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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Get Rid of Repressed Fear

I was booksigning over the weekend when a man asked my advice. He had suffered from an unreasonable fear of throwing up since he was four years old, and wanted my suggestion as to how to rid himself of this old fear. He had been to psychiatrists and had tried hypnotherapy, but the extreme fear persisted.

"You're not really afraid of throwing up" I said to him. "It's just a good focal point for all your repressed fear that you have never dealt with. As long as you can distract yourself with this one unusual, irrational fear, this phobia that can't be cured, you fool yourself into not doing the hard, nitty gritty work of getting rid of your old ordinary repressed fears."

All phobias, all social anxiety comes from repressed fear. All PTSD comes from old repressed fear. The difference between people who recover and people who don't recover from PTSD after a traumatic adult event, such as combat duty, is not the difference in severity of the trauma. People who have always dealt with their fears along the way will recover from traumatic events fairly quickly. People who have a lot of repressed fear will not.

People whose parents were abusive, or clueless about helping their children deal with ordinary childhood fears such as the first day of school, the first show and tell, first party invitation, the first bullying incident, don't develop the tools for confronting everyday fears. So they repress them right into adulthood.

Not to worry, however. Repressed fears can be confronted at any point in your life. It is a simple thing to do but extremely painful. Most people have no idea how to do it. Most people have no idea how important fear is to their lives.

Fear makes us uniquely human because it is the basis for compassion and cooperation. Our compassion for others comes from our capacity to imagine our own fear were we to find ourselves later suffering the same situations in which we see others struggling.

Fear is the basis for all personality. Without fear we are mechanical, cold, aloof and do not need anybody or anything. We have all experienced people who are extremely retarded, and seem to have no fear or angst. Without the fear that gives us our human vulnerability to the risk of choice, we become bland and stony-faced shells of non-personhood.

It is a hard thing. If we haven't come to grips with our fear, our life is hell because fear can be painful and terrifying, especially when it escalates into phobias, social anxiety, depression and panic attacks. But if we are brain-damaged and have lost the capacity for fear, or if we are somehow psychologically or emotionally cut off from the pain of our fear, we are never depressed-- but we have no life at all

It is fear that sparks the psychological internal combustion engine that powers our life. Anthropology tells us that for an organism to survive, even one as advanced as Homo sapiens, nature must provide it with an instinct to seek that which will insure its survival. The self-love that is the extension of our primal needs for food, shelter and sex is empowered by the fear of not having those basic survival needs met. We are rooted in primal fear. But we are not supposed to stay stuck down in the mud of our roots. We are supposed to flower from our roots.

When we decide to get in touch with our fear, we will probably not have to search very long. We have little fears every day of our lives that we have learned to avoid. Now we can learn to pay attention to them.

One of the first little fears I discovered was that I was afraid to make phone calls if I had to tell someone something they didn't want to hear, or if I was expecting some disappointment or rejection of some kind. I began to be aware that I kept putting off phone calls of this type by waiting until "later," or forgetting to call at all, or losing the number.

It was less painful for me to blame my non-calling on the fact that I was lazy or forgetful or disorganized than to admit I was afraid. That was because I knew how to handle laziness, or forgetfulness or disorganization. I had no idea what to do about my fear.

Once I got more user-friendly with my fear, because I was going out of my way to confront it rather than avoid it, it was interesting to see how little power it really had. My fear turned out to be just like a big dog with a huge bark and menacing fangs that, when faced down, whimpers and licks your hand, wagging its tail to win your approval. These days when I think about these kinds of calls, I can still feel the fear buzz around the inside of my chest, almost like a little electric shock. I just carry the pain of my fear buzz straight to the phone and get the calls over with.

The other thing to understand about fear is that the way we avoid the pain of our own fear is blaming. If we are not wise about our fear, we avoid it by distracting ourselves from it by blaming other people. Thus, we are not afraid, the other person is an asshole, or verbally abusive.

A good way to get in touch with repressed fear is any time we find ourselves blaming anyone or anything. At that very moment, we can change the focus from the object of our blame back to ourselves and any feelings we might be having at the moment. One clue is that fear is painful. IT HURTS! Even a little fear gives a certain buzz around the heart, or stomach area, or in the throat. Breathing is usually more shallow.

Today I still have fear, but I have a different relationship to it. For one thing, it is now invited rather than uninvited. I have welcomed my fear back into my life. Fear is no more to me than the roller coaster I rode when I a kid: "Whew, I was scared to death, that was a good one!"

Another good way to get in touch with repressed fear is studying things we "hate" to do. Hate is simply fear projected onto some object. For instance, although I don't mind at all filling the dishwasher, I "hate" to empty it. Sometimes when I remember that hate is just projected fear, I focus my awareness on any fear that might be going on by taking my focus off how much I hate emptying the dishwasher. Sure enough, I can always catch that little electric buzz, or at the least, the tight throat, the shallow breathing. This awareness has elevated emptying the dishwasher to a whole new experience. Once we get in touch with little fears, we can go on to bigger ones.

I used to hate it when my husband started yelling at me about something. When I took the focus away from hating my "verbally abusive" husband to checking out my gut level of fear, I got in touch with a whole mother lode of repressed fear. This was also true about those sudden, unexpected loud whoops and calls, not directed at me at all, that he lets loose while watching a football game on TV. They can still set bolts of fear swhooshing through my entire body.

Ultimately I began to understand that it was not so much that the yelling FILLED me with fear. It was more like the yelling was a flashlight that illuminated a lot of unfinished, repressed fear that had been raging around inside of me since childhood, and brought it to my attention so I could let it finish by just feeling it.

My husband's yelling, which I used to hate, turned out to be a great gift. We don't have to arm ourselves against fear, but rather with fear and by fear. When we willingly undergo our fear, we understand that fear is a power source that comes from the inside-it is not caused by an assault from the outside. Once we are no longer children and have "separated" from our parents, no one can put fear in us; there is no law of psychology, biology or physics that would allow for that.

So my advice to the person who was deathly afraid of throwing up was to start accepting and embracing the little everyday fears he had learned to ignore. He should accept the fear, no matter how painful, whenever it arose. He should let it rise up and finish itself until, little by little, the phobia would simply fade away as it became no longer psychologically useful as a way to distract himself from his repressed fear.


R. Raegan Graziani said...

Dear Arlene,

Thank you so much for apprising me of your Blog; I gleaned a number of precious jewels from its contents. One, in particular, “Only at the exact moment when you are at last able to give something away do you finally possess it for the first time.” Brilliant!

Surely, indeed, as I continue (incrementally) to release my vice-like grip upon everything and everyone within a 500 mile radius - I am discovering (uncovering) a sense of freedom and peace, wholeness, really, that was always there, but, somehow, in the course of living, obscured from sight as I lost my way and my original innocence when I exchanged the truth for a lie. In terrible fear and dread, I believed the only way I could feel safe and protected was in trying to control the world.


A. .B. Curtiss said...

Yes, you are right. A very wise man once told me that the whole secret to life is to surrender to it. It doesn't matter to whom you surrender, just that you surrender. You can even surrender to a tree. A. B. Curtiss

Anonymous said...

Really inspiring text.

Thanks for it

Anonymous said...

i think that in some instances people can put fear in you once you separate from your parents. i'm an adult but after my dad died and a verbally abusive boyfriend turned out to be a sociopath, that put extreme fear in me. then when i reached out to my mom she tried to put even more fear in me by locking me up, beating me and stealing from me so that i would be forced to fight the psychopath if i wanted to live. i think it was supposed to make me fight my fear but instead it just made me give up on any chance of hope in life and i think even though i'm alive, i feel dead inside. i think it should have been rational for me to have the fear and run away.

A. .B. Curtiss said...

First of all there is a big difference between rational fear and irrational fear. Rational fear is present reality in which you are being threatened in some way. I agree with you that in the case of your boyfriend and your mother that your fear of them was totally rational and it would have been appropriate for you to run away and save yourself from their abuse.

Since you didn't call upon your courage to defend yourself and gave up, you will not feel good about yourself.

But don't despair. Life is a series of opportunities, some missed and some taken. You may have missed some opportunities to take car of yourself by calling upon your courage. But it is never too late to do so. Other opportunities will present themselves in which you can finally take your space in the world. When you do this, you will feel better about yourself,

A. B. Curtiss