“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt
Stress has been getting a bad name.
Almost daily, we read about another research study demonstrating the destructive effects of stress on our bodies and minds. So, the common response is to try and eliminate any inkling of fear.
We try to do so in a multitude of ways, some helpful, some not so much. Yoga, meditation, medication, alcohol, excess food, hiding under a rock, or denial, it’s clear that our methods can run the gamut and sometimes be worse than the “dis-ease”.
Psychotherapist Thom Rutledge, author of Embracing Fear: How to Turn What Scares Us into Our Greatest Gift, suggests a different approach – that of changing our relationship to fear rather than attempting to annihilate it: “We have used our higher intelligence to create a monster out of what is essentially a healthy, natural response to adverse or potentially dangerous situations.” According to Rutledge, the issue “is not about how to be rid of that monster, but rather how to live beyond its tyrannical control.”
In a compassionate, wise, and often hilarious way, the author describes how to distinguish between healthy fear (the Ally) and unhealthy fear (the Bully), two of the voices that live in our head as members of our internal Committee.
Some attributes of the Ally include:
- remaining alert in a mindful way
- warning us instantly about true danger
- motivating us to take appropriate action; solution-focused
- simply reporting the facts – no dramatics
In contrast, characteristics of the Bully include;
- staying hyperviligant and on-edge, overreacting to imagined dangers
- remaining mired in the enormity of the potential danger; stays in the problem
- freezing or retreating
- projecting ahead in time to various problems that could occur in the immediate or long-term future
If we detect that the Ally, which could also be termed our intuition, is speaking to us, we can use cognitive reappraisal, to alter the way we think about a fear-inducing circumstance. Some steps include:
- What are you (the Ally) trying to protect me from? Healthy fear serves an important function, to preserve our basic safety. We’re grateful for the adrenalin rush we feel when we’re crossing the street and a car comes zipping around the corner. We’re instantly propelled to jump aside to safety. That’s adaptive fear at work.
- Is there something I can learn from this situation? If we repeatedly butt heads with a coworker and dread seeing them walk in the office door, we can reevaluate our part in our interactions. Have we been shouldering our portion of the workload? Have we taken on more than our share? Is a calm, open conversation called for?
- What’s a more constructive way to view this experience? Maybe we’ve gone through a painful breakup of a relationship or lost touch with our good friends due to a move across the country. As a result, we’re feeling lonely and shy about meeting new people. We could reframe the situation as giving us a chance to practice initiating conversations with strangers and try some new group activities such as hiking, basketball, or movie nights.
- I am willing to live with uncertainty. We need to accept that we don’t have the complete blueprint as to how to proceed in any situation, nor are we in control of what might happen. So many factors are outside our sphere of influence. However, with our Ally at our side, in Rutledge’s words, we can say, “Can I fail? Yes. Might I fail? Maybe. Will I hide or retreat? No. I am willing to risk it.”
- I am willing to feel some discomfort in order to develop courage. Much research has shown that a sense of self-efficacy (a sense of one’s ability to complete tasks and attain goals) is closely tied to our sense of well-being. It’s ironic that often when we heed unhealthy fear and run for the hills, we create more anxiety for ourselves by denying ourselves of the experience of living through the fear, acting in a constructive way anyway, and developing greater self-confidence as a result. It’s important to experience challenges in order to grow. How else can we develop a sense of self-efficacy and resilience, attributes that are strongly linked with happiness and well-being?
Rutledge describes his personal motto as being “NO FEAR” – not in the sense that fear does not exist, but that he is saying “no” to fear running his life, and he invites the reader to do the same. In other words, when we dig in our heels, move toward the fear, and basically tell it, “Bring it on”, we are able to identify and utilize the positive, helpful aspects of the Ally, while telling the Bully to take a back seat.
As Rutledge states, “Even though we do not control what might happen, we are in charge of how we will respond, and … the ability to respond is what will determine our level of satisfaction, fulfillment, and even happiness.”
Rutledge, T. (2002). Embracing Fear: How to Turn What Scares Us into Our Greatest Gift. New York, NY: HarperOne.