Functional Fear


Enthusiasm is the opposite of fear.

I have spent my life dealing with fear. It has prompted some of my best decisions and some of my worst. This two sided coin has led me to conclude that eradicating or avoiding fear cannot be the goal of the fear sufferer. The goal is to make fear functional. To move it from the space of overwhelm where fear begets more fear to the space of utility where we can keep our wits about us and actually expand ourselves through it.

My early fear had two tracks. One was the crippling fear of shame the other was the fear of dying. I have no idea where the shame track came from but it was there as early as I can remember. I was so self conscious so early on that I must have been born that way. I so longed to be invisible. I hid from adults, was dubbed shy. I never spoke. I hid behind my mother’s leg afraid to be seen or worse yet, spoken to.

The fear factor ramped up significantly for me at the age of 5 my when my grandmother died. Even though I really had no idea what death was my interpretation of it was giving me nightmares. I would wake up every night crippled with a new fear about dying. The nightmares morphed into an hypochondriacal obsession with all things physical. The obvious way to avoid death was to make sure I was perfectly healthy. Not surprisingly this body focus compounded my shame based fears.

By the age of 7 I was having full blown panic attacks. They were never diagnosed as such and I only realized what they were when I was 29 and in grad school. I would hyperventilate and run out of class down the hall to the secretary’s office who doubled as a nurse.

Fear was not something that was addressed in the early 1970's so for me it was a just a fact of life - though I was well aware that not everyone was experiencing what I was experiencing. To me others were carefree or just plain free. I was neither. My dad was a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ kind of guy, psychology was not on the radar, so while I dealt with my fear as best I could, for the most part it dictated my entire life, lurking behind every choice I made. I dropped out of nursery school, bowed out of birthdays, held up the walls at parties, I avoided groups and classes that required public speaking or an oral presentation, I stayed off planes and I drank a lot.

The upside of fear started to present itself in my late twenties. I was starting to get weird physical symptoms. In need of answers and relief I consulted an internist. As I explained my symptoms he looked at me point blank and said, “You don't need me, you need a shrink.” I thank him every day for saying that to me. The redirection and desire to understand myself ultimately drove me to get my Ph.D in clinical psychology.

The downside of my Ph.D program was that I was taught that fear a.k.a anxiety was indeed something to fear. Much of it was unconsciously motivated and it was something you were going to have to manage for the rest of your life. Panic attacks could come out of nowhere and the medicines had some unsavory side effects. With sad irony, the diagnosis of a mental disorder of any kind was enough to add exponents to a patient’s anxiety levels. I learned that there was coping but never a cure.

Fast forward to my late 30’s and early 40’s and I thought I was doing pretty well coping with my fear. That is until cancer appeared on the scene. The fear of dying was bad, but the fear of not being there for my kids was, if you can believe it - worse. There was something worse than death. Now I was screwed. This new realization was literally killing me. My strategy for healing? Put cancer and all its emotional accompaniments back in the box and get back to normal as quick as possible as if it had never happened.

While not bullet proof it kept the demons at bay for a while until round two. Round two got my attention. Following the surgery I was aware of the feeling of just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I couldn't bounce back emotionally. Again I consulted my doctor - surely there must be things I could do to not get cancer again. This was in 2003 and things were very different then than they are now. His response freed me. He said, “We don’t know that yet”.

Y-E-T. That little word was freedom to my ears. To me that meant there was possibility. He did not know everything, there was more to discover, to learn and to try and I was off and running. I completely changed the way I lived my life. I felt powerful, alive and excited. To us today this all may seem obvious but just 14 years ago this approach was more radical that you might think.

For years I was riding pretty high. Feeling like I had this fear thing figured out. That is until I started seeing significant anxiety erupt in very different ways in 3 out of 3 of my children. This brought my experience with fear back with a vengeance. I realized how much I still feared fear. I had to reluctantly acknowledge a new low point for me. Despite my best efforts to shield my kids from my fear, I saw that I had unwittingly been parenting from fear. I was no longer afraid for myself, I was afraid for my kids.

The jig was up. Trying to protect my kids from the pain that I experienced led them right to it. I knew I wanted something different for them which meant I once again had to embrace something different for me.

This meant moving out of the psychological/medical model and into a completely new understanding of fear - what it is, what it is not and what can be done about it.

My new blog, For Fear will share my ongoing dance with fear. This is not about overcoming fear - there is no such thing. Or better stated, it’s not necessary. For me, I am learning to look fear as something separate from who I am, rather than something I have and that vantage point has given me just enough distance to look at it before I totally lose it.

Driving into the city today I started to experience a panic attack out of know where. I haven’t had one in years. I was so curious about it, that I was able to resist my old habits. I did not pull over, I kept it out of overwhelm, I could feel the seductive pull to give up, give over, give in to a full blown attack. It was like slow motion, but that slow motion allowed me to stop my thoughts from fanning the flames. I had never pulled myself back from the edge like that before.

Finding ways to create distance between myself and fear has literally been my life’s work. If fear is impacting your life whether it be your own fear or someone else’s, revisit your definition of fear. What is fear? Where does it comes from? Who taught this definition to you? Is fear an illness or a disease? Is is curable? What are your fears associated with fear ie. stigmas, or fears for the future? How does society view fear, anxiety, OCD, accompanying components of depression or whatever aspect of fear you or a loved one may be dealing with.

Knowing what you and your loved ones believe fear to be is the beginning of reframing it. Arriving at a functional definition and approach to fear will allow you to care so much less and live so much more. I hope you enjoy my blog.

xoxo Jill

For Fear Alert: In two weeks I plan on taking a helicopter ride Richmond, VA to visit my daughter at school. Yikes!!! This blog has inspired me to practice, practice, practice!! I’ll be blogging on how I prepare and how I do. Stay tuned….