If Fear Can Be Learned, Can It Be Unlearned?

Today, while sitting in a service at an interfaith community which I have been attending since 2001, I heard a message that seemed custom made for me. Randi Suskin, who is a life coach was the speaker, spoke about Living A Guided Life. I have long believed that the path on which we tread is strewn with markers and roadway signs that tell us, “go this way, avoid that way,” sometimes providing unexpected twists and turns that flabbergast us and have us scratching our heads, asking, “Who thought this one up?” What I have come to learn was that I do and so do you.

A cautionary note: I am not in any way indicating that abuse and trauma is ever the fault of the one on the receiving end of someone else’s behaviors. What I am saying is that when I observe stuck patterns in my life, I have to take a “searching and fearless… alright, sometimes fearful inventory” of the person in the mirror. Do I always like what shows up? Nope. Do I want to hide my head under the covers and pretend that as long as I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist? You bet. What I know for certain, as a therapist who has sat with countless clients for 40 years, I have heard stories that would make hair stand up on the back of your neck, followed by a need to, at least, take a psychic shower and shake off the vicarious trauma. 

One of the many snippets that Randi offered was that we are born with two fears, falling and loud noises. This seems to be universally accepted. All other fears are learned via familial and societal modeling.

She went on to tell us about her 3-year-old granddaughter with whom she was having a FaceTime conversation, along with her son (her granddaughter’s father). They were lying on the bedroom floor as they chatted. Along came a spider and sat down beside her. Instead of being frightened by it, she befriended it, even giving it the name Sara. Not sure if her arachnoid buddy skittered off on her own or if she was shown the door in a kind and humane way. Hard to imagine they would have squished her after taking time to get to know her. (I let spiders out into the garden.)

The second story took place during a whirlwind family trip to Hawaii, Australia and Japan. During one flight, lightning struck the plane. Rather than panicking, which would be understandable, the 3-year-old raised her hands up and called out, “Whee!” This happened over and over as the plane dropped. She didn’t know to be afraid, despite the likely terror filled expressions of adult passengers on board. 

Randi also offered a meditation and asked us to meet up with a wise being who had a message for us. Mine was a white-haired man who spoke little but had a clear message that I needed to let go of the fear induced and accumulated over the years as a result of my sometimes tumultuous nearly 12-year marriage. Even now, as I am approaching the 21st anniversary of my husband’s passing, I still needed to surrender what is keeping me from moving forward, past the conflicts and challenges. The guidance was that as I released the formerly fierce fears, which have now whittled down considerably, I will heal my husband, all the ancestors and my soon-to-be-born grandchild. I want him to come into the world without the detritus of his lineage. Although I can’t change any of my actions or my husband’s, I choose to change the emotionally charged behaviors in which I have engaged. I know that holding onto them serves only to hold me back. In my mind, I envisioned stripping off the layers of resentment, remorse, fear, anger and regret, as if they were coats of paint that blocked my pores and made me feel stiff and unyielding. 

The calendar has all kinds of quirky holidays and the block that is set aside for the second Tuesday in October is National Face Your Fears Day. It is an opportunity to stare fear in its intimidating face and evict it from your head. What are some of your fears that you would like to show the door?

The fear factor looms large in the lives of my clients who sometimes hesitate to take even one step forward, as they imagine a huge sinkhole threatening to swallow them whole. The messages they have accumulated include:

  • Not good enough
  • A failure at what they have done until now
  • Socially inept
  • Irretrievably lost
  • Irreparably broken
  • Too old, too fat, too thin
  • Uneducated
  • That they won’t have enough money or time to do what they desire
  • Beyond help or redemption
  • Incapable of change
  • They will be judged and found wanting by any and everyone
  • Some unknown tragedy will befall them or their family
  • Losing everything

I guide them in seeing the fears as dominoes that fall, as tin cans that they use a pea shooter to knock off a fence, as fire-breathing dragons at which they can squirt water, as roaring lions that they shrink down to meowing kitty cats.

I fear incapacity, being controlled and told what to do. I fear being limited in any way. I fear the unpredictability of partners who could morph from peaceful to overpowering as my husband did. I fear being thought of as boundary crossing or manipulative. I fear getting lost in someone else’s needs to the exclusion of my own — recovering co-dependent that I had learned to be. Up until recently, I have feared being unable to support myself. I fear anger at times — mine and that of others. I fear being considered incompetent or unreliable. I cry every time I hear this song, so I invite you to cry along with me. How big is your brave?

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