Although there are no greeting cards effusing our fears to others, our fears play a major role in all our relationships. Like love, fear evolved to help us survive, and has universal, personal, and situational aspects. Gavin de Becker, an expert on the protection of public figures, writes, “Since fear is so central to our experience, understanding when it is a gift—and when it is a curse—is well worth the effort.” Fear is an emotion without which we would not stay alive. Fear draws upon our cognitions and memories—it is the anticipation of future pain. It is an adaptive, protective mechanism designed to draw our attention to threatening objects or situations, so that we can act to avoid dangers.
Our Fears: Scary, Dangerous, or Both?
One thing I have learned through whitewater kayaking is that scary and dangerous are different things—and, should be treated differently. The rating system for whitewater river runs is based on the potential consequences—how dangerous it is. There are two parts of consequences: (1) severity and (2) likelihood. Severity of consequences is the ‘worst case scenario’—if everything goes to heck, how bad are the possible injuries? The biggest determinant of if these potential consequences will come to pass (the likelihood) is the skills of the boaters—individually and as a team. So, something dangerous is beyond my skill level, or the skill level of my team—and should be avoided (at least for now). Maybe in the future, when I and the group of which I am a part have greater skills, it is something with which I will want to engage.
How scary a whitewater run appears is related to my ability to make sense of the jumbled scene of water careening down over rocks. And, the ability to make sense of something often has to do with familiarity. When something is scary, it deserves investigation. Often, scary situations are ones where we can’t interpret signals—we may feel confused, disoriented, or caught off-guard, and can misinterpret our inability to read the situation as a sign that it is dangerous. With further inquiry, I may find that I (and those I rely upon) can make sense of what at first appeared incomprehensible—I may find the pattern in the roiling water and see my path down the maelstrom. With investigation I may see that, even if things do go wrong—if I don’t stay on my chosen path or something happens that I have not foreseen—there is a low probability of severe consequences. In this situation, it is a great opportunity to challenge my preconceived limits and face my fears. Social psychologist Albert Bandura states, “It is mainly perceived inefficacy in coping with potentially aversive events that makes them fearsome.” Our belief in our ability to handle a situation determines how stressful we find the event to be.
Scary and Dangerous Experiences in Relationships
Similarly, human interactions can be scary, dangerous, or both. A scary moment in a relationship points to uncharted territory. It could be that we can’t interpret the cues because we are in a culture with which we are unfamiliar. When I first traveled to Ecuador, I thought I was making a great impression as everyone enthusiastically kissed me repeatedly on my checks when we met—it turns out that is the convention when you meet someone, and I was making a rather poor impression due to my limited Spanish and cultural awkwardness. Or, the uncharted territory we are about to enter can be within ourselves and the relationship—we may have learned to avoid self-awareness, intimacy, or groups of people. Many of us were not taught how to argue productively, and so may squelch our discontent until it erupts with a destructive vengeance—reinforcing our desire to avoid conflict. If we are willing to look, scary moments in relationships will reveal parts of ourselves that we have been blissfully denying—opportunities for growth.
There also can be dangerous interpersonal interactions and relationships. As with whitewater, we want to assess the severity and likelihood of possible consequences. De Becker argues that we are all expert at assessing the possibility of violent behavior in others, if we attend to our intuition, have accurate information, and recognize that violence is a potential in all of us. De Becker outlines seven tactics used by predatory individuals: (1) forcing you to be a team, (2) using charm and niceness, (3) giving too many details, (4) typecasting you with a slight insult, (5) putting you in their debt, (6) promising that they won’t do something that you hadn’t (until then) feared that they would do, and (7) not respecting ‘no.’ Follow your instincts if you sense possible violence—psychological or physical—and protect yourself. Fear is in response to something and has our best interest at heart ALWAYS—it may be inaccurate, but it is designed to protect you.
This leads to the second part of danger: the likelihood of a negative outcome. The probability rests on our and our beloved’s skills to navigate the dangers. We each have capacities and limits. Part of a loving approach to ourselves and others is to recognize the boundaries of what we can safely engage with—and, what we can’t. For example, I was recently trained as a conflict mediator. I am not ready to mediate solo a complex child custody case—I am ready to collaborate with more experienced mediators on such a case. For each of us, there are relationships or conversations for which we are not currently ready. That’s okay. If in doubt, pass—for now. Challenge yourself to do something a little scary, and your skills will grow to the point that what is currently dangerous will someday only be scary.
Learning to Differentiate between Scary and Dangerous
Although fear always wants to protect us and has our best interest at heart, fear cannot differentiate between scary and dangerous. That is why it is critically important that we both listen to our fears and question the assumptions on which our fears are based. I spent decades thinking I needed to eliminate my fears, that I needed to violently hack them out of myself—seek and destroy! This led to further self-loathing and fear: fear that I couldn’t eliminate my fears and that I would always be ruled by them. Now, I work to integrate my fears into myself: I have named Fear the ‘Star of Fear.’ When I hear her loving voice, I acknowledge that I feel scared and assess if something is dangerous. Further, I can bring Love (who I have named the ‘Moon of Love’) into the conversation. Through listening to myself, I have choices in how I respond when the Star of Fear shines in me.