Be Friends with Fear (BFF): Changing the Way We View and Interpret Fear

Hey, fear, can we be friends?

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Transcribed from Dr. Leia Charin’s talk at Ignite Charlotte on May 14th, 2019.

At Some Point, We Will All Experience Fear

Today I want to talk to you about fear. It’s such a powerful emotion. We often associate it with darkness, with words like foreboding and unpredictable. We feel so much concern about how we can act next. 

We’re hardwired to feel fear. Literally, our adrenal gland physically etches into our bodies these responses. Right now I’m feeling a little trembley, my deodorant is failing. I’m feeling some fear!

Fear is really adaptive. There are fears in our lives that are important, because we need to know, “hey, beware of this.” There are others that we manufacture and tell ourselves that there’s only one way to respond. These fears feel controlling, like a tug of war. 

We see fear as this giant monster that’s going to pull us into a pit and we feel paralyzed. We tell ourselves that we need to armor up, we need to protect ourselves. Or, we need to feel small. 

How Do You Interpret Fear?

We have to talk about the way that we interpret fear. Interpretations are so powerful because they tell us there’s only one way to view our fear.

Take, for example, this image of fruit. It looks like the fruit’s in a pretty perilous position. It falls, it will get pierced. It’s done for. Perhaps, maybe it’s actually surrounded by all the tools that it needs to be cut into, to share the juices and wealth of the fruit within.

We also tell ourselves that there’s only one direct path. I’m afraid. There’s only one way out: freeze, fight or flight. Maybe you could turn around and see, “hey, I could go this direction, look up this tree, look through these woods,” and find that there are other ways to move through our lives. 

Who’s ever told you that when you play tug of war you could actually drop the rope. We pull, our hands are hurt, we have rope burn, it’s terrible. However, maybe we can drop this rope and tell ourselves that we have choices, to look around and see other things in our lives that we find meaningful.

Fear Provides Opportunities for Growth

These are opportunities for growth and it’s so important to talk about growth mindset here. There’s a fixed mindset which means one way to do it, our abilities are limited. Why even try? With a growth mindset, we tell ourselves that, “hey, maybe I have opportunities to learn, to put forth effort.” 

For example, today, I got so nervous preparing for this presentation that I started tearing up. However, I told myself, if I prepare, if I take this opportunity for growth, I can prove to myself that I can feel proud and confident through this talk.

In order to notice those thoughts though, we also have to be mindful of what’s going through our heads. What are the stories we’re telling ourselves? And what are the emotions we’re experiencing? 

Our emotions can knock us off our feet, much like a wave. We often times pay attention to the biggest and scariest waves and we don’t look at the ones that are calming and nurturing, because the big scary waves or emotions, are the ones saying, “hey, alert, I need to be afraid.” 

There’s this beautiful Buddhist metaphor, that, the more rich and deep the mud is, the more beautiful the lotus grows. Perhaps we could actually look at our fear as an opportunity for growth. 

We can’t necessarily get rid of those waves or the mud but maybe we can say, “hey monster, sit next to me on this couch.” We could converse and have a different dialogue with fear. 

So, Let’s Have a Different Dialogue with Fear

In order to have that different dialogue, we have to challenge some of our myths about fear such as: fear means that I’m weak, I have to control my fear to be successful in my life, and I can’t have courage without fear.

I’m gonna pose something different that maybe actually moving forward with fear is one of the most courageous things you can do. Fear can provide motivation, it can tell us what’s truly important, and once we push through it we can have so much self-respect. 

Sometimes when we do feel armored and small though, we feel trapped. I encourage you to think about, what if I put on this metaphorical cape? Hey, maybe even grab a literal cape or a towel, and think about what would my most courageous self do.

Right now, it is certainly standing up in front of all of you because I thought to myself, what the heck did I sign up for? 

We feel courage and also supported when we use the connections around us. Think about how scary it is to feel vulnerable. Why do we want to hide ourselves in those moments? 

When we feel connections and allow ourselves to feel gratitude, we actually have greater neural connectivity in our prefrontal cortex which is the area that’s associated with learning and decision making. 

How cool is that? When we feel connections and move forward, we can have clearer decision making and learning experiences. 

Courage is not the absence of fear, it means that we’re moving forward and making the difficult choices. So I encourage you to choose courage over smallness. Courage over comfort.

And at the beginning of your day, wake up and ask yourself, what would my life look like today if I choose not to allow fear to control it, but maybe, I don’t know, sit down on the couch next to it and say, “hey, fear, can we be friends?”

Click here for more content by Dr. Leia Charnin!

Leia Charnin, Ph.D.
Leia specializes in working with adolescents, young adults, and adults who are navigating difficult life events and want to live in a way that is more aligned with what they consider important. She believes that by learning ways to respond to emotional pain, we can commit to a more meaningful life path that fosters the opportunity to thrive.

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