Ways to Challenge Fear

Living with kids close to nature and on a creek, I find that my fear-mind has many opportunities to reveal itself. In spring, when the creek swells to river stature and rushes in white-lipped rapids, I worry that one of my kids will somehow escape through the gate and… In summer, as we gleefully splash in its pools and rock-hop to the other side, I worry about one of them slipping on an algae-covered boulder and… And now, in winter, as my older son courageously and curiously wants to explore the multi-faceted and miraculous displays of ice, my worry-mind sees the ice cracking, breaking, and…

Of course, I’m very careful (probably too careful). I teach them to respect Nature and learn her ways while remembering that her ways can be unpredictable. Last summer, Everest and I were walking up the creek when suddenly the volume of the water’s babble noticeably increased. I said, “Let’s move onto the bank,” and sure enough, the creek rose by several inches in a matter of seconds and the water transformed from a gentle meander to a rush. Fear swelled up in me, and this time it was the kind that I needed to listen to.

For me, Nature is the greatest teacher and there’s nothing that brings me more fulfillment and peace than seeing my boys revel in Her mysteries and joys. One of the reasons why we moved into this house was to be closer to nature and invite Her, through proximity, to be one of our kids’ primary mentors. I could play it safe and move my family to city, thereby removing the potential danger of water, snakes, bears, and mountain lions (all of whom have paid visits to our neighborhood), but then I would miss the splendor that lies before us.

There is no doubt that with Nature comes a bit more risk than, say, swinging on a swing at the park or playing in a nice square patch of backyard grass. Oftentimes, the risk is minimal and mostly exists inside my worry-prone mind. Nevertheless, fear is here, and the challenge for me it not to allow it to rule my decisions or squelch my kids’ exploration. I must let my sons explore and face their own fears or doubts, knowing that each time they take action against fear, they move in the direction of faith and love.

This is, of course, at the heart of my work with clients in relationships. The battle is between fear and love or fear and faith. And while I offer many techniques for battling fear (Lesson 5 of the E-Course is exclusively devoted to this topic) from breathing practices to changing the thought channel to blowing bubbles (yes!), one of the most effective antidotes is taking action that sends the message to fear of, “I hear you but I’m not going to listen to you.”

Action is at the core of all rituals that people in indigenous cultures enact – and some that our culture still retain. The young boy on the threshold of manhood must face his fear as he enters the forest and engages in a solo vision quest. Scarification rituals must engender buckets of fear that are only diminished once the act is complete. A woman nearing labor feels the fear of what lies ahead and knows that she has no choice but to face that mountain of pain so that she can hold her bundle of love in her arms. And the wedding, although typically thought of as only an act of joy and love, is actually an act of courage where, when entered into consciously, reduces fear and places love and faith in the driver’s seat.

Let’s pause for a moment and examine this last sentence: the wedding is an act of courage? Yes! It takes courage to commit yourself to one person for the rest of your life. It takes courage to keep walking forward toward the wedding day when your fear-mind is screaming RUN at every turn. It takes courage to look at the statistics of marriage and divorce and of happy, successful marriages and say, “I know it’s bleak, but I know we have what it takes.” I used to think that my clients’ anxieties diminished after the wedding day because they had taken the question of “Should I or shouldn’t I?” out of the picture. While I’m sure this a significant factor in post-wedding anxiety-reduction, I know now that another factor is at play: by getting married, my clients have taken a firm and positive action against fear and toward love. It’s a powerful action that says to fear, “I hear you but I’m not listening to you. I know you’re telling me that love isn’t safe and that I’m making a mistake, but I don’t believe you. I’m making a choose based on my rational mind and based on faith in what I know to be a good relationship. It’s time for you to take a back seat now. You’re no longer driving this car.”

Fear-reducing actions also figure prominently in the engagement period. In the rituals category of this blog, I talk about acts like skydiving and ropes course that address fear head-on and often take a big bite out of its power. I recently received a great email from a client and e-course participant who wrote:

I don’t know if the fact that I’ve been facing my fears has anything to do with it but last weekend I went ziplining. Now this is totally against my character. I don’t like anything scary or anything where I think I can get hurt. So for me to take an air tram to 1,600 meters and then clip myself to a cord and jump from one mountain to another was pretty crazy. I remember screaming until I couldn’t anymore, then screaming again…. and then there was silence( the jumps last about 45 seconds) and in that silence i just started crying. The funny thing is I can’t quite explain why but it wasn’t because I was scared anymore, it was more a sense of relief that I had done it. I hope I feel that way about my personal life soon!

Getting married is like jumping off a cliff or ziplining or skydiving: there is risk involved and you’re scared of getting hurt. But you cannot live life fully without risk – and with risk comes fear and with fear comes the opportunity to challenge that fear. And when you challenge fear you see that you are bigger than it. There is a parachute that opens… and that parachute, in a word, is called love. Not the feeling that we normally associate with the word love, but an active, daily choice to learn what it means to support and commit to another human being, to open your heart to the fulfilling and miraculous gift of a committed relationship.

Every time you say no to fear you say yes to love. Every time you take an action that puts fear in its place, you make space inside for love to enter. The action might be large – like jumping out of an airplane – or small, like reaching for your partner’s hand even when you’re in the grip of fear. Or perhaps I should reverse those measurements and say that often times, reaching out to take your partner’s hand even when you’re gripped by fear is a greater act of courage than jumping out of an airplane. For there is nothing as fragile and vulnerable as the human heart, and there is no greater risk than loving and committing yourself to the journey of love.

9 comments to Ways to Challenge Fear

  • Hi, from New Zealand, fear is not easy to overcome, I have found positive affirmations to work well for me, cheers Marie

  • I recommend The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker.

  • GmJersey

    Sheryl thank you for this post. When I read the part about the ziplining I cried again. Its funny but after that jump, I’ve done other things that where “out of character” And it got me thinking , why am I always scared to do things? Its not only that I think I’ll get hurt but I am also terrified of failing. For example, after the ziplining I went surfing. The whole day before I kept telling my fiance I was going to skip it. I didn’t tell him why but in my head all I thought was, I’m not going to be able to stand up! The fear of trying it and failing was so strong it almost made me not try it at all. Anywho, I gathered up my courage and granted having my closet 4 friends trying it with me def. helped but I took the lesson and guess what? I stood up on the board!! For maybe 2 seconds and on one leg but I STOOD UP!!! I was so proud of me. I’m sure if I take more lessons the better I will get. Maybe in a way that’s how marriage will be. Something completely new, where I have so many fears because its something I’ve never done before, but with practice I will get better and hopefully be a great wife!

  • Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like with marriage. You start out with fear and a good dose of faith and you jump off the cliff and trust that your parachute will open. Also, it seems that almost everyone who comes to me is a perfectionist, which means that the fear of failure is quite strong. It’s great that you’re making this connection and working with it through ACTION during your engagement.

  • GM – i love the comparison you made with the surfing and marriage! thinking of it that way takes so much pressure off of us anxious folks. If we go into it thinking our marriage has to be perfect our anxiety will increase ten-fold. I love thinking of it as practice makes perfect. It will be hard, but the more work we put into our marriage and commitment and the more we make mistakes and learn from them, the better our marriage will get and the better spouses we will become. i like it 🙂

  • elisa

    Can anyone comment on the possibility of reconciliation of a broken relationship?

  • KD

    Elisa,
    I guess it all depends upon the circumstances, but I do know of a few people who have been able to reconcile, even under some seriously bad circumstances.

    For instance, friends of mine, we’ll call them E & C. E & C began dating in college for 1.5 years. They started to grow apart due to immaturity and C’s fear of serious commitment. C then left E for another girl. E was distraught, but was able to distance herself and enjoy her college experience, making new friends, figuring out who she was, and letting go of the pain C had caused. By the end of college, E & C re-entered each other’s lives. E was able to forgive C for his actions, and C in turn has proven himself a committed and trustworthy partner. They have been going strong for the past 3.5 years.

    I guess it depends on what sort of reconciliation you’re looking for. Can you truly let go of past hurt, can you fully embrace the new relationship?

  • Shauna

    Every time I am feeling anxious, I manage to find support and calm at this website. Thank you so much.

    This post reminded me of a documentary I just watched about rock climbing. The entire time I was thinking, “These men are crazy”, but I also wished I was braver and went out of my comfort zone more often. This post made me realize how much fear has a hold of me, in life and in love.

  • Yes, Shauna, and more and more I realize that it’s really through positive action and ritual that we break down fear’s stronghold. We can talk all we want about it but eventually we have to say “no” to fear, which happens most effectively through action.