There’s a lot of fear in the air right now. Are you feeling it? I think we all are, at least at some level. Dealing with fear, especially when it lingers, or what we fear is well beyond our control, is uncomfortable at best and paralyzing at worst. And not just when the whole world seems to be turning upside down. The fears we struggle with in our personal sphere can be just as troubling.
Fear is one of the most powerful – if not THE most powerful – emotion we feel. And for good reason. Our fear response system is hardwired into our body and brain to protect us from harm and ensure our survival. It gives us the motivation and energy we need to respond quickly and effectively to danger. Fear is healthy and essential to our existence.
However, it’s not always helpful. Sometimes, it can even be harmful. Fear can be one of the most complicated, difficult emotions we experience. It can pop up when it doesn’t need to. It can muddy the water of our mind, stirring up other problematic emotions. When this happens, fear cripples us instead of protecting us. It shuts us down and cuts us off from the life we want to be living. Or, it revs us up, causing us to make rash decisions or lash out in ways that harm relations.
It’s essential to our health and happiness that we learn how to manage this powerful emotion effectively. And in my experience, mindfulness is the most potent tool there is for dealing with fear in a healthy, self-supporting way.
A Student of Fear
I’ve been a student of fear for many years. By that I mean, I’ve been contemplating it, grappling with it, observing how it operates within me. This curiosity arose early on in my adult life. My meditation practice was leading me to witness my inner workings, diving me deeper and deeper into mindful inquiry. I was seeking an answer to the question what makes me tick? And what I kept finding was, fear was what made me tick far more often than I’d ever realized.
Increasingly, I became aware of the ways in which fear lay at the root of so many of my life struggles. And, how it often could be found beneath the surface of my other emotions, such as anger, shame, and sadness. It became clear to me fear presents one of the biggest obstacles to human contentment. It drives so many of the judgments we make about ourselves, other people, and life in general. Judgments that leave us feeling dissatisfied in one way or another with what is. Not to mention what will be. Fear can exert immense influence over what we think is possible for our lives. It’s a force to be reckoned with!
I realized that if I could learn how to deal with fear skillfully, I could significantly decrease my suffering and improve my quality of life. As I began to work directly and intentionally with fear, I discovered bringing mindfulness to my fears dissipated them with surprising speed. Far faster than when I tried to rationalize myself out of them. And, because mindfulness asks me to face my fears, over time it gave me a greater tolerance for fear. I developed a strong foundation for courage within me, which meant fear didn’t show up as often, or as powerfully, as it once did.
To Deal With Fear Skillfully, You Have to Know Your Fears
There are many types and sources of fear. Some are vitally important – the ones that truly serve our survival, whether that be to protect us from immediate danger or to help us prepare and plan for our continued survival. When we listen to this kind of fear and allow it to spur us into meaningful and productive action, we’re dealing with fear effectively.
However, there are many other kinds of fear that don’t authentically serve this higher purpose. In fact, when we really sit with them, we find they’re self-constructed barriers. Maybe they’re residues from times past, when they did in fact serve us well or reflected realities once present in our life. Or, they’ve sprouted from our imagination because we’re either uncomfortable with the unknown, or we’re allowing assumptions about what will or will not happen function as truths.
Because the future is always unknown, it looms out there, somewhere in the dark empty space of infinite potentiality. This darkness can’t be touched by the light of our awareness, so it becomes a perfect breeding ground for fear. In our imagination, the future can take any shape we want it to. On the one hand, this means anything (including our greatest dreams) can happen. But on the other, it also means our worst fears can happen.
While we can’t shed light on the future with any real certainty, what we can do is bring the light of awareness to our fear. We can observe it, and as we do, come to understand it. We can face it with mindfulness. And when we do, it loses some, if not all, of its power over us.
How Mindfulness Helps Us Deal With Fear
Mindfulness is sitting with awareness of what’s happening in the present moment without trying to change it. And, without placing judgment on it or resisting it any way. We’re simply observing our experience as it is. When we watch ourselves with curiosity, we learn about ourselves. Specifically, in this context, we learn more about how we experience fear.
We can witness, for instance, what fear feels like in our body. We can notice what thoughts arise before, during, and after our experience of fear. And when we mindfully allow these feelings and thoughts to occur, two important things happen. We gain insight around our fear, and we increase our tolerance for having the experience of fear.
Gaining Insight Around Fear
As we observe our fear with mindfulness, we learn to identify it. We get better acquainted with how fear manifests itself in our body and our mind. This helps us recognize more easily when fear is influencing our reactions, motivations, and behaviors. That, in and of itself, is useful. But more importantly, we gain a deeper understanding of what it is we’re truly afraid of.
Fear can be so consuming and/or subconscious, it can sometimes drive our reactions without us truly knowing what lies at the root of it. Understanding what we’re deep-down afraid of is key to dealing with our fear in a skillful way. It’s often not the obvious elephant in the room that’s really driving our fear. It’s what’s struggling for air beneath the elephant – some internal experience we’re avoiding because we believe we can’t tolerate it.
Consider, for example, the fear of failure. This one’s a biggie for a lot of us. We all know rationally that failure’s not likely to kill us, but still many of us struggle with this boogieman of a fear. You may have a goal you want to achieve, but you keep avoiding giving it your all because once you do, you risk falling flat on your face.
On the surface, this fear might manifest as thoughts that say If I take this risk, I might lose money. I might waste my time and energy and end up worse off than I am now. And if I don’t succeed, I’ll look incompetent. I’ll be a loser. How could I possibly recover from that?
The surface feelings associated with these thoughts might be dread, anxiety, or just a generalized uneasiness or resistance every time you contemplate whether or not you should take that next step forward. However, if you were to sit with mindful awareness of your fear of failing, you’d likely find some deeper fears hiding beneath the surface.
The Underlying Fears
When you sit mindfully with your fear of failure, you give it space to express itself to its fullest extent, without trying to change or soothe it in any way. You get to experience the fullness of your fear, which means you can see its nature more clearly. As your fear grows into its fullest expression, you gain answers to some insightful questions.
How would it feel if you did fail? What is it that makes this experience of failing feel so daunting to you? Why is there so much power behind this fear?
As you watch mindfully and allow the knot of your fear to unravel, you might discover there’s an aversion to the experience of shame or humiliation there. Maybe this goal is touching a tender spot inside you – an old belief about not being good enough or a painful memory of a time when you felt foolish. If you were to try and fail, these old wounds might be opened-up again. That might feel unbearable.
Why Do We Have the Fears We Have?
We experience fear because somewhere along the way, we learned that certain experiences threaten our sense of personal safety or somehow cause us to suffer. Naturally, we develop an aversion to these experiences and try to avoid repeating them in the future. We even extrapolate them, applying our instinct to avoid to anything that remotely resembles the original experience(s). But, that doesn’t mean every fear we have is helpfully serving this purpose.
Given our present circumstances, it’s possible a fear once deeply ingrained for good reason has now become obsolete. We might be better equipped today to face our fear and create a positive outcome than we were in the past. How can we know if we continue to make choices based on fears we haven’t freshly confronted? And if we’ve never faced them, we can’t possibly know what we’re capable of.
When we get to the bottom of what we’re really afraid of, we give ourselves the chance to bring mindful awareness to that root cause. With mindfulness, we can explore and expand our capacity to develop tolerance for the specific state of discomfort we’re avoiding. And importantly, we do this as the version of ourselves we’ve grown into today. When we realize we can in fact tolerate the experience, the fear we have around it loses its power.
Dealing With Fear Through the Development of Tolerance
One of the common ways counselors and psychologists help clients deal with fear is by using some sort of exposure therapy. This technique encourages people to face their fears via a controlled environment that ensures they’re safe as they make contact with their fear. Over time, this exposure helps clients reduce fear and avoidance of the sources of their fear. (Note: This article is not intended to replace professional mental health advice or treatment. If you have significant, problematic issues with fear, please seek professional guidance.)
Bringing mindful awareness to one’s internal state of fear – observing it, allowing it to be present, and not trying to change it – is a mild form of exposure. When we practice sitting with the discomfort that fear brings, we begin to develop tolerance for it. We realize that while it’s uncomfortable, we can sit with it and still be safe. And, we can witness the natural arc that all emotions follow – from rising to peaking to falling. Meaning, we recognize emotional states are temporary. They pass. And we’re okay on the other side of them.
If we’ve gained insight around our fear, and we now know what lies at the root of our fear, bringing mindfulness to this root cause can produce a powerful shift. Take the fear of failure for example again. If we’ve discovered what we’re truly afraid of is the feeling of shame or humiliation, we can sit with that feeling in mindfulness. We can feel its heat in our face, its heaviness in our body, its sinking in the pit of our stomach. We can watch what thoughts our mind produces around it. All of this we do while breathing steadily, until the whole swirl of experience runs out of energy and naturally dissipates.
Confronting the Boogieman in Your Own Head
What we find as the storm clears is that we’re still here – safe, alive, no more or less worthy of life, love, and acceptance than we were before. Turns out, the experience we’ve feared so intensely and given so much power over us isn’t as big a boogieman as we thought. In fact, the whole experience is something that occurred only within our own mind.
It’s that internal experience we fear. Not so much the failure itself, but how that failure might make us feel. Once we sit with it, allowing it to get as big as it wants to, we find indeed we can tolerate that feeling. And the more we practice this mindful holding of our internal emotion-experience, the more confident we become in our capacity to deal with it in a healthy way. We realize we can face our fears. We can bear what we thought was unbearable. In this way, we find our courage.
Common Underlying Fears
The more you practice mindful awareness of your emotions, the more you start to see how subconscious fears not only underlie more surface-level fears, but also drive other seemingly unrelated emotions. This makes dealing with fear an important part of cultivating a healthy, happy life.
Here are some of the underlying fear relationships I’ve observed, beyond the fear of failure described above:
- Public Speaking: fear of humiliation, not being good enough, looking foolish, incompetence.
- Close Relationships/Intimacy: fear of abandonment, not being lovable, betrayal or being hurt.
- Saying No: fear of not being lovable, abandonment, not being enough
- Social Settings: fear of not being lovable, not being likable, not being good enough, humiliation
- Speaking Your Truth: fear of shame, humiliation, not being good enough, not being right, not being competent
- Taking Risks: fear of shame, humiliation, not being good enough, not being competent
- Making a Mistake: fear of shame, humiliation, not being good enough, not being competent, not being lovable
- Anger: fear of being hurt, experiencing loss, not being respected, not being loved or valued
- Shame: fear of not being worthy, not being lovable, not being competent or any other kind of good enough
- Sadness: fear of loss
- Disgust: fear of being hurt, not being in control, not being right
Of course, what fears lie at the root of your difficult emotions will be specific to your life experience. I offer the above examples purely as an illustration of how emotions can hold deeper layers that reveal themselves once we observe them more closely.
You may notice many of the common phobias are missing from the list. This is intentional. Phobias are often connected to the ultimate root fear, which is the fear of death. That’s a whole different level of fear that, to be adequately explored, would require a post all its own. However, sitting mindfully with the physical sensations and thoughts that arise with these fears can help you develop tolerance for those difficult internal states over time too.
When you develop the capacity to skillfully deal with your deeper fears, you access greater courage, and the freedom and empowerment that comes with it.
Dealing With Fears That Involve Self-Worth
Many of the deeper fears mentioned above involve not being good enough, lovable, competent, etc. These fears tap into our sense of self-worth and self-esteem and involve core beliefs we may be holding onto about ourselves. They’re often carried over from childhood experiences. It’s important to note when you’re mindfully dealing with these sorts of fears, the intention is not to accept or build tolerance around the belief itself.
Instead, you’re learning to sit with the discomfort that someone out there might actually hold this thought or belief about you. The truth is, we can’t please or be loved and validated by everyone. And when someone expresses rejection or a disapproving opinion of us, it hurts. There’s no question about that. But – and this is key – it doesn’t mean we’re defined by it. Or, that it’s a statement of fact. A skillful, mindful approach to this fear is to develop tolerance for other people having unfavorable reactions to us while maintaining our internal source for self-love, self-validation, and self-acceptance.
A good way to do this is to offer yourself compassion. Acknowledge your softness – the part of you that can be hurt by the words and actions of others – and extend tenderness and loving-kindness to this part of yourself. Connecting with your own capacity to give yourself the love, validation, and acceptance you naturally seek is a powerful way to overcome these sorts of root fears.
To recap, this mindful tip for dealing with fear involves a two-step process:
- Mindfully observing your fear, so you’re better able to recognize when fear arises in your body and your mind. And, allowing your fear to express itself fully, so you can gain insight into any root fears that may lie beneath the surface.
- Then, bringing mindfulness to the specific internal state your deeper fears are avoiding, so you can develop greater tolerance for this uncomfortable state.
I’ve used this mindful approach to facing my fears many times over the years. Public speaking. Fear of social settings. Fear of opening up in relationships after being hurt. And most recently, fear of failure in launching this blog and embarking on the journey of writing my book. It never fails to show me I’m much stronger and braver than I think. I hope it does the same for you.