As Face Your Fears week kicks off, psychotherapist Philippa Perry explains what fear is, why we feel it and how to kick it into touch.
See the bullet speeding towards you and it’s likely you’ll secrete the same chemicals as you would getting onto your feet to give a speech. And that’s the trouble with fear:
Getting in the way of the bullet BAD
Public speaking GOOD
It’s a bit annoying that our bodies sometimes seem to have difficulty in telling the difference. Most causes of fears can be grouped under one of the following headings: annihilation; mutilation; loss of autonomy; abandonment; and loss of identity. Each of these types of fear can be subject to displacement fear, of which more later.
Annihilation (or death anxiety): We may hold comforting beliefs about death, such as thinking of it as going to sleep, or imagining the love we’ve felt for others being passed on in turn, so we can believe that we are not afraid of dying. But then the dizziness brought on by looking over a precipice or the stab of adrenaline when a car swerves towards us, demonstrates that our fear of ceasing to exist is innate and real.
One fear down from annihilation is mutilation fear. This includes the fear of pain. A fear of spiders or snakes comes from fear of mutilation. Sometimes mutilation fear can seem irrational; people extend it to a fear of buttons or butterflies. This is often because the thing they are really frightened of is too scary to imagine. Chris Evans once had a radio phone in about irrational fears and people rang in and talked of olives and zips and such like and Evans, without apparent irony, said, “We are getting an awful lot of calls from Northern Ireland”. If you grow up with the likelihood of being injured by a bomb blast, your clever unconscious may transfer that fear onto a more manageable butterfly instead. This is displacement fear, the category into which many phobias fit. Phobias may also be inherited.
Next, we have loss of autonomy. This is a fear, usually metaphorical, of being trapped. It also includes being incapacitated by scarcity of resources. It’s a fear of a loss of power over our own self-government. Fear of commitment lies in this category too. Again this type of fear can be displaced by the unconscious with something more metaphorical – a fear of lifts – claustrophobia – for example might mask an inchoate fear of merging with your mother.
Abandonment: it’s not only babies who suffer from separation anxiety. Our very existence is confirmed to us by regular contact with others. Humans are pack animals; we aren’t designed to exist in individual isolation. What we usually label as feeling insecure is abandonment fear.
Identity loss: in relationship with others we construct a sense of identity for ourselves. And we fear losing this identity by impacting upon others in ways we don’t see as desirable. It’s this fear of loss of ego that makes it difficult for us to tolerate feelings of shame or humiliation, such as those that might surface when we attempt public speaking. Embarrassment is a milder form of this type of fear.
Many of our every day decisions and procrastinations are but a reaction to our memory of fear: a fear of fear itself. And because of the similarity of the chemical reaction inside our bodies, any minor type of fear, such as embarrassment can be experienced in the body as danger of annihilation. We may decide not to ask for an increase in salary because we fear rejection (abandonment fear). If we don’t question fear we can mistake its cause for real danger instead of mere – and worthwhile – risk.
If we look more closely at ourselves we’ll notice that we are probably more frightened of our feelings than the actual rejection. Knowing this can help us find the courage to override fear. It’s not that the feeling will ever go away entirely but we can learn to act inspite of the fear. The trick is to use the feeling of fear as information to inform decisions, but not let the fear control us. Because really, did anyone ever die from embarrassment? Or from removing a small, British spider from the bath? As the American self-help guru Susan Jeffers advocated: “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.
White middle-class-aged woman psychotherapist, author, journalist, occasional broadcaster. Likes watching telly, tweeting, eating and lying down. Great hair.