What is Fear? And, How Do I Make Her Go Away?
Most of us would prefer to not discuss fear. Brave you, deciding to read this!
Fear is Here to Stay
I used to think that I needed to eliminate my fears: seek and destroy! Mostly, I tried ignoring Fear, hoping she might go away. As I started to study love, I came to the realization that fear is intimately intertwined with love—you can’t experience love fully until you acknowledge your fears (see blog, Fear of Love). It took me a lot longer to see that Fear loves me infinitely and has my best interest at heart. Therefore, I wanted to change my relationship with Fear, showing her respect and love, rather than hatred and disregard. Ultimately, I have embraced Fear as Love’s twin.
I realized I didn’t want to try to eliminate or ignore Fear—eliminating is impossible, and ignoring leads to ugly eruptions. Inevitably, ignoring our fears leads to them exploding out of us—reacting rather than responding. These destructive volcanic moments often occur in relationships, reinforcing our belief that Fear is undesirable, dangerous. Examining (and accepting) our fears turns out to be an essential activity to enhancing our loving.
When we acknowledge our fears, Fear can be an important messenger. She reminds us of our common humanity, restoring our connection with others—and helps us see our unique pains and sensitivities. We can only accomplish this by listening to our fears, acknowledging that Fear loves us unconditionally AND that she has no idea of our capabilities and resources (see blog, Scary versus Dangerous).
So, What and How do We Fear?
Because we are interdependent, requiring help from other people to meet our needs (see blog, I Need You, We All Need…), our most impactful fears are intra- and inter-personal: related to ourselves and others. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm postulates that the source of all our anxieties is the fear of separateness. Buddhist teacher Gregory Kramer eloquently states the fear of separateness is “a terror of emptiness, the concern that this self—personal or social—will die in a cold nothingness.” Because it is so terrifying, our existential fear of nothingness is usually unconscious, recognized only by surface manifestations such as an avoidance of being alone, the fear of being criticized, or pulling back from close relationships.
According to Kramer, there are three fears, each with an associated hunger. A hunger is a desire to keep the fear at bay—they are two sides of the same coin. Unexamined fears lead to hungers that keep us from intimacy with ourselves and others. Our hungers leads us to see others as beings who might satisfy our desires, rather than as their unique selves. Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg states that unexamined fears can create inner impoverishment, “When we experience inner impoverishment, love for another too easily becomes hunger: for reassurance, for acclaim, for affirmation of our worth.” Clinging to our hungers causes us suffering and grasping. Grasping becomes an obsession as we cling in hatred or desire, which becomes the basis of our dissatisfactions and pains. As we acknowledge our fears, hunger loses its hold on us, ultimately leading to serenity and wisdom. Sign me up!
Fear of Pain/Hunger for Pleasure
We want as much as possible to maximize our pleasures and minimize our pains—this is our evolutionary inheritance, designed to ensure our survival. However, as we seek to avoid inevitable pains and gain more pleasures, we distort our ability to experience reality. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh notes that even when we are our most joyful, there is fear behind our joy—until we examine our fears.
Our drive for pleasure may lead to addictions and other self-injurious behaviors. Common behaviors to numb or avoid our fears include non-suicidal physical injury, drug and alcohol use, gaming and gambling, eating disorders, sleep deficits, and excessive working. A very popular means of avoiding introspection in contemporary society is busyness. Many technologies are designed to seduce us into absorption. As Zen priest Joan Halifax notes, “You cannot become enlightened by being busy.” Fromm notes that these solutions lead to transitory altered states, numbing the pain temporarily, but do not address our need for unity.
When controlled by the Fear of Pain/Hunger for Pleasure, we view others as ‘food’ for our needs, not as their true selves; we wish to ‘own’ the beloved. And, when our relationships do not deliver the desired pleasure or keep the unwanted pain at bay, we become hurt and angry, which can lead to aggression and infidelity.
Fear of Non-Being/ Hunger to be Seen
The Fear of Non-Being is the fear that we will not be seen—that we are unworthy of being seen by others. For myself, I have realized that there are two related but distinct parts of this fear. The first is a need for approval from others for my accomplishments. The second, deeper and stronger, fear is a fear of being forgotten—of not being needed or wanted. Ultimately, this is the fear of abandonment. Making sure we are not abandoned is critical for surviving our long, helpless infancy, as well as our lifetime of interdependence. The commonly-used abbreviation FOMO (fear of missing out) shows that this fear is relevant to many. Ultimately, the fear of non-being is a fear of not being loved—that we are unloved and unlovable. Fromm notes that the fear of lovelessness is universal; how we address it is personally and culturally mediated, with a finite number of solutions as history records. If we have learned to need a certain form of attention, we may resist or reject love that comes in other forms.
When we believe we are unlovable, we will often settle for the distal consolation of self-esteem. Self-esteem, unlike self-worth, is contingent and transitory—we compare ourselves to some other, shifting standard. Any achieved self-esteem can be lost, whereas self-worth is constant. Common areas for evaluations include physical appearance, peer approval, work or school success, fitness or sports abilities, and family support. In these evaluations, we compare ourselves to others—and, social media has only made this easier to do. Our hunger for positive feedback can lead us to seek it at someone else’s expense. Therefore, we may engage in gossip about others to belittle them and bring (transitory) attention to ourselves.
A particularly seductive and socially sanctioned means to be seen is professional accomplishments. Fromm notes that although we may find activities that engage us intellectually and creatively that lead to fulfillment, we can still experience interpersonal isolation. Therefore, no matter our accomplishments, our Fear of Non-Being/Hunger to be Seen will persist.
Fear of Being/Hunger to Avoid Being Seen
Whereas the Fear of Non-Being is the fear of being unlovable, the Fear of Being is the fear that our love for others will be rejected. In addition to fearing that we will go unnoticed, ironically, we also fear being seen. We fear losing our current safety, whatever that might be, and so have an urge to escape notice, to shrink from contact and possible hurt. Unexamined, our Fear of Being lead us to hide our true selves, especially our pain and vulnerability, as the ultimate rejection would be the rejection of our honest, vulnerable selves—and rejection is interpersonal death.
Often, the Hunger to Avoid Being Seen leads us to engage in self-criticism, becoming both the perpetrator and victim of our violence—this leads to self-deceptions to protect ourselves from ourselves, which annihilates self-intimacy. One of the main means to avoid being seen is conformity. Conformity provides pseudo-unity; but as our true selves are obscured, we will create relationships where we cannot be truly known or experience love. Denying our true selves, we are unable to experience intimacy because we are being false to ourselves and others. To hide our Fear of Being/Hunger to Avoid Being Seen from ourselves and others, we develop addictions, create false personas, and strive for external approval even at costs to our self-worth.
Fears and Hungers Intermingled: The Fear Triangle
As if each fear/hunger dyad wasn’t bad enough on its own, they intermingle and can be even more toxic, if unacknowledged. The desire to avoid pain and obtain pleasure (Fear of Pain) provides the base of the triangle, holding up the sides of the Fear of Non-Being and Fear of Being. In our hungry state, we become greedy for what we believe will bring us pleasure, hate that which we perceive as causing us pain, and overlook that which we view as inconsequential to meeting our needs.
The Fear of Non-Being and Fear of Being are both based in a sense of unworthiness and loneliness; unacknowledged, these fears lead us to lose touch with our true selves. This lack of self-honesty and -awareness obscures our natural capacity for agency and awareness of our love. Even when we are experiencing joy, we feel fear breathing down our neck. As we lose our self-awareness, we also lose the ability to perceive reality clearly. As Salzberg states, “Our vision becomes very narrow when we need things to be a certain way and cannot accept things the way they actually are. Denial functions almost as a kind of narcotic, so that vital parts of our lives end up missing.”
Ignored, Fear amplifies the differences between people, creating in- and out-groups. Our fears lead to relationships marked by biases, prejudices, stereotypes, xenophobia, and dehumanization. Due to fear, we create hierarchies within and across groups: providing status, power, and privilege for a few and scarcity for many.
We all experience the Fear Triangle; this is our shared human experience. Unexamined, our fears lead to hungers that make us self-absorbed and unable to be present to others, which impedes our ability to give and receive love. Often, I will realize a hunger before the fear—hunger is a warning that I have a fear waiting to be acknowledged. As we accept our fears, we are able to see our hungers with greater immediacy. Hungers can become road signs, warning "Slow Down. Fear Present."
As we embrace and acknowledge our fears, instead of feeling hungry, we feel abundance. We feel love. We can concurrently acknowledge our similarities to and differences with others, making us able to be present and loving to ourselves and others—all of whom become beloveds—providing us with the agency to act in the world as we wish.
We can't experience love without experiencing fear
When we experience fear, we can experience love
Fear isn’t going to go away—and, nor would I want her to—she has taught me so much, provided me with so much love. How will you embrace Fear today?