Action Diffuses Fear

IMG_5499Given the terrifying unraveling of events in our world recently, it’s not surprising that many of my clients have spent a portion of their sessions talking about their fear, sadness, powerlessness, and hopelessness. As my clients, course members, and readers are highly sensitive people (possible even highly HIGHLY sensitive), when the world seems like it’s falling apart, they’re going to feel it in the deepest folds of their hearts. How can people commit such atrocities, they ask with tears in their eyes?

I don’t have the answers. I can’t even hypothesize about how the world has devolved to this state. The underlying reasons are complex and multi-layered, and must draw on every facet of our internal and external realms: psychology, spirituality, sociology, economics, politics, ecology, religion. We desperately want to understand this so that we can fix it, and address it we must. But as that’s not my area of expertise, I will address what I can here in hopes that it might ease a bit of suffering.

I worked with a client last week who is struggling with the world’s recent events. She spent half the session talking about it, and while I encouraged her to feel her raw feelings (sadness, vulnerability, heartbreak) and take action where she can (prayer, awareness, fruitful conversations – more on taking action in a bit), I had a sense that the degree to which she was immersing herself in the details of the events wasn’t serving her. I asked, “How much time are you reading about this?” “Too much,” she replied.

At that point the focus of the session changed to talking about self-care, and how limiting the time she spends reading the news is a profound act of self-love. I talk about this all the time with my highly sensitive clients, and it’s never been more critical than now. I said to her, “If you had a child, would you sit them in front of the news and make them watch the details?” Never, of course. We protect our children as best we can because there’s no point in them knowing about the details – especially the way mainstream news terrorizes us with their telling and re-telling of the stories. If children are in school, they will likely practice emergency procedures, but they still don’t need to know the details of the actual attacks that have recently occurred. We must protect our “inner child”, our tender hearts and souls, with the same fierce and loving protectiveness as we would or do protect our outer ones.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: The more energy I spend reading about the details of the attacks, the more fearful images enter the bloodstream of my imagination. The less I read, the less I fear. I’m not suggesting to bury our heads in the sand; we need to stay abreast of what’s happening in the world. But once we gather the basic headlines, it doesn’t serve to read and read and click and click until we feel sick with fear. Are the recent attacks on my mind when I take my son to a holiday event at a large theater downtown? Yes. But the more I limit reading about the details, the less frequently the scary images arrive.

Let me be clear: I am NOT saying to simply feel, pray, and go into denial. The world needs us to take action, now more than ever. To be a bit crass, we need to get off our privileged asses and actively help whenever and wherever we can. We need to sign petitions and donate time and money whenever possible. In fact, taking action is one of the best antidotes for fear in all ways. When I’m talking about relationship anxiety, I often use the phrase, “Action diffuses fear”, which means act against the fear instead of becoming a victim to it. The same applies here. In the aftermath of the Paris tragedies, even the Dalai Lama said that prayer is not enough. But we must act without obsessing. We must become informed without immersing ourselves in the terrifying details. And we must carefully choose which news sources we choose to ingest. As my husband poignantly wrote as we corresponded back and forth about this post, “Of course the obsession of checking the news and listening for when the bad guys will attack is media madness. The 24-hour news cycle uses bad news to keep people hooked, and they prey on fear, too. It’s clear that the news is part of the problem of getting people inflamed and more angry at those who are acting out.”

How do we acknowledge that the world is a mess without falling into the pit of despair? How do we breathe into the truth that there is darkness in the world without become paralyzed? For darkness there is. I don’t believe that people are born dark, but somehow, through the perfect storm of genetics and sociology, the darkness takes root and manifests to the point of human beings killing other human beings in completely senseless acts. But the truth is that there’s always been darkness in the world, which could be another way of saying that there have always been people who have acted from a place of profound fear. When I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed over our heads. In other eras, the fear of wars, plagues, pogroms, Dark Ages, Inquisitions, and other violent atrocities lurked around the corners. I say this because it’s easy to jump on the train of, “Our world is falling apart,” and thus inflame the fear-based mindset that the lays like a sticky skin over our society. But perhaps the world has always been falling apart.

And perhaps it’s always being mended back together in new and essential ways. For just as there’s darkness, there’s also great beauty, goodness, light and hope. The vast majority of human beings, I believe, are profoundly good. Through my work, I’m privileged to sit across from people every day who radiate goodness. My heart is broken open by their willingness to peel away their fear-based stories. My soul uplifts when I hear their stories of vulnerability and open-heartedness, of how hard they’re working to soften their fear-walls and live more and more from a place of love. And it’s not just my clients, of course.

Kindness is everywhere. It’s the small act of someone letting you have a parking spot on a busy pre-holiday weekend. It’s the neighbor bringing you a cup of milk. It’s the enormous acts of rescue workers risking their own lives to save others. Heroes are everywhere. And we can be those heroes every time we act against fear, both internally and externally. Richard Seidman, in The Oracle of Kabbalah, relates this story about performing deeds of loving-kindness:

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tells a moving story about meeting a hunchbacked street cleaner in Israel who as a chid had been a student of the famous ‘Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto,’ Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. The street sweeper describes how Reb Kalonymus would always end his teachings by saying, ‘Children, precious children, remember, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor.’

This teaching gave the street cleaner the strength to resist suicide and survive the Auschwitz concentration camp. ‘Do you know how many favors you can do at night in Auschwitz?’ he asks Shlomo. Then, this teacher helps him resist despair and the temptation to kill himself in Tel Aviv. ‘Do you know how many favors you can do on the streets of the world?’ he says. This street cleaner, hunchbacked from being beaten at Auschwitz, found his own nourishment and ability to continue living through performing deeds of loving-kindness.

We can also look for the worldwide ways that kindness and goodness are emanating on a bigger scale. As my husband wrote to me this weekend:

There was 125 countries involved in drafting a historic climate agreement. People like Dean Kamen have suggested we develop a U.S. Department of Peace so that we can get fresh water and electricity to people in the world who would become our enemies because they suffer. We are a dysfunctional global family and we need to respond to these situations with real solutions that address the root causes of the problems instead of more aggression and violence.

I often recall an interview I did with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone many years ago in which I asked, “Are we going to be okay?” To which she responded (with a smile I could hear through the phone lines), “I believe in miracles. I believe we will.” I understood her statement to mean that goodness prevails, that there is more goodness than darkness, that love is stronger than fear. Mister Rogers concurs:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. That’s why I think it’s so important for news programs to make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming in to a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that, because if you look for the helpers you’ll know that there’s hope.”

The helpers are everywhere. When we devolve into hopelessness, we dangle into despair. But if we can see the light that shines inside most human beings, we can hold onto a thread of hope. Look for the helpers. And become the helpers in any way that you can. There are angels in human form and invisible presences that are guiding us toward greater goodness. But we have to look for them. We have to focus our attention there. We have to be them. If we allow our terror to take over, we tumble into despair. I write every week about working with fear on the internal level, and it’s the same work externally. We hear the fear, but we don’t listen to it, and we consciously re-orient the focus of our attention toward thoughts, feelings, experiences, and actions that will nurture more love, gratitude, hope and real change in ourselves, in people and in the world.

As an article about the Dalai Lama recently quoted:

When the interviewer suggested his sentiments of peace, love, and compassion have fallen on deaf ears around the world, the Dalai Lama declined to entertain a pessimistic view. “I disagree. I think that only a small percentage of people subscribe to the violent discourse,” he said. “We are human beings and there is no basis or justification for killing others. If you consider others as brothers and sisters and respect their rights, then there is no room for violence.”
Rather than dwell on the small minority of violent instigators, the Dalai Lama focused on solutions. “If we emphasize more on nonviolence and harmony, we can herald a new beginning,” he said. He also cautioned against failing to work toward this ideal: “Unless we make serious attempts to achieve peace, we will continue to see a replay of the mayhem humanity experienced in the 20th century.”
There are so many ways to take action. Here is one:
Remember: Action diffuses fear. We start by moving toward our own fear, sadness, confusion, and disappointment and embracing ourselves with the kindness and protection of a fierce and loving parent. We then move toward our loving partners and friends, working diligently to dismantle our own protection systems so that we can live from open-heartedness more times than not. And from there, naturally rippling out in waves of loving-kindness, we give to our neighborhoods, our communities, our world.

***

Thank you to my husband for his invaluable feedback on this blog post, and for staying so informed without fear about what’s happening in current events. And for the all the ways, both big and small, that he brings light into this world. 

26 comments to Action Diffuses Fear

  • Amanda

    Thank you so much for this post! I really enjoyed it and think it is so important and timely. Thank you!! I struggle with this daily. I feel so overwhelmed and hopeless about the state of the world that I start to shut down. I am so glad you call for action and highlight the fact that each of us can make a difference. Something I struggle with, and I think you touch on it a little, is NEVER feeling like I’m doing enough, even when I volunteer and donate money. I receive emails multiple times per day from organizations that I’m involved with asking for help. For example, the local animal rescue constantly needs volunteers to transport animals to various places. I find myself feeling so guilty for not helping with more of these because my schedule makes it inconvenient (not impossible). I always obsess over the fact that I COULD be doing more if I was just willing to sacrifice more. I’m just not sure where to draw the line and how much action is “enough” so I can just let my mind rest. Anyway, thank you so much again for this post!

    • That’s great point, Amanda, and I think something that many HSPs struggle with. I also think that our culture infuses guilt into us by constantly sending requests for help and donations. The inner work is to learn to create an inner boundary that says, “I’m doing all I can do, which is a lot.” The 10% rule can also be helpful: Many religions encourage that we “tithe” 10% of our income to charity, and I think that also applies to how much energy we “donate” toward causes. If we’re doing 10%, we’re doing plenty.

  • Ashley Chapman

    Great post.Question. While during my relationship with my ex bf I had experienced constant anxiety and eventually I just grew tired of him or fell out of love and he was a great guy and my best friend. During our time dating I had this constant fear that I was gay and I as write this post I feel my fear spiking.Even though we have broken up now I am still dealing with constant anxiety about thinking I am gay.Where does this fear come from and how do I deal with this. Side note: Me and ex bf are good friends but now I am annoyed by him which was never the case before. He was my bestfriend and I adored him.

    • Sophie

      Dear Ashley,
      Did Sheryl reply to you privately? I find it hurtful where someone shares their personal story, opens up and no response is received. I experienced this recently, and in the past, eg childhood, when I shared my feelings of great hurt, I and my feelings were dismissed. I have gone on unwittingly to repeat this pattern and be attracted to those who dismiss my feelings. I’ve stupidly I now realise, ‘gone out of my way’ ie gone against looking after my own emotional needs and physical safety, in an attempt to give what they wanted, as that was my example of love – both in giving gifts (rarely what was really desired as money was in short supply) rather than giving of oneself, one’s/my true emotions, my emotional honesty. Of course I couldn’t give what I didn’t have. Except I did have this gift, I’d just not yet learned I had such depth of emotions, I have emotional honesty and integrity, and no matter the wider world, in my world, within and to myself, and further, out towards all I encounter, I can choose to be honest.

      Well done Ashley for being brave, for revealing your fears, for checking if you were in the right relationship with yourself and with the ex bf you chose to value. I admire your honesty. Your honesty will and us serving you well. Bright blessings to you, love Sophie x

    • Sophie

      Ps sorry for typo near end, ‘us’ ought read ‘is’ ie ‘your honesty is serving you well’.

      Thank you to Sheryl for including acknowledgement of your husband in enabling this article.
      Thank you Sheryl for enabling me with your sharing of your knowledge on the ‘trust yourself’ course, for I couldn’t have written that reply to Ashley before the work on me that I engaged in through your course. Whilst I’ve been giving me a ‘hard time’ and letting my inner critic dictate my feelings recently, telling me I wasn’t ‘good enough’ because I didn’t complete all the work suggested in your course, I also ‘let myself off the hook’ and was loving to my scared inner voice (little Sophie) and said I could return to the work when ready. My inner critic continued to tell me I was stupid and slow and I challenge her here for I may well be stupid and slow, and compared to what and who? For I only need compare me to me, and then I’m perfect just as I am, stupid, slow, whatever, I am me, I have a right to be me, I choose to heal and improve me (I gently listen to and lovingly silence that little voice again/inner critic that says I’m not good enough to earn any right to anything) for I choose to be me, to love me, and I thank Sheryl for this space to express this, I thank the Internet for connecting me with you the reader, should anyone read this, and whilst earlier today I felt insecure and anxious, now I simply choose to love me. May you who reads this feel loved xx

      • Thank you, Sophie. This comment section is a place for my readers to support one another, and it’s always wonderful when they do with such care and compassion. I respond when I can, but certainly not to the extent that I do in my 30-day programs, as you know! x

  • Learning to love

    Great post Sheryl! Action really can diffuse fear. There is one thing I’d add and that’s to become aware of projection at play too. I noticed that whenever I feel scared, helpless, outraged that I have a tendency to broke angry at the politics of it all. Way back in 2002 when I was in the midst of an abusive relationship that felt me feeling to ashamed and scared to talk about I would become angry and self-righteous in my conversations about the Iraq war. A mini war would occur at home between my and dad and me as we “debated” whether the Iraq war was the correct course of action. I was avidly against it and he was for it. It got to the point where I began telling him that I was going to join the military when I graduated from high school and if I died then at least it was for such a good cause.

    That anger and lashing out had nothing to do with the pending war or recent terror attack. It was a way to distract from my deeper feelings. We see this immediately following horrible events. People begin shouting about guns or Refugees as a way to feel more in control and distract from the deeper, more raw feelings. Now, debating isn’t a bad thing nor is it always a projection but I know for me, this is one of the places I go when I’m looking to avoid my feelings. For me, having a debate isn’t action but projection. It moves from projection when I sit with it and then write a letter to my senator articulating my opinion of his refusal of refugees.

    I’ve stopped listening to the morning news and I try to see underneath the anger for the real feelings and then try to take action from there. I’m really trying to go from talking and ranting about the issues to finding a way for me to contribute. What do you think? Is this something you see as well?

    • Absolutely YES! Thank you for adding this essential piece to the discussion. Blessings to you.

    • Name Here

      That’s really insightful.

      I’ve never posted here before, but I felt a need to say that sometimes getting a discussion or debate going IS an action that can be really positive! I’ve had my mind opened many times from hearing someone rant or argue a point really passionately – first, because I may see a new perspective and second, because the vehemence makes me want to see & think about the other side of the argument. It all helps me to develop a balanced worldview of issues that are rarely black or white.

      I get that you are saying in your case it was a projection of something internal, and that you are working on that, but in your last paragraph you said you were trying to find ways to take action, not realising that the ways you already express yourself naturally (ie by sparking debates) can be great actions in themselves! We have to talk about big things in the world! Otherwise people get dangerous when consumed by one particular worldview. So I’d say keep starting those debates, but now they will come from a place of love for the world rather than a projection of your own internal struggle.

      Best wishes.

  • John Lee

    What a timely blog, Sheryl..thank you for focusing on the external and ways to move forward. I have felt such sadness, especially during the few days following San Bernadino and the Congress’ refusal to take some kind of action. I need to remind myself that just turning off the TV isn’t enough…that I do need to stay engaged and will find ways to do so, but with volunteering and charity.

    It is hard with certain politicians who just fuel the fear…but I suspect this has always been so at times such as these.

    Thanks for your gift today.
    John

  • Jennifer

    Dear Sheryl, thanks so much for a beautiful timely post. Loved how both you and your husband collaborated on this. Sums up so much of my thoughts as of late. Being helpers and favor granters–I loved that.

    Dear Ashley, I was touched by your questioning and pondering. What came to mind was a TedEx talk I saw by Michael Neill a couple of years ago that had a profound impact on me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xr6VawX2nr4. I remembered it this morning and thought I would share it with you. It’s called, “Why Aren’t We Awesomer?” It’s relevant to Sheryl’s post today, but also to some of your constant doubts and fears you expressed. The talk could have also been titled, “The power of our thoughts that makes us believe we are less than awesome!”. I hope it’s of help to you. Sending encouragement and support on your path. namaste, Jennifer

  • Oh Sheryl…..WOW!! What an astounding post. And so courageous! I began by feeling unsure about what you were saying as it brought up my own fear-based shame around the fact that I HAVE been sheltering myself from the news of late! I wasn’t sure exactly why I’d been “avoiding” the news until reading this post! I had put it down to cowardice or worse still, a lack of love for others….But when I read through, approaching your words about seeing people’s goodness, seeing the helpers amongst us….I just crumpled into a pool of tears. That is it! I want to see and believe in people’s goodness. I want to believe in hope. I can know and feel my pain around the atrocities of what’s happening without subjecting myself to news articles and TV footage. Most importantly…and this is why I cried…your article showed me the truth of my love, not just for the circle of close, loved ones around me, but for the world as a whole. Thank you so much for this gift. What an angel you are. Much love, Zoe xxx

  • Bra77

    Hi Sheryl! Beautiful blog post as always. Lately my love and I have been fighting and I’ve been feeling very angry, irritated, and agitated with her. Also, I’ve become very jealous and it’s really hurting our relationship. I don’t feel the fear of losing her much if not ever. Lately we’ve been very stressed out and we have been fighting more often. Could this be a manifestation of fear or is there an actual problem going on?

  • Anne

    Awesome post! We have to remember as HSPs and consumers that the news media is a business. I agree we’ve always lived in a broken world in the process of mending, but the rate at which we receive information is now lightening fast.

    I would love suggestions about how to avoid seeing news in my Facebook feed. Unfortunately I can’t just go off Facebook because the employer for whom I contract and both my moms’ groups use it for communication. If anyone has suggestions, I’d love them!

    • I’m not a Facebook expert by any means (I limit my exposure as much as possible), but current events never show up in my newsfeed, so I imagine there’s a way to block it. Perhaps someone else will chime in!

  • Ashley Chapman

    Thank you Jennifer for the weblink. I truly learned alot from it and it was very helpful. Also, thank you Sophie for your kind words. I was just wondering if anyone migh know of any good books that might help me with my situation.

  • Kelsey R

    Thank you Sheryl! I know you have so many people commenting but I just wanted to say your posts always come at the perfect moments! Thank you for all of your help and guidance☺

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl, i totally agree. Unfortunately bad things to people will always happen. I do keep telling myself why do i watch the news. I think the reason i do watch the new most nights is because its good to know whats going on around the world. As depressing as it may be. I will try not to get my children not to watch the bad stuff, when i have kids.they dont need to be exposed to especially at a tender age. I remember when i was a kid sheryl as you can relate your the same age. One class mate didnt have a tv.. The parents didnt believe in television in those days and they were such calm kids.

  • Cass

    Thanks Sheryl!
    The Climate Council had its funding cut when our conservative government came into power here in Australia but bounced back via a crowd funding campaign, which nicely illustrates the point of your post. We signed up our baby daughter as a founding member and it was so nice to get the email containing that video addressed to her earlier this week.

  • Denise

    I love this post so much it also hurts. It helps so much to know I’m not the only person who feels all this pain so deeply. And I agree so much that we need to get off our asses and take action! Haha! I feel like I might have to write down a few quotes from this article and put them on my walls to be constant reminders. 🙂