Increasing Fear Literacy

You are frightened of everything. You call it caution. You call it common sense. You call it practicality. You call it playing the odds, but that’s only because you’re afraid to call it by its real name, and its real name is fear.” – Mick Farren

“Always use the proper names for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” – J.K. Rowling

Just as labeling needs or feelings makes them easier to sit with, so too can the labeling of fears inspire comfort and mastery. By gaining fear literacy, what was once an uncontrollable body sensation to be avoided becomes an identifiable and manageable mental process. As you learn about fear, you become more capable of imagining how it can be helpful for you and how you are capable of handling life’s challenges. The five major fears are categorized below depending on the object of the fear and the behavior it inspires (Adapted from http://bit.ly/1TddoZE):

The 5 Fears

Fear
Explanation
Could lead to avoiding…
Could inspire…[1]
Extinction
Fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express the “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Buddha taught that all beings experience anxiety because we resist the impermanence of our existence.
Talking about or viewing death (death aversion), flying, heights, bridges, isolation, meditation
Chasing dreams and goals, having a family, making a “mark” on the world, seeking spiritual or religious explanations for the meaning of life, existential questioning, substance use, depression, apathy, earning money to create a legacy, medical care to preserve “perfect health”
Mutilation
Fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.
Needles, being too close to others, small spaces, knives and sharp objects, the outdoors, animals, intruders, vomiting, injury
Physical strength training, securing doors, claustrophobia, arming oneself with weapons, excessive cleanliness, germophobia, compulsive behaviors
Loss of Autonomy
Fear of being immobilized, paralyzed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
Elevators, restrictive clothes, crowded spaces, “clingy” people, intimacy, overwhelming emotional experiences, being vulnerable, conforming, flying (not having control in unknown situation), injury
Self-expression, protest, fighting, distancing from friends and loved ones, keeping secrets and maintaining privacy, saying “no,” disagreement for the sake of disagreement, standing up for oneself, “controlling” behaviors, agoraphobia (fear of having no escape)
Separation
Fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group, can have a devastating psychological effect on its target.
Being “different” or your “true” self, vulnerability, isolation, being alone, moving far away from home, death of a loved one, confrontation
Clinginess, constant attention to social media, FOMO (“fear of missing out”), keeping mementos of loved ones, having a family, strong family connections, community participation, religious affiliation
Ego-Death
Fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
Culturally-dictated social faux pas such as body odor, discussing mental illness, trying new things, failure, public speaking, vulnerability, feedback, confrontation, rejection
Bullying, aggression, withdrawal, over-achievement, isolation, adherence to social norms, policing social norms, ostracizing, saving face, politeness, manners, kindness

The Ultimate Fear: The Unknown

“Worry is a misuse of the imagination.”

– Matthieu Ricard

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

Behind each of the five fears is one fear that binds them all: the unknown.

Everything we think, predict, pray and hope will happen in the future – whether it’s as mundane as going to work on Monday or having a child in the next 10 years – is a product of our imagination. We do our best to fill in what we don’t know with what we think we know: patterns, stories, and fear messaging.

When the unknown pops up and our imagination gets to work, fear comes running. Fear brings an unlimited visitor’s pass and a restrictive lens through which our unknown is framed. Thanks to fear, what was once filled with myriad possibilities is now constricted to worries and pain. Fear’s argument is so powerful that we begin to believe only what it tells us: If we follow the scary route, we will suffer. Our imagination becomes stunted and we forget to engage our curiosity and ask…

For centuries, astronomers looked to outer space and thought there was nothing between the stars. Upon further investigation, it was determined that the visible matter in stars constitutes less than 10% of the matter in the universe. The rest is made up of powerful dark matter and dark energy whose forces are real and meaningful, but happen to be undetectable on the light spectrum. There is plenty still unknown, but at least we know space isn’t empty.

Many of the greatest ideas in spiritual thought came from someone sitting in the void of the unknown, asking questions, and allowing their curiosity to pull them forward to the next discovery. Jesus spent 40 days and nights fasting in the desert before he began preaching. Muhammad frequently retreated to a cave in Mount Hiraa’ to meditate, eventually receiving the Koran at age 40. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before finding the Promised Land. Buddha wandered for six years in the forest before sitting and receiving enlightenment.

This may be as close as we can get to fearlessness: Looking through fear into the void and being curious. Why not apply that creative visioning to the unknown?

Notes:

1.  Like the “Common Distractions from Fear” table, plenty of these examples may not be motivated by fear. Many people choose to have a family because it is a wonderful, life-giving process. It would be misguided to assume fear motivates every behavior.