When you’re a child, all sorts of things may scare you: the dark, spiders, witches, whatever monster is lurking under the bed. As you grow though, and most of those acute fears lessen or vanish, a different brand appears, and it usually more subtle, an underlying sense of dread or insecurity. When I was trudging through my adolescence, I wondered if other people had this same fear that I seemed to experience on a daily basis. Did people feel nervous and anxious but often for no real in-your-face reason? I later found out that a large chunk of it was due to alcoholism, codependence, and growing up with trauma. And yet I don’t think only certain people have it – some form of it is part of the human experience. But those of us, and it is many of us, who grew up in some form of dysfunction, tend to have a fear-based processing center that can override all else and cause us to lead miserable, worried, controlled lives.
A fear-based mind often becomes obvious when we still feel afraid despite most everything being really good, inside and out. Like today: the sun is bright and warm, and when I drive down Pacific Coast Highway to go to yoga, it hits the ocean and makes it look like glittering diamonds. My health is great, there’s food in the fridge, some money in the bank, ways to get from here to there. I am clean and sober and immersed in recovery. I have friends and family who I love and who love me. I can read and write and sing and dance and hear music. Deep down in my heart and soul I feel loved and feel a great capacity to love in return. And nothing scary is actually happening. There’s no threat, no danger, and yet I can feel nervous and desire a hiding place. There’s something frightening about the thought of being out in the world. Why?
The mind often chooses fear because that is what it learned. Many people grow up in some form of dysfunction and get used to the feeling of imminent danger, mild or violent. Some of it for me still lingers, despite extensive inner work, from the leftover residue of actually feeling scared and depressed on a regular basis as a child and adolescent and relying on alcohol, drugs, food, relationships, and approval to smooth all that fright. Our culture, for all of its unbelievable strengths and accomplishments, dropped the ball in terms of raising children in ways that would nurture the internal system. Most of learned to esteem ourselves externally, through our looks, grades, friends, achievements, wardrobes. Later, it became our cars, jobs, bank accounts, spouses. Many of us were punished, sometimes severely, simply for behaving the way children behave. (Children are not adults.) We were not allowed to feel our feelings in a safe way. And we were not taught and shown that we are loved and worthy, simply for being. It’s no one’s fault, really. Most of our parents didn’t learn this either, and their parents didn’t, and so on. It gets passed down through the generations, and many harmful forms of parenting and instructing are still valued in our society. Addiction in endless (and sometimes hidden) forms runs rampant, and never underestimate what it does to a family system.
If we grew up feeling regularly afraid, of mom and dad, of getting in trouble, of not being good enough, we are likely to carry this into our adult years. We will fear authority, making mistakes, not being accepted. It will cause us to attempt to control ourselves and our environment in all sorts of absurd and destructive ways. What are we to do? Is there a way out? Yes. It’s called re-parenting ourselves, and it is a hallmark of programs like Al-Anon that treat codependency, where we take full responsibility for our lives and learn to change our thinking and behavior. Twelve step programs aside, if you look closely at most religions and philosophies, especially in a metaphorical sense, many of them are talking about how our highest self, our “Cosmic Parent,” is within. That the only person who can really save us, take care of us, and love us unconditionally is ourselves.
It is not an overnight solution. It takes years in fact, but it absolutely works. Do we get a lobotomy and are therefore forever free from fear and childhood wounds? No. We continue to sometimes wrestle with the affects of addiction, trauma, and codependency, but we have a way out, and the more we practice, the easier it becomes to get out faster. I used to stay paralyzed in fear – now it crops up and I can get free much more quickly. I also don’t believe fear the way that I used to. Recovery is sort of like cleaning a dirty old house. Once you get all the initial garbage out and vacuum and sweep and scrub and wipe, it becomes sparkling clean and pristine. Sometimes you have to do major remodeling and rebuilding, depending on the damage. But eventually, overtime, you have this beautiful, clean, well-constructed place. It feels open and warm and inviting. But… you still need to do maintenance here and there and regular upkeep. Recovery is like that – at first, it’s really messy and painful and overwhelming. But it does come together and requires less intense effort.
Fear can be helpful at times, signaling that something is amiss or that danger is in fact lurking, but most of the time it isn’t. We don’t live in the time of saber tooth tigers chasing us anymore, and if our parents were sometimes threatening or mean, well, we’re grown now and it is our job (and privilege) to re-parent ourselves. When fear is coming up regularly, it is usually an overreaction to events that our brain scans as dangerous (for a hundred possible reasons both learned and biological) and it becomes our job to discern whether this fear is based on reality or some perceived but non-existent threat.
When are we least afraid? Is it when the world is safe? Not exactly, because we have no control over that, and nothing will ever be completely safe or predicable. We are least afraid when our minds are quiet, so the heart and soul can speak louder and radiate a fundamental truth. When that truth is radiating, and I tend to feel it in my chest, it send this message: that nothing can really hurt me because I am loved unconditionally by a Higher Power of my understanding, and that I love myself unconditionally, even when others can’t. I am free. It is essentially about self-worth and self-esteem, not because I have done anything, but simply because I am. I exist. Self-esteem, not other-esteem. I can be on the floor sobbing with grief and still have that presence in my chest. Sadness doesn’t have to be feared. Even fear itself softens in the presence of that light of truth, because we are able to take care of ourselves.
(And if that sounds cheesy or corny or woo-woo to you, or like self-indulgent therapeutic jargon, you probably need it more than ever!)