Afraid of the Dark

Hugging through life

Sometime shortly after my son turned five he developed a fear of the dark. I would be putting him to bed at night and he would bolt up and say, “Mommy, what’s that dark thing over there?” to which I would respond, “Oh, that’s the blanket that rests on the chair.” Five minutes later he would ask about another shape and three minutes later the folds of the blankets would scare him.

I was bewildered by the sudden onset of this fear until I understood it in the context of his transition into bigger boyhood (see my post “My Sons Are Teething“). As his physical body grows and changes, so his emotional and psychological bodies follow suit; he’s shedding his baby teeth, his baby articulation, his little boy body. Even his skin is changing, no longer that pure and smooth softness that only very small ones have. Half the time he’s as mature as a ten year old and the other half he’s like an out of control toddler. And if he’s exhibiting out of control behavior it means he’s feeling out of control inside. And if he’s feeling out of control inside it makes sense that he would attach his unexpressed fears and unacknowledged confusion onto something visible and tangible.

Like many of my clients who are struggling through transitions, my son lacks the vocabulary to say, “I feel out of control inside.” Instead, he saves up his feelings for the end of the day when we slow down and lie down together; then the monsters are unleashed. Likewise, instead of saying, “I feel out of control inside,” my clients attach their monsters onto their partner or the planning, either spinning themselves into a tizzy of doubt around the question of “Am I making a mistake?” or turning into Bridezilla. In other words, if the fears, doubts and losses aren’t consciously expressed and handled, they’ll project themselves onto something external, either an unsuspecting partner or the details of napkin colors and flower arrangements.

I try to help my son the same way I help my clients: First, I offer him words. I’ll say to him, “I’m wondering if you’re feeling out of control inside lately,” to which he almost always responds affirmatively. I wonder aloud if perhaps the fear of the blankets isn’t about the blankets at all but about how scary it is to feel out of control inside. I have no idea if that makes any sense to him but it can’t hurt. Then I offer him tools. I’ll suggest that he’s stronger than the fear and can throw the blanket off the bed if he wants to. I teach him how to use his mind to focus on something other than his fear.

But mostly, I offer him comfort. As he lays in my arms and drifts off to sleep, I remind him that he has protection all around: his Pooh bear in his arms, the Great Horned owls that circle our house at night and often land directly on the roof above his bedroom, our cat who curls beside us. I tell him how strong and brave and kind and beautiful he is. And mostly I tell him how much I love him – infinity times infinity to be exact – and how I’m the luckiest mommy in the world because I get to be his mommy.

Our unconscious fears and insecurities live in the dark and often reveal themselves at night; they also reveal themselves most acutely during transitions, when we’re rendered more raw and vulnerable than during other times. By loving my son through the fears, I hope to teach him not to be afraid of the fear itself but to embrace it and and eventually be able to move toward it. By far the biggest challenge I encounter with my clients is helping them move toward the fear instead of falling prey to the habitual tendency to run from it. When we shed the light of awareness on the fears, it turns out that the scary monsters are, well, just blankets and pillows. The fears transform within our curiosity and loving attention; the darkness transforms into light. This is what it means to walk through transitions with consciousness.

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