We often hear the saying ‘go and conquer your fear.’ As if it’s something we can vanquish and entirely remove from our lives. But to live the fullness of the human experience means to encounter a wide range of emotions.
Fear is one of those emotions. In fact, it’s a primal emotion. But the idea we can ‘conquer’ our fear highlights three common myths in popular culture.
1. Fear always means danger
The fear systems in our brain are some of the oldest neurobiological systems we have.
These fear systems kept our ancestors safe. When you are out hunting and gathering, it makes sense to have a highly developed detection system to sense danger. So those regions and systems in the brain are there to detect danger and enable the fight-flight-freeze-fidget responses that are associated with fear.
Fear’s role as an emotion is to tell you when something is off kilter, and when there is a threat to your survival. But in today’s contemporary world, danger is most often triggered when we sense a threat to our social survival, not necessarily our physical survival.
As humans we are social creatures. We compare. We judge. And we know that others judge us too. So it’s often these social dynamics, combined with our inner judgements, that cultivate the sense that we are in danger of not being included. Or not fitting in. Or not feeling appreciated or loved.
These social fears cause us to limit ourselves, and make ourselves small, so we don’t stand out and risk being seen as different.
We don’t dream big enough or set goals large enough because we fear we are establishing our independence at the risk of not belonging.
This then leads us to the second fear myth…
2. Fear is something ‘out there’ we need to protect ourselves from.
We tend think of fear as if it’s something that exists ‘out there’ or outside of ourselves that we can gird ourselves against, or protect ourselves from. Fear becomes like the monster hiding under the bed that we need to fight. And we usually engage in one or more 4 fear responses:
- We fight, by controlling situations and people to limit the unfamiliar.
- We flee through avoidance and soothing ourselves with things like work, food, alcohol, lots of hours of Netflix.
- We freeze, we get caught up in an overthinking/overwhelm cycle, and then we get stuck….or
- We fidget and make ourselves so busy and caught up in everyday duties that we don’t allow ourselves time to sit with our emotions.
And a lot of these tactics that we engage in to fight fear is on the wrong front. We think it’s something we can fight, flight, freeze, or fidget our way out of.
But facing fear is an inside job and it starts first in our body.
Intuitively we know fear shows up and impacts our physical body. We’ll say things like, “My heart was pounding. My stomach was in knots. My jaw is tight.” Our body’s response to fear is biological and actually very natural.
So how can we recognize and deal with fear when it arises in our body?
One method that helps immensely is body mindfulness. Mindfulness is moment-by-moment awareness of what is going on in your mind, body and your surrounding environment without judgement. Body mindfulness takes that awareness and focuses on the sensations in your body and your breathe in order to reduce stress, anxiety, and knee-jerk reactions to fear.
Just focusing on your breath for 3 minutes a day, wherever you are, is one simple body mindfulness technique that can calm the brain and body.
Now for the third fear myth…
3. Heroes and heroines are always fearless
This myth is wonderfully highlighted in the movie the Wizard of Oz. In the movie, Dorothy, the heroine, encounters obstacles, unforeseen circumstances, and some really strange characters along her journey.
She is afraid. She is tired. And all she wants to do is get home. But she keeps going along her path, following the Yellow Brick Road. Eventually Dorothy reaches her goal and makes it home. But she doesn’t do it without fear. She does it despite her fear.
Surrounding the myth of the Fearless Hero is a misunderstanding about what courage is. The Latin root of the word courage is ‘cor’ and this means heart. So originally courage meant, “To speak one’s mind by telling it with all one’s heart.”
This means that courage is both an inside job and an outside job.
Courage involves recognizing that we have an ancient part of our brain that is invested in our social survival and preoccupied with keeping us safe. Courage also means coming to a greater understanding of what our mind is telling us through the voice of our inner critic.
It means telling ourselves a new story of what is possible.
And then courage means acting on those convictions, not without fear, but despite the fear.
What the above three fear myths highlight is that fear doesn’t need to be ‘conquered.’ Fear actually needs to be listened to and learned from.
Being less fearful means you don’t give in to the myths of fear. It means acknowledging how fear speaks through your inner critic. It involves listening to how fear shows up in your body. And being less fearful means you act on your dreams and goals like the hero you are, despite your fear.
When fear shows up, so does courage.