No emotion is inherently good or bad, which is a fantastic thing, because we cannot simply will ourselves into not having the emotions we feel. If our emotions were inherently good or bad, we would not be able to escape that valuation because our emotions exist whether or not we want them to. Instead, what can sometimes be classified as good or bad is how we respond to our emotions, and the actions we take because of their presence. That means that if we are conscientious and deliberate in working with our fears, we can choose responses and actions which foster good instead of adding to the misery in the world.
There is More Than Enough Fear to Go Around
Fear is a normal part of life, even in the best of times. At the very least, most people are afraid enough of food poisoning that they are careful to avoid foods that might make them sick. Most people are wary enough of road vehicles to at least look before stepping out into the street. Financial insecurity is so common that most people put up with jobs they hate, for fear of going without the things they either want or they need to survive. In agrarian or subsistence living, people are afraid enough of hunger to put in the effort to make sure they have food year-round. Most people are afraid of death and disability, so they do what they can to receive medical care, and to provide the same for their animals.
Right now, though, there are so many disastrously horrible things going on in the world, I expect that everyone with any compassion or comprehension is experiencing more than just the normal fears of being alive. I know I am scared for multiple massive reasons, and some days it feels nearly overwhelming. Most of us are feeling it, even those who in better times are not prone to panic attacks or anxiety. For those who are prone to panic and anxiety, or who experience those things on a chronic basis, the additional fears make things even more overwhelming.
Pressing Fear is Not Fun
Some fear is fun for some people. That is one of the appeals of haunted mansions, amusement park rides, scary stories, and the entire genre of horror films and tv. Those things are fun in part because they have been translated into a story form, where the fear can be felt without any genuine threat of follow-through. The vast majority of people, if faced with real-life equivalent situations, would experience the not-fun end of fear.
Fear which is an ongoing grind, dealt with day in and day out, with no end in sight, is particularly miserable to experience. Yet, as of writing this article that is where I am, and in all likelihood, it is where you are as well.
Emergency Fear Response vs Chronic Fear Response
In the moment, fear is exhilarating. It gets the blood pumping, provides a sense of urgency, and floods the body with hormones and various chemicals meant to get us moving and keep us moving until the danger has passed. In an emergency, it helps us to respond quickly, and in ways which will help us come out the other side of the situation in the best possible shape. This is what “fight or flight” impulses are made for, but those impulses happen any time you feel fear, not just when it is an emergency.
Fear causes us to get tense and feel the need to do something. The worse the fear, the more it screams at you to take swift and decisive action, even when you have no idea what to do, there are too many options to decide on just one, or there is no action you can take. But, that driving need to act is exhausting. Fear-related hormones are physically taxing and stress and fear can be damaging when experienced long-term.
With long-term fear, blindly giving in to the fear-based need to act is likely to create harm, because the problem is probably something that cannot be dealt with in a swift and decisive manner. Instinctive swift and decisive actions can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency, but when the threat is a political movement or structural violence or climate change, it is absolutely critical to take the time to instead intellectually assess the situation.
It is only through thoughtful consideration and research that it is possible to decide on the most appropriate courses of action. Once an appropriate course of action is determined, it becomes possible to take those actions, hopefully quickly enough and decisively enough for them to do the most good.
Other People Who Seem Unafraid are Probably Afraid Too
One saying I am very fond of is that courage is not an absence of fear. It is doing something despite being afraid. One of the things that can help to control fear and keep it from becoming overwhelming is understanding the situation you are in, and having consciously understood plans of action for various situations. In having consciously understood steps for dealing with the source of the fear, we can calm it and give ourselves something positive or productive to focus on.
This is how experts who deal with dangerous and fearful situations day in and day out can seem unafraid. Military personnel in war zones might seem unafraid, but the vast majority of them are very afraid. Most emergency response professionals are afraid to some degree, but they still do their jobs, usually unflinchingly. They are calm because they have protocols, knowledge, training, skills, and equipment to help them navigate the dangerous situations they are in, and because acting out in an obviously fearful manner would probably make the situation worse, not better. They work with their fear, instead of letting their fear rule them.
Fear Wants to Be Dealt With
I would even go so far as to say that fear demands to be dealt with, even if the way you feel compelled to deal with it is unhealthy or unhelpful. The last thing fear usually wants is for you to sit on your hands and do nothing. When a person is paralyzed with fear, they still feel the need to do something, but are unable to follow through with any actions besides being frozen.
The worst fear I ever experienced in my life was when I was in the decline of chronic illness. Doctors were clueless about why my body was rapidly falling apart, and could offer nothing that helped combat the decline, let alone help me return to good health. When I finally had a diagnosis, it was a huge relief. I finally had a tangible plan for how to deal with my problems. Even though that plan was very difficult in and of itself, and was going to take several years at a minimum, it demystified my situation and gave me something to focus on. I could deal with the source of the fear, my illness, and that calmed the fear and made it manageable, even if it did not eliminate that fear.
Fear is often at its most overwhelming and uncomfortable when there is nothing we can do, or we do not know what to do. That is because those demands to act are in direct opposition to the options available to us, and yet we still feel the driving need to act. When it becomes truly overwhelming and we do not have the cognitive and emotional capacity to recognize the voice of fear and hold it at bay, we usually act out in various unintentional ways we may not even realize we are doing.
Avoidance of Painful Emotions
Fear is an often-painful emotion. So is anger.
We have all seen it. Hell, most of us have probably done it at some point or another. I know I have. Something happens that is enraging, and despite a desire to be calm and reasonable, a person finds themself fuming and acting out in anger. Their face is red, and it is obvious to everyone that they are angry, but when asked to calm down, they blurt out in a biting tone, “I’m not angry!” or “I AM calm!”
Denying the anger does not mean the person is not angry. It denies them the perspective to understand what is actually going on in their head and their heart. Denying the anger means they cannot see it, and then they misperceive what they are doing and how they are acting. It seems to them that they are being calm and reasonable, even when the reality of the situation is objectively very different.
When you intellectually decide that you are not going to feel an emotion, when you deny the very existence of it, the emotion does not go away. Instead, you bury that emotion in your shadow self where it is harder to consciously see or feel. You place yourself into a state where you misperceive your attitudes and actions, so that you can pretend to yourself that the emotion is not involved. Once you are misperceiving yourself, the emotion will rule like a monster in the shadows pulling your strings because it is no longer being consciously checked and you are deliberately ignoring any evidence of its presence.
Once someone does this, it can take a lot of often even more painful shadow work to come to an understanding of what has actually been happening, and to heal the harm caused by the denial. As hard as it is to deal with overwhelming fear when it is happening, it is even harder to deal with when it becomes hidden and entrenched.
Fear of Fear is a Very Powerful Thing
Every time I hear someone declare that they “refuse to live in fear” of COVID-19, I know that they are in denial of their very real fear. If they were truly that delusionally confident of their personal invulnerability, they would just be going about their business and ignoring everyone else. They would not need to protest loudly or act out against those who are taking precautions. These are the people who not only refuse to wear a mask, but who mock, ridicule, or even attack people who do wear a mask and take other precautions.
They are in such a strong state of denial of their fear that anything which reminds them of their fear becomes a threat to the illusions they have woven around their own emotions. When someone in their presence is cautious and wearing a mask, that reminds them that they actually are afraid. The last thing they want is to acknowledge their fear of COVID-19, because they fear their fear of the pandemic more than the pandemic itself. They will do anything to avoid acknowledging their fears, because they are so completely terrified of being afraid.
And so, the fear rules their life by making them act out, violently if necessary, to protect themselves from acknowledging their fear of being afraid. These uncontrolled impulses become more entrenched the longer they live in denial of the reality of their existence, as unaddressed shadow issues usually do.
White Supremacists and Conspiracy Theorists
No one can entirely escape these deplorable people right now, although it is well worth trying. They swear up and down that they are unafraid, but fear is motivating all their insanity from the shadows. They are afraid of the people they are prejudiced against, even when their personal health and safety is objectively not at risk. They are afraid of imaginary shadow organizations, even as they are puppeted by very mundanely terrible individuals. They are afraid of anything that challenges their religious dogmas. They are afraid of what might happen if corporations are held accountable for climate change or how they treat their workers. They are afraid their tax dollars might be spent on someone other than themselves. It seems like they are afraid of nearly everything, even as they declare themselves to be without fear.
If you dare to follow the rabbit-holes of conspiracy theories and their “logic”, you will find no end of horror scenarios they “know all about” and the rest of the world is “ignorant of”. They deny their fear by claiming they understand what is “really going on”, so that they can cover their fears with a shady veneer of false intellectual superiority. They engage in the fear equivalent of spiritual bypassing by mimicking the calm of a genuinely understood situation and carefully considered set of actions, but their “understanding” is actually based in paranoia and misinformation that they will uphold in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.
Good and Bad Actions Usually Depend on Context
If you are being attacked, following the impulse to punch the other person may be your best course of action. However, you cannot punch your way out of a pandemic, or outrun it. Dealing with the press of fascism by punching a white supremacist is only going to land you in jail or worse. Destroying your personal property because it was produced by a company which is supporting “the other side” only hurts you, because they already got your money. Punching a wall is likely to land you in an emergency room with a broken hand. Screaming at a partner or roommate is likely to just increase tension in a home.
All of those things are natural responses to fear, anger, anxiety, and frustration. Most of them would make a bad situation even worse.
Good actions are going to be those that take into account the best understanding you currently have of the overall situation, and provide solutions that give the best possible chance of directly addressing the source of the fear. Instead of punching white supremacists, good action can be reporting them on social media when they harass or spread misinformation, engaging in accountability culture, voting for anti-racist and pro-equality politicians (rare as they are, they do exist), voting for measures that uplift or protect marginalized people, vocally denouncing fascism, and engaging in magic to support social change and equality.
Although, truth be told, schadenfreude means that I do greatly enjoy it when I see videos or photos of other people successfully punching Nazis, since it is rare that they receive even a small amount of comeuppance for their habitual bad and deliberately harmful behaviors.
One of the hardest things about working with fear in a positive manner is the simple fact that fear is demanding. It is like the dog barking and straining on a leash you can barely hold onto while you try to think of a better way to deal with the situation than just letting go of the dog. The bigger the fear, the bigger and stronger the dog. When the fear is motivated by a chronic situation, good action is usually the thing that you do instead of letting go of the leash and letting the dog do whatever it wants to, because what it wants to do is likely to be destructive, damaging, or harmful to achieving a positive outcome from the situation.
But the aggressive dog of fear is usually still helpful and can be a very positive force to help accomplish change.
Working With Fear as a Powerful Motivator
Fear is incredibly valuable because it provides motivation. Fear provides the impulse that something needs to be done. Instinct says you should do some variation on fight or flight. Instead, work with your fear by researching and contemplating the situation and your options. That way you can choose the course of action which will best protect you and accomplish change without destroying you or your life.
Fear motivated me to research COVID-19 using reputable medical sources, so that I would understand how best to avoid catching it or giving it to others should I catch it anyway. Fear keeps me doing those things, even though they are obnoxious and I would much rather not, because I care about myself and the other humans in the world.
Fear motivates me to look at history and understand that white supremacists have been here since the first ships landed from Europe. It helps me look beyond the propaganda I grew up with to understand that equality has never been the law of the land, and millions of people are still actively oppressed today. It motivates me to understand how decades of visible political maneuvering resulted in the election of Trump, and the first unsuccessful coup attempt on January 6th.
Reason helps me understand that despite my personal struggles in this life, I am privileged in many ways that mean I do not experience prejudice and discrimination on a frequent basis, and I never have. I am white, present in a way that is typically mistaken for cis female, and my disability is usually invisible. I am not subjected to the struggles of people of color. Most of the time I can avoid dangers and difficulties frequently experienced by those who are obviously trans, or obviously disabled.
Reason and compassion help me to comprehend situations outside myself, and also to fear for other people even when I am not personally at risk. In fearing for them, I am motivated to understand how I accidentally contribute to their suffering, alter my behaviors accordingly, seek better understanding of their struggles, and seek solutions which can create the intersectional equality all people deserve.
Let Fear Bolster Your Resolve
Fear strengthens my resolve to stand against white supremacy and prejudice in whatever ways I can.
Fear informs my resolve to do what I can to combat climate change and demand changes of policy and law so that corporations and government entities become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
Fear creates my resolve to adhere to precautions which will give me the best possible chance to avoid COVID-19, and to avoid giving it to others if I do catch it.
Fear, when it is kept in check and not allowed to run rampant, can become a source of incredible power and resolve. Fear is huge, and it is powerful, and it is mean, and it is intimidating. If you can acknowledge your fear, understand what motivates it, and understand how to address it, it can become a shield and a sword to use wisely when fighting that which we fear.
If you have a huge dog on a leash and cannot control it, it is as likely to bite you as anyone else. When you work with your fear, it is at your side ready to be commanded, and that which inspired the fear should be afraid.
Shadow Work and Addressing Overwhelming Fear
Just as it is important to not deny your fears and hide them in your shadow, it is also very important to avoid wallowing in your fears day in and day out. That is a recipe for complete burnout. It is an incredibly difficult balance between denial or avoidance, and giving up and letting fear completely overwhelm you. Sometimes, no matter what you do, it can overwhelm and threaten to eat you alive.
When that happens, sometimes you must take a break from what is inspiring the fear and avoid it temporarily, but be careful. It is a natural and incredibly tempting thing to shove the fear into your shadow where you can ignore the pain it is causing. It is so natural that most of the time we do not even realize that is what we are doing, but that only means you cannot control it at all, and any positive actions that result are going to be accidental, not deliberate.
Shadow work is one way to deal with overwhelming fear. It can help you to understand, heal, and focus your fear in positive directions. It can help you to realize when you are burying your immediate fears in your shadow, and help you understand how your fears relate to other things that are already in your shadow. It can even sometimes allow you to let the fears sink into your shadow in a healthy way, so that they are less likely to overwhelm, but also understood in a way that prevents them from acting out harmfully.
Achieving that kind of shadow understanding of your fear is unlikely to be fast or easy, but if you can do it, it provides peace and security. It is not unlike having a well-trained large guard dog. It takes a lot of time and effort and compassion to flawlessly train the dog. However, once you do, with a much lower level of ongoing effort you can let it off the leash to guard your home and trust that it will act in ways that are good and helpful, rather than dangerous and harmful. It can become your most steadfast companion.
Back at the beginning of the pandemic I posted an article that specifically talked about ongoing panic and offered some advice on how to deal with it. I do not want to repost all of that here, so if you are having trouble feeling overwhelmed by your fears, please go read Productive Ways to Panic.
Self-Care Is Not Always Fun
Sometimes self-care is indulging yourself. Sometimes it is doing difficult or uncomfortable things because they will create a better situation in the future, or because not doing them will make things even more difficult or uncomfortable. Fear is rarely fun, especially when it is chronic and being created by ongoing problems, but that makes it all the more important to work with your fear in conscious and deliberate ways. Putting in the effort to understand what motivates your fears, and resolving to focus them in positive ways is part of taking care of yourself.
The way fear screams at you makes it particularly difficult to deal with, but it is worth the effort. Put in the effort to understand it and you can learn how to turn it to your advantage. Fear can be a very powerful force for good. Work with your fears so they are a force for good in your life, and help you to create your chosen destiny.
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