[First published in Dumblittleman.com, March 2, 2017]
“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” Les Brown
My daughter and I were celebrating her high school graduation with a vacation in my home state, Hawaii. To make it extra special we purchased a zodiac/boat ride on Kauai for offshore snorkeling. The zodiac raft raced us through the azure blue waters with dolphins playfully jumping alongside. We breathed in the delicious air all around us.
Once we joined the main boat we were quickly outfitted with our snorkel gear, no life jacket or float, and jumped in. Not for a moment did I have any hint that I would soon have one of the worst experiences of my life.
We swam in the beautiful waters, floated on the gentle waves, catching glimpses of fish below us.
About thirty feet from the boat, I suddenly stopped stricken by panic. I was sure that I was going to drown.
I had taken compulsory swimming classes and passed in grade school, high school, and college.
While snorkeling, there was no reason to think that I would drown but fear was immediate. With a fragile control of my panic, my numb brain reasoned that I could swim to the boat if I kept control of myself, and I slowly managed one stroke at a time.
Eventually, I made it back to the boat’s safety, and collapsed onboard, sick to my stomach.
What I learned about fear that day
In complete panic, I thought I was going to die. Yes, unreasonable—but that was the thought that totally gripped me.
In those moments, I barely hung on to my mind. My lifelong patterns kicked in. There were others around me and had I yelled “Help,” I would have been rescued. But my tendency to push down emotions, even strong ones, prevailed, and I couldn’t voice my distress.
Moreover, my early adopted strategy of being self-sufficient was so powerful, the thought never occurred to me to ask for help. It was up to me to save myself.
Fear is its primal state reduces us to our survival mode because we believe we are going to die. When fears are the basis for our lives, our choices become limited.
It’s essential to look to see how fear may be running your life, hidden from your awareness.
What happens when fear is a stranger
I am not a fearful person. Yet when fear arises, it is extreme and appears as panic. It’s like someone who represses anger, and suddenly, rage explodes out of nowhere.
My second time of panic came when I was biking recently. We never learned to ride bikes when we were kids, consequently my sisters and I are basically “dangerous” to self and others when we attempt to ride. But I decided that I was going to become comfortable biking.
At the end of my ride, I approached the sidewalk and garage too quickly. When I realized that I wasn’t going to turn in time, I panicked, lost grip of the handlebars, hit the garage and fell to the ground.
Again, extreme fear disabled my mind and my control. But I learned more.
Fears reveal our vulnerability
Had I shouted out for help when I believed I was drowning, I would have exposed my helplessness and raw panic to anyone near me. I was “programmed” to hide such vulnerability–even at the possible cost of my life.
Like many of you, I can hide my vulnerability very well, even from myself.
After all, we are socialized to behave as if raw feelings don’t exist.
What are these fears–of success, of failure, and of change?
Fear of success or the fear of failure is common in conversations and teachings about success.
Many people also seem to fear change.
For example, despite reporting that they see the patterns in their lives—how they end up fighting about the same things at every family gathering; in working in jobs that they hate; in staying in marriages that are making two people miserable–people endure rather than change.
How about you? When you decide to make a change, you face an unknown future. The unfamiliar can be uncomfortable.
When you see yourself refusing to make changes to end your suffering, you may conclude that you fear change.
These fears may not seem like the same fear I felt when I was headed for the garage door or desperately getting to the boat.
Yet they are the hidden and powerful fears that run your life.
What our fears tell us
When you think of your fears, doesn’t it come down to this? You fear for your safety, a basic survival issue. You believe, I am not safe.
Unfortunately, you may not discover this because you focus on fleeing from this disturbing uncomfortable feeling.
You rarely learn that a personal survival sense of safety is involved when you consider any change.
What you do to keep yourself safe
When you’ve done the conventional things to maksut safety and survival. Since a primary need is at the center of these patterns and strategies, your personality hangs on to them tenaciously.
Your history has given you reasons to feel unsafe
Many of you know your own history of abuse, abandonment, family drama, illness, accidents, betrayal, and losses, that provide reasons for feeling unsafe.
Basic trust is broken when young and wounded, you are alone and need to feel safe. If you can imagine a young version of yourself being hurt, feeling lost and desperate, you will sense the instinct to survive rising in response to the fear of dying.
That powerful fear is the driver of all you do to survive and make yourself feel safe.
It’s to be honored and appreciated for what it is.
It is the spirit that kept me going, swimming to the boat; the spirit behind my decision as a senior to learn to ride a bike. Crashing and falling to the ground taught me I wasn’t going to die. It was so freeing, I laughed as I picked myself off the ground.
How can you deal effectively with fear?
You can lose any one of the basic things in life that you gather to make you feel secure: you can lose family, friends, partners, money, reputation, or your health any time.
It’s foolish to rely on external sources for the deep sense of safety you need.
Yet how do we build an internal sense of safety?
Go to the source for the truth, where the fear originated
The source of the truth is the young heart that first experienced the fear. There was no logic or language then, just the instinctive response to hold that fear secret, deep in the heart.
When you can go to this source of your need to feel safe, you can transform the fear.
Your intention takes you there. You don’t need any language. You are there to provide a corrective experience—to make a compassionate connection with the part of you that felt lost, alone, abandoned, and afraid.
This young-you didn’t get the kind of attention and presence needed when traumatized.
It is not too late to provide that connection to restore trust and a sense of safety. You the adult knows with certainty that all that is feared, and most of all, the fear that you going to die, is not true.
Other ways to have a sense of safety
When I see beauty in Nature—flowers, birds, waterfalls, mountains, canyons, meadows—and get lost in being absorbed by Nature, I forget the fearful me, and I feel safe.
When I appreciate the gifts and full presence of an artist or musician or performer, I forget the small me—safety is not an issue.
When I am grateful for what I take for granted—the sun that nourishes all life on earth, and the Earth for the oxygen and plants that support our lives, I know that I will always have this support and caring.
When I know the space and peace of meditation, I experience myself as something other, that has no judgment about death.
The more I connect with Oneness in others and in Nature, there is a sustaining sense of safety.
When we live through a fear, what happens?
Malcolm Gladwell writes about how the German plan to demoralize Londoners failed despite all the continuous bombing Germany carried out during World War II. Instead, the bombings had the opposite effect.
When Londoners survived the bombing—living through their worst fears and still being alive, they were invigorated and unstoppable.
Having a fear and moving forward anyway, and learning that the fears were worse than any imagined outcome, is liberating.
Know the power of fear and freedom from fear
Choose to ride a bike when you are afraid, panic and fall, to learn that you don’t die.
Choose to make changes because avoiding changes makes life stale or distressing.
Choose to move ahead and risk making mistakes.
Be willing to let go of the familiar, to choose what is different, new, and unknown.
Choose to move through fear to learn what lies beyond.
Then you will know freedom, aliveness, and your best dreams realized.