The incredible power of fear

"Fear" by Stefan Rheone

I have been reluctant to write this post, even though it feels good to finally do it. I have feared writing about fear, like poking the bear, like calling attention to scary things will stir them up.

As a professional psychologist, I will tell you that fear is just an emotion, one of the core emotions. In case you are curious, the other four are joy, sadness, anger, and disgust. Fear is a reaction to thoughts and perceptions, like any other emotion, and it readily sublimates to anger, which we will discuss in a bit. When you perceive something that you assess as threatening, you will be afraid. It’s that simple.

As a serious-amateur theologian, I will tell you that fear is almost a spiritual force which has the incredible tendency and power to bring about what is feared. If you fear losing your life then you will. If you fear only one thing then the universe will notice and concentrate its attention on that one thing. If you fear everything then you’re already dead with no reason for optimism in the world after death. More than in any other point, a person with faith is distinguished from a person without faith on the point of being fearful.

The opposite of fear is not courage, which is feeling the fear and knowing the risk but doing anyway what you would do if there were no risk. No, the opposite of fear, the antidote to it, is love. Fearing the bad outcome or loving the good outcome might sound like semantic distinctions, and the processes have similar powers to bring about the expected result, but they take us to completely different places. At the funeral of a friend of mine, Galen Heckman, in Richmond, Virginia, the pastor described Galen’s as, “A life well-lived and well-loved.” The terms seem happily redundant and I remember them to this day because in that moment and since then, I have wanted a life like that. Some 24 years later, give or take, I am not there. I am too scared.

That brings up another remarkable quality of fear, which relates to my first paragraph. Fear has its greatest power when we are unaware of it. Name your fear, name the source, and fear clears a path for you. Persist in that path and fear runs from you, trembling. I was scared to write about fear until I began. Now I see how long this post will be.

If you fear being disliked then you will probably engage in at least some of the following behaviors: suspicion, clinginess, intrusiveness, distancing, defensiveness, obsequiousness, and authoritarianism. In other words, if you fear being disliked then you will probably act in a way that induces others to dislike you.

Turn it around. What if, instead of fearing the bad outcome, you decided to simply like everyone? What if you decided to expect that you would be liked? You would act in ways that were likeable: happy, smiling, making eye contact, talking with everyone, saying nice things, asking questions and showing an interest in others, reading those around you accurately and saying things that interest them – all of the good stuff that would get you liked.

In other words, fear is self-centered.  Love is other-centered.  We can go further, though.

If you look at that list of behaviors that induce dislike, you will see a mix of fighting behaviors and flighting behaviors, the fight or flight response to threat. Unfortunately, freeze doesn’t rhyme with the other two words but it starts there. When we talk about fear, we are talking about primitive, hard-wired reflexes that are hundreds of thousands of years old, that we inherited through natural selection. Imagine that you are an early form of human and you hear a rustle in the bushes. You freeze for a moment to determine what it is, then you decide between fight, attacking it (maybe it wants to eat you or maybe you can eat it) or flight, running from something that you cannot defeat. We are descended from the ones who made these decisions quickly and correctly. They survived to pass along their genes.

Today, sometimes fight/flight/freeze works for us because fear can sublimate to anger, which comes with energy and decisiveness. Anger gets things done. If you are on the turnpike and the car ahead of you suddenly moves into your lane, it all happens too quickly for you to realize that you are thinking, “I’m going to hit that car. The crash will kill me,” making you afraid. A novice driver might freeze at that point but an experienced driver will react quickly, with a combination of braking and maneuvering that has worked in the past to prevent a collision. When the threat is gone, you continue to think about what just happened, and what could have happened, and you feel angry. This is when you might engage in road rage. With the danger gone and the threat successfully countered, you are ready to fight.

One of my favorite books, which I recommend to everyone, is called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin DeBecker, who does personal security work and threat assessment for celebrities and government officials. His premise is that we know when we are in danger, know who intends to harm us, but we turn off the alarms. DeBecker also describes the tactics that the bad guys use to turn off our alarms, like the person who knocks on your door with something in his hand, saying “I brought this in for you.” It might not be yours and you didn’t ask him to bring up the driveway, if it was ever there, but the illusion is that he did something nice for you and so he must be good and now you think that you owe him something in return, so you open the door. A minute later, he says that he only wants your cash and then he will leave, but you know that he intends worse because he has closed your windows and turned your radio up loud. DeBecker says that when we listen to our own fear, we will know who wants to hurt us.

Fear is not always a bad thing. If it causes you to board up your windows and head inland ahead of a hurricane, fear is good. If it keeps you off the road during a blizzard, fear is good. In other words, when there is a real and external physical danger, fight/flight/freeze works. However, for most of our threats, it is an old solution to new problems, the right solution to the wrong problem. Most of our threats are not immediate and not to life itself. Fight or flight instantly raises heart and breathing rates and blood pressure, preparing us to run or attack. The primitive person didn’t have hypertension. Alive or dead, the danger ended within seconds. Fight/flight/freeze gums up the works, drains the life from being alive, but it doesn’t actually kill anyone so nature is not going to select it away.

Our threats today are approximations of physical danger. We fear insults that become reputations that can become isolation from the pack that can cost us a sense of belonging at jobs and homes that could make it hard to stay where we want to be, a kind of social death. We’re either in or out and we are wired to treat “out” as death.

Finally, there is a fourth, more modern response to fear, and though it is fun to alliterate with f, I can’t find a way to do it with control. This whole post may be a form of control, an example of an ego defense called “intellectualization” in which an uncomfortable situation is turned into an interesting idea, like the person who has been divorced several times and thereby develops a “theory” about marriage that explains divorce without responsibility or discomfort. Maybe this post is a form of control. You can decide that for yourself.

In common use, though, there is a response to fear that takes the form of controlling situations, usually by controlling others. There are methods of legitimate power with others. I might do what you want because I like you, or because our relationship in this organization puts you in authority over me, but that power comes with rules and has limits. The control response to fear works outside of those normal rules and limits.

A relative of mine, seeking to return merchandise to a store, began the conversation by screaming at the sales associate, who immediately surrendered. She might have accepted the return anyway, probably would have, but when my relative was asked about it later, she said, “Before she could say no, I said yes.” Whose place was it to say yes or no to the return? That is where the violation of the boundary, the violence, began. My relative thought that her return would be refused, and was for some reason afraid of that, and sought to impose her fear on the sales associate to force the desired outcome. She took control over the situation, or what she thought was control, by screaming and thus threatening the sales associate. My relative expected the strategy to work as it had in the past, and it did again, but the control was an illusion. Nobody made anybody do anything. What if that associate had been deaf? What if she had given notice and was in her last hour of work? What if her supervisor had just told her to ignore any customer who screamed while demanding a refund? What if the associate simply didn’t care?

Control amounts to fighting in response to fear, and you fear anyone whom you feel the need to control. The only control that we have is the power to decide our own actions and reactions, which is to say, whether to live in love or die in fear. Every choice can be distilled to one of those two, choices become habits become a life, and there is no third option.