Nothing to Fear

By Jim Selman | Bio

To continue our discussion about fear and how to master it…. There are distinctions between coping with fear, transcending fear and transforming fear. Coping is our normal relationship with just about everything in our contemporary world. Our relationship to circumstances is that ‘the world’ is real and, more or less, whatever we think it is. We interact with our circumstances based on our point of view, and our actions reinforce our point of view. The result is that we participate in the persistence of whatever it is we are coping with.  

People with phobias of various sorts typically learn to live with their fears as a fact of life and develop patterns to compensate and cope. For example, people who fear flying typically don’t fly or sedate themselves silly when they have to. People who think they are ‘shy’ will learn to avoid the limelight. Coping is better than being paralyzed by our fears, but it doesn’t change anything. We can function but only within the boundaries of our coping strategies.

Transcendence is an ability to change our relationship with our fears and whatever we think might cause them. Living in the moment, for example, is a form of transcendence. It is not possible to be afraid and present at the same time (except in a ‘fight or flight’ situation such as someone shooting a gun at you). Even in these cases, our fears are actually pure adrenalin and we are in action. We generally won’t ‘feel afraid’ until after it’s over and then may be in shock or experience some other physical reaction. The everyday kinds of fear (such as worry, guilt, anxiety, and the ‘panic attack’) are more related to our story about the way things are or might be in the future. The nature of these fears is that, while they have a ‘feeling’ component, they also are usually attached to some mosaic of assessments about other people, our situation, the future or ourselves. These are the kinds of fears Franklin Roosevelt was talking about when he said, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t help much to know that when we are afraid. The same can be said of Bobby McFerrin’s and my mother’s maxims to “Don’t worry, be happy.” Knowledge doesn’t change anything—only action does.

So what is the action that can enable us to transcend our fears—that can help us put them in perspective and allow us to break the hold they have on us? It begins, I believe, by understanding that if we resist and try to not be afraid, we are actually giving power to the fear. Just as when we feel embarrassed and someone says “Don’t be embarrassed”, we will become even more embarrassed. So it is with fear and all moods. We need to acknowledge the fear, maybe even look it in the eye, and then we learn to ‘let it be’. If we don’t ‘react’ to the negative experience, the experience cannot persist. It will disappear. We can learn to accelerate this process of non-reacting and transcending the fear by being centered in our commitments in the moment and by going into action. A performer experiencing ‘stage fright’ learns to do this at every performance as they move on stage.

The primary difference between transcending and coping is that transcending becomes a competence in which while the fear may not change, our relationship to it does change. Over time, we can develop a kind of mastery of our fears and other negative moods.

The last distinction is our ability to transform fear into something else. For example, can we transform our fears into excitement or sources of creative energy and inspiration? Transformation requires we change ourselves. We don’t just have to ‘do something’: we learn that we can also ‘be something’. To change our ground of being in relationship to the world or anything else, we must learn that our words and our commitments have the power to alter both ourselves and everything and everyone around us. Transformation begins when we can ‘let the fear be’ while also taking ownership of whatever it is that owns us.

“I am afraid” is a powerful declaration. And, like all authentic declarations, it will create its own reality and manifest once the intention is put into motion. When we are responsible for our fears and for whatever we say is causing them, we are freed from reacting and can then generate a positive commitment and action. For example, “I am free”, “I am enough”, and “I am sufficient in this situation" are all declarations that not only change how we relate to the world, but also change how the world appears to us (how we observe it). For example, the circumstance of losing your money or your job in this financial crunch can transform from being a threat and source of fear into being just a fact (at worst) and (in all likelihood) an opportunity.

In life, we have all of these options. I am not suggesting that we can always transform our fears. If we cannot transform them, at least we can transcend them. Failing that, we can learn to cope effectively. If all we can do is cope, then let that be a beginning and not let it become a justification for resignation, resentment or regret.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.