Eric and I recently chatted and agreed to write shorter pieces at least once per week for Beyond Growth, in addition to the longer articles we have been writing. So here goes!
It is often said by many a personal development guru that the only thing stopping you from getting what you want in life is fear. Sometimes F.E.A.R. is turned into an acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. But isn’t fear a useful response to genuinely threatening situations? Is the evidence always false?
When I’ve worked with clients with apparently irrational fear, there has always been some very good reason for their unconscious fear reactivity. The response may be less-than-useful, but is usually based in some important bit of reality. Once this information is integrated and the emotional experience fully accepted then the fear naturally dissipates.
Recent evidence also suggests that young children who do not easily register fear in their brains are more likely to become criminals:
Poor fear conditioning at age 3 predisposes to crime at age 23. Poor fear conditioning early in life implicates amygdala and ventral prefrontal cortex dysfunction and a lack of fear of socializing punishments in children who grow up to become criminals. These findings are consistent with a neurodevelopmental contribution to crime causation.
—Am J Psychiatry 2010; 167:56-60
This finding is consistent with what we know about psychopaths and sociopaths. Fear plays an important role in pro-social behavior. If one is totally fearless, there is no fear of social punishment from breaking norms, such as in stealing or killing to get what one wants. We see this kind of callous behavior in psychopaths like James Arthur Ray and other personal development “leaders.” That said, fearing public speaking because you think you are going to die isn’t exactly helpful or rational either. And sometimes excessive fear of punishment can keep us from fessing up to our mistakes.
Usually what most people do when we feel fear is attempt to ignore our experience of fear or overpower it with willpower. Alternatively, we simply don’t go for challenging goals. These strategies sometimes work in a pinch, but don’t work very well in the long-term. Ignoring our experience, the fear typically grows more intense until it must be dealt with directly. Attempting to overpower our fear, we find that our conscious will isn’t nearly as powerful as the ocean of the unconscious mind, and we’re either tossed on the waves or refuse to risk sailing out of the safe harbor.
What are the alternatives to ignoring or denying one’s fear? Embracing and understanding it. Notice what physical and mental sensations make up your experience of fear or shame—what mental images, inner dialogue or sounds, and physical sensations create this experience? Notice these with a sense of curiosity. Perhaps you picture people laughing if you fail at your new project. How realistic is this? What if you make the picture smaller, and surround it by pictures of people who support you in your endeavor? And most importantly, what is the positive purpose of this fear for you and for society? You may even find that your original goal changes and feels less “forced” when you embrace and understand your fears. It seems to me that many extreme personal goals are counter-phobic reactions to fear that unnecessarily and irrationally increase risk.
By appreciating the positive purposes individually and socially of fear and other unpleasant emotions, we can avoid some of the simplistic views of personal development and promote a healthier society for all.
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