The Gifts of Fear: Making Friends with the Enemy

Fear is one of the most primal emotions but it can get a bad rap. Intrinsic to the drive for survival, it propels the fight/ flight/ freeze response of the nervous system. The physical sensations (increased heart rate, muscular tension, shortness of breath) that many people attribute to anxiety are actually the body readying itself to flee from an attack. Similarly, feeling numb or emotionally shut down can be linked with the freeze response that causes predators to overlook potential prey. Unfortunately, these impulses for self-preservation are often seen as problematic symptoms and are not recognized for their biological origins.

While fear is a natural emotion in an uncertain world, people can sometimes view it as a weakness or a lack of emotion. In many ways, we are a culture that is phobic of fear. There are familial, societal, and spiritual messages that advocate controlling it, choosing love over fear, or “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” While there can be value in these messages, they also push this emotion further into the shadows, making it something to be condemned rather than honored for the important role it plays.

Mindfulness and Shadow Work® both offer a different perspective, one in which fear is a valid emotion that deserves to be honored and respected. Fear shows up when there is a lack of safety and as such, it is an important warning sign. Most of us have core parts of ourselves that originated in childhood as patterns of thought and behavior to try to keep ourselves safe in the world. As we mature and seek to grow and expand in our lives and relationships, these patterns of fear can seem like obstacles that keep getting in our way. The wisdom of Shadow Work® offers a way of honoring and dialoguing with these protective parts of ourselves so that they can learn to care for us in new and more effective ways. Mindfulness offers practices for finding more acceptance of the physical experience of fear without getting caught up in fearful thoughts and beliefs.

The next time you feel frustrated with a way that fear is showing up in your life, take time to reflect on where it came from and the protective role that it may have been playing in your life for a long time. Next take time to honor this part of you for the ways it has been caring for you. Finally, update this part of you about how it could adapt its’ strategy to better care for you at this current stage of your life. If the experience of fear feels overwhelming to you, try focusing your attention on your breath and your physical environment as a way to disengage from the fearful thoughts occupying your mind. Set the intention to be open and curious about the sensations you are experiencing while staying connected to your breath. If you’d like to learn more about Shadow Work® or mindfulness I recommend or the books and teachings of Pema Chodron or Tara Brach.

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