What happens when something scares you? I don’t mean when you get surprised or shocked by something, I mean when something touches a deep part of your being and triggers that feeling of being threatened. Neurophysiology can show us what our brain does and psychology has provided some simple ways of understanding that reaction: flight or fight. But, we know that we don’t literally put up our hands to fight or run away every time we get scared, so how do we understand the core of our reactions and what do we do with that if we need to change?
Fear is powerful and unfortunately, for most of us it has a much greater influence in our lives than we might hope. Few of us have experienced the kind of fear that would determine if we would literally stay to fight or take to our heels and flee. What we all do however is react and it is the things that trigger reactions that are usually rooted in some kind of fear. Fear itself is often rooted in things that we lost or things that we never got that we needed, the experiences, the people, the intangible feelings that touch something in us and cause pain.
Reacting to fear based triggers obviously has drawbacks; the fact is that our lives are not typically under threat and responding based on feelings of threat takes us out of the reality of the situation we are in. When we get triggered based on old fear and pain we react in a way that is not appropriate for dealing with the current problem. We “bring our baggage” to the situation as they say. Ever have a boss who seems erratic and unpredictably explodes? Ever say to yourself, what is that all about? Have you ever behaved like that and then later felt crazy for snapping at that small thing: what was really going on?
We may say, “I was tired” or blame it on hormones and superficially that might be accurate, but really those are just factors that contribute to us not paying attention to what we are really feeling. Often, when you dig down into the issue fear is what was going on and it keeps us locked in patterns that repeat the original hurt that never healed. Fear keeps us from being our best selves, our true selves, and engaging honestly with the life we are living right now. Understanding fear lets you decide whether or not that feeling makes sense for your life today, and it lets you determine proactively if certain things are worth taking a risk or if you are more comfortable making another choice. The point is that you make a choice, stop reacting, and let go of the things that are getting in your way, even if those things are you!
This is a much easier concept to understand than to put in practice – like almost everything! But you can let go of fear that doesn’t protect you anymore, you can make room for opportunity by cleaning out those old stories that hold you back. Doesn’t it feel great when you spend the weekend cleaning out the garage of all that old stuff you don’t need, don’t want and can all of a sudden walk around and find the things you need? Same thing with your life, start now!
- For one month every night before you go to bed write down three things that you reacted to during the day. This might be an email that you sent and later went ‘uh oh, wish I hadn’t said it that way,’ or a live interaction, or even something that happened and after you spend time thinking to yourself what you would have said or done differently.
- At the end of the month categorize your reactions based on broad feelings, for example Anger, Embarrassment, Guilt, Sadness. Try to have no more than five major categories, anything that happens only once you can ignore, and then choose the two categories that have the most reactions.
- With your two big categories (you can do this exercise over and over, but it is best to only work on a couple of things at a time) ask yourself: when did these reactions happen (try to isolate if this is a cyclical thing, a time of day, etc); where did this happen (home, work, commute, etc); why was it important or necessary to engage in the way you did; and finally, what does this reaction feel like (imagine you are a small child, before you had words for feelings, what is going on when you experience this kind of emotion).
Once you isolate the pain, you can understand the fear and understanding means that you can decide if you need it, if you like it, and if you want to keep it!