best you can, what exactly you are afraid of. Most important of all, you have to fully accept your fear without any judgment or condemnation. You must extend kindness and compassion toward yourself, toward the simple truth that you are afraid. Why? Because until you accept your fear, you cannot change it. The first step to letting go of your fear is to accept without judgment that you are afraid.
How do you do this? How do you unmask the fear within you, so that you can accept it and work with it from a place of compassion? Follow these 3 steps:
1. Begin by noticing where your energy is going. What has your attention? What are you thinking about a lot? What do you find yourself ruminating about when your mind wanders off the task at hand?
2. Once you identify what has your attention, then ask yourself a few questions about it:
What are you concerned might happen, or will happen, or is happening, with this thing you are thinking about?
What is at risk for you personally if the thing that you are concerned about happening, actually does?
What do you fear you might lose?
What do you fear will become of you if you lose it?
3. Once you identify the real fear you are feeling, you need to consciously welcome it as a part of your current experience. It might be helpful to simply name your fear as precisely as you can. For example, you might craft a simple statement like this:
“I am afraid that if X happens out there in the world, then Y will happen to me,” or
“I am scared that if X happens, I will lose Y,” or
“Because X is happening, I fear I will become Y.”
Once you bring your fear into the light, and name it for what it is, and fully accept it, then you are free to decide what you will do with it. For example, do you want this fear to be running your thoughts, or driving your behavior? If not, then what is the deeper truth, or the grounding belief, that you want to guide your thoughts and behaviors instead?
These same principles apply at the level of society as well. We cannot be at choice as a society about our fear-driven until we recognize them as fear-driven, and compassionately accept that we are all feeling afraid. But we cannot help society recognize its fear and stop being driven by it until we first deal with the fear that is secretly driving us.
Then, as you become free to feel your own fear without trying to deny it or mask it as something else, you free other people to do the same. And as you choose to not allow your fear to drive your thoughts and behavior from the shadows, you show others how to do this as well.
This is what many wisdom traditions call grace. This grace is what we all need most right now. We need to be gracious with one another. But we cannot do that until we first extend grace to ourselves and to our own fear. In essence, we need to choose to show love to our fear. By choosing to love our own fear, we choose love over fear. And this is a very powerful and transformative force in the world, because, as we know, “there is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” — 1 John 4:18.
As a next step, what if you took some time this week to inventory your fears from a place of love and acceptance?