Friday, February 3, 2012


One of the things every one of us deals with from time to time is fear (or one of its many incarnations). Sometimes fear is easy to spot, sometimes less so. You've got your clearcut cases of fear such as terror, dread, trepidation, panic, phobia, foreboding and fright. You've got ones that are less clear cut such as consternation, suspicion, unease, worry, distress and doubt. And, you've got ones that might be argued as something other than fear including anger, revulsion, abhorrence, agitation and aversion. All are directly related to fear.

In fact, you could probably distill all negative emotion down to just two basic categories: fear and regret. (Hang in there with me.) Regret has many manifestations including anguish, self-reproach, bitterness, compunction, disappointment, annoyance, heartache, loneliness, heartbreak, misgiving, remorse, ruefulness, discomfort, self-condemnation, disgust, grief, and sorrow.

The distinction between fear and regret comes down to temporal frame of reference. To fear requires you to focus on the future. You can't be simultaneously present and afraid. All fear is about something that has not yet happened. It might be about to happen. It might be something in a vague and distint future. You don't fear the monster in the room. You fear what the monster might do.

On the other hand, regret is focused on the past. Even though your regret may take place in the present, it can't happen without a past frame of reference. Something you did. Something you didn't do. Someone you wish were still with you. Someone you wish weren't.

We could spend lots of time talking about the differences among the various emotions I've lumped together under either fear or regret. You can use whatever umbrella word you like. The point is, all of what we would call "negative" emotion can only occur when your focus is diverted from the present.

Of course, if you want to get yourself into an endless feedback loop, you simply combine the two. How? By fearing something you're going to regret or by regretting something you should have done to avoid something you fear. Either works equally well, but the most popular form of the art is the fear of future regret. It's powerful and it's easy to do.

There are three basic ways that you can deal with fear and regret.
  1. Convince yourself that what you fear won't happen.

  2. Distract yourself from what you fear and try not to think about it.

  3. Decide that even if what you fear comes to pass, it'll be OK.

The first two don't work, at least not for long. With the first one, you can work hard to convince yourself you've done all that's necessary to avoid what you fear. But if you're at all creative, all your efforts will tumble like a house of cards the first time you put any though to it.

The second one can be made to work, but only through displacement, i.e., you have to fill your present so completely that there's no room for futurizing. This approach still leaves you vulnerable to those moments late at night when you lack the energy to displace. Ultimately, the only way to deal with fear (or its backward looking cousin) is to decide it's OK.

The trick is that we often don't want to make it OK. Why? Because making it OK might compromise our efforts to avoid what we fear. We've so integrated fear into our motivational psyche that we fear who we'd become without it. If you didn't fear losing your house, you might not work as hard to make money. If you didn't fear dying from a heart attack, you might not stay on your diet. If you didn't fear for your children and their futures, you might not push them hard enough to do their schoolwork.

When we observe anyone else operating under this MO, we see how ridiculous these beliefs can be. We see how motivation through fear compromises effectiveness. Yet it's often difficult to see this at work in ourselves. Not only does fear-based motivation compromise our immediate efforts, but it also has a repetitive-stress effect on our overall states of being.

Nonetheless, being willing to be OK with any outcome is the first and most difficult step. Once you've decided that it would be OK to be OK, the next is to try it on, to stare your fear straight in the eye and say, "Bring it!" You lay down you sword and let your fear wash over and past you. It's the only way that works on a sustained basis. The process may take repetition as fear tends to build up like caked-on crud on the bottom of an oft-used cast-iron skillet. Removing one layer of fear may reveal another.

Sure, you can use various meditative techniques to displace your fear by bringing yourself into the present. You can focus on your breathing, etc. However, these are mere parlor tricks when compared to facing your fears and transforming them into something that'd be just fine.

Happy Friday,

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