The Beauty of Fear

By Danny Burgess, Ph.D.

Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2.

I have an interesting job.

I spend my days sitting in a chair listening to and talking with people. All day, every day.

I have the privilege to dive into the depths of people’s lives. I am entrusted with secrets, confessions, desires, dreams, fantasies, and behaviors no one knows. I have permission to ask the questions no one feels comfortable asking. I have the pleasure of authentic interactions with people. No games. No trivial chit-chat. No facades.

It is so refreshing.

I work as a clinical psychologist. I primarily work within a medical center and treat individuals who have sustained a significant medical illness or trauma. I also have a private practice. I see anywhere from 30-50 different patients a week. I do a lot of talking and listening.

Below are my limited musings on human nature. However, my caveat is that I am in no way a seasoned expert on the matter. I have worked as an independent, licensed psychologist for five years. Most of my patients have been in their adulthoods longer than the span of my entire life. In the world of clinical psychology, I am but an infant. No white beard to stroke inquisitively. No wire-rimmed eyeglasses to see deep into the soul. No cigar or pipe to satisfy, as Freud would say, an oral fixation. None of that, yet. But I do have the proverbial couch in my private practice; so, I feel I’m on my way.

I love to use metaphors and analogies. The struggle most people have with grasping their psychological issues is that these issues can be so abstract and intangible. Therefore, I try to simplify it—make it concrete and tangible. And, hopefully, useful. For instance, I liken most people’s problems and issues to the ocean’s waves.

If I were to meet with you as a patient, during the first couple of sessions you would likely provide me with a litany of problems, stressors, and issues you would like to resolve or change. These are your waves.

Just like problems and stressors, waves vary in size, intensity, frequency, and strength. They are what you see; they are what you experience. People want the waves in their lives to stop. Usually immediately. They want a calm ocean or, at the very least, a manageable one. And the typical belief is, if they can fix this problem or get rid of that stressor, life will be calm.

But what they quickly discover is another wave is already on its way.

By the time someone finds themselves in my office, they are completely exhausted and desperate. And understandably so—they have been pushing back waves, trying to calm their ocean.

What I am more interested and invested in is helping you to see the underlying current of the wave or the source of the wave. I want you to see and understand the gravitational pull, the wind, the earthquakes—all the contributing factors that form your waves. I want you to stop focusing on the waves and begin to ask yourself what forces in your life are actually causing so many waves?

From my experiences, there are two forces that ultimately serve as the underlying current of most people’s problems. I am speaking in broad, sweeping terms, and I am well aware there are many exceptions. But, when you get down to the very basic elements of people’s emotions and behaviors, the two forces at play are fear and hope. These are the gravitational pulls; these are the fierce winds; these are the rumbling earthquakes that disrupt our peaceful ocean.

In this writing, I will focus on fear. In Part 2, I will explore the positive outcomes of hope, as well as the destructive nature of hope. Because, yes, there are two sides to hope—a side that moves people forward and a side that paralyzes people. Much like fear.

Fear is a primary, primitive emotion. It is linked to structures deep in the brain, mainly the amygdala and hippocampus. These two structures are part of the limbic system, or what is considered the most primitive part of our brain.

Fear is a universal emotion and one we work very hard at not expressing. Evolutionarily speaking, you do not want to show fear. Therefore, fear usually is masked in the forms of aggression, anger, frustration, distress, stress, jealousy, and anxiety, to name a few. This “masking” takes place in the frontal lobe, the most evolved part of our brain. The frontal lobe inhibits and filters primitive emotions, as well as adds complexity to them. We do not like the feeling of fear, and we definitely do not want others to see it. This is why our frontal lobe is so good at generating secondary emotions that feel safe to express while keeping fear as the underlying current.

When I speak of fear, I am not just referring to frightening circumstances, such as fear of animals, fear of situations (e.g., heights or bridges), or fear of objects, though these elements are included. What people mainly fear is change. Fear of moving forward and developing a new life, ultimately a life that is unfamiliar and unknown.

Fear keeps people stuck.

If you are really honest with yourself, you will likely find something in your life you know you need to change but can’t. Or won’t. Or just don’t.

It is not that you lack the skills or capabilities to make the change, but there is just something that keeps you from fully committing to making that change.

It is like standing at the open door of an airplane, peering down 2,000 feet to the ground. You’ve got the parachute on. You know when to pull the cord. You’ve got everything you need to make the change from standing in an airplane to free falling through the sky.

So what keeps you from jumping? Not the lack of skills or abilities, but rather the fear of what if?

It is natural to want to escape fear, or at the very least to repress it. I find a lot of people work hard trying to avoid fear. Many just wait until the fear goes away before they pursue something they know is better for them. Most are still waiting. As a result, people come to see me to help them overcome their fear or to help them get rid of their fear. So naturally, being the good psychologist that I am, I should provide a list of strategies to help eliminate the fear in their lives.

Except, I don’t.

Instead, I look at these individuals sitting in my office, desperate for some relief from the fear in their lives, and say, “Good. You should be fearful.”

Fear is not to be avoided or ignored. Fear means you are doing something outside the protected self-concept you have developed. Fear means you are not just merely surviving, you are thriving. Fear is not a negative or bad emotion.

Really, there is no such thing as negative emotions. Emotions are emotions, with no need to qualify them. What is negative or positive is the behavior that follows an emotion.

When you are paralyzed by fear, fear is not the problem…the paralysis is the problem. When you can begin to see that fear is natural and normal, then you can begin to work with it.

I teach people how to acknowledge their fear, accept their fear, and then allow their fear. And what I mean by allow your fear is to allow it to come along with you as you move forward to whatever change you intend to make. Instead of devoting all your efforts and resources toward eliminating your fear, allow it to be part of the experience. Bring it along with you.

Suddenly you will find the fear does not feel so fearful anymore.

So take a close look into your life. Look to see what changes you need to make and what is keeping you from making those changes. Look past the waves and the secondary emotions that get in the way of what really is going on. And, if you see fear is getting in the way, then stop working so hard at getting fear out of the way and bring it along with you.

Witnessing the process of someone becoming free of their fear by allowing their fear is such an amazing experience.

So, yes, I sit all day long listening to and talking with people. It is a great view of the ocean.

I have an incredible job.

Danny Burgess earned his Bachelor of Science from The University of Southern Mississippi and his Doctor of Philosophy from Auburn University. His internship and post-doctoral fellowship were spent at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. He currently works as the clinical psychologist for the outpatient clinics of Methodist Rehabilitation Center  and has a private practice in Highland Village, both in Jackson, MS.

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