The Importance of Fear and Sensitivity
And Resisting the Threatening Allure of Zombies!
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” – Pema Chodron
“Our strength will continue if we allow ourselves the courage to feel scared, weak, and vulnerable.” – Melody Beattie
It’s that time of year when we intentionally find ways to scare ourselves whether it’s through horror movies, haunted houses, or frightening costumes. Yet fear is not relegated to the month of October. The role of fear can loom large in our everyday family lives. Our children can show their fears when we are leaving for an extended weekend and they are scared to be away from us. They can fight bedtime and turning off the lights at night for fear of what the dark might bring. They might fear a speech they have to give in class the next day in front of their peers. And how we react to those fears and to our own can help determine their understanding of the role of fear in their lives.
We too as parents experience fears regularly though we may not express them in the same obvious ways. When we fear for our chidren’s safety whether walking on a busy street when they are small, eating at a party when our child has a life-threatening food allergy, or sending them off to an overnight where we are unsure about the family or environment they are entering, we can harbor any number of fears. We can react with anger or edginess as we attempt to cope and exert control over what we are able. And our children may not understand that underneath that edge is fear. Because we become adept at masking our fears with other emotions, we can train our children — and kid ourselves! – that’s there’s just no place or space for fears except to laugh them off at Halloween. We may send the signal that they play no significant role – except when we need to scare them into doing something to stay safe. We may even impulsively or unconsciously shut them down quick because of the discomfort they produce. Vulnerability – our own or our child’s – can feel unbearable. But beware…
Therein lies the threatening allure of the zombies! “I wish he weren’t so sensitive,” you might think about your anxious child. And so too as adults, we seek out any number of numbing agents to escape more and feel less. Yet, numbing shuts down a number of systems that are vital to our healthy relationships and personal success including:
– our survival warning system that we require to help us know when a real threat is
present or approaching;
– self awareness, or our ability to get in touch with our internal state, to name what’s
truly going on inside and to reflect on what that information means for our choices;
– empathy, or our ability to understand what another person is feeling (even if we are not
currently feeling the same way);
– self-regulation, or the ability to manage our impulses, to make reflective choices, and
to persist in facing fears and moving toward our intentions or goals;
– responsible decision-making, or the ability to empathize with others while projecting
ahead to the consequences of our actions and makiing decisions that do no harm to
ourselves or others;
– agency, our confidence in our own ability to meet the challenges we face;
– courage, or the ability to face into fears that don’t pose imminent destructive harm but
move us toward hopes, dreams and goals (even and especially if they are judged,
criticized or not socially or culturally accepted); and
– the opportunity for excitement or thrill over new possibilities, the potential
for accessing truth, and making change or transforming outdated patterns.
Let’s take a look at fears we can inadvertently instill in our children that work against our goals for them of courage, confidence and resilience.
If Our Pendulum Swings to Protection…
In our care and diligence about our parenting, we have to be careful not to attempt to shield children from the truth of our lives. “Many parents I encounter don’t tell their kids they’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” my friend told me after undergoing treatment over the past year while raising two school-aged children. “But I take my children to my appointments. I tell them what I’m going through. I want to trust them so I know they have to trust me. I have to be honest with them.” Her ability to share the truth of her situation with her children helped her family rally together around her health and support one another during incredibly challenging times. And she voiced how grateful she felt. Yet another Mom said, “I just don’t take my child to funerals. She doesn’t need to experience and be confused by that until she has to and someone really close to her dies.” But how will your daughter learn about the process of mourning before it becomes high stakes? Shielding our children and teens from the pain or fears or struggles of life leaves them with no opportunities to reflect, to learn and to exercise resilience muscles which are necessary over a lifetime.
If Our Pendulum Swings Back to Stoic Performance…
In our care and diligence in our parenting, we can dig into our notions of a single path to “success.” Our child must get top grades and excel in extracurriculars in order to go to a strong high school in order to take advanced placement courses in order to get into a top college in order to… Children are encouraged to specialize in a sport or musical instrument younger and younger and discouraged from trying anything new in middle or high school because surely, they’ll fail. Surely, they’ll lag behind since others have much more experience. And the point of this line of thinking is to perform and how mastery. But at what price? If the price is daily anxiety, that price is too high. The lack of ability to try new things and risk failure creates inflexibility and rigidity. It actually produces new fears that will manifest as problems today and in the future — fearing failure, fearing trying new experiences.
Right-Sizing to a Healthy Relationship with Fear
Developing a healthy relationship with fear means accepting and even valuing its presence. It requires us to become honest and vulnerable with ourselves and each other. Voicing when we are scared and how we are scared is an important start. What is your deepest, darkest fear? Voicing it will not make it come true. How can you share those fears with your loved ones so that they can gain important insights into what you value and what is most challenging for you? Only then can they truly see and value you for your whole self. Only then, can your children feel safe enough with you to share their whole selves.
…you say, “okay, so I poured my soul out to my family. Now what?”
As we are formulating our healthy relationship with fear, we need to unpack what the fear is requiring of our wisest selves. So here are some important questions to ask:
- Is the fear going to cause you or someone you love significant physical or emotional harm?
Sometimes facing our fear requires us to take the risk of emotional harm – as in rejection in social relationships – so we have to weigh whether or not it’s important to lean into that fear or not. Broken hearts register in our body chemistry and brains similarly to the way in which a physical injury might register so we cannot just consider physical harm.1
If yes, then your wiser self might advise you to move away from your fear.
If no, then your wiser self might advise you to move toward your fear.
2. Is the person, situation or experience feared an imminent or perceived threat?
In other words, is there a loaded gun held by an angry person pointed at you or is there a worry of an angry person who is not present and may or may not harm you?
If imminent, safety is the first priority.
If perceived, then getting quiet, breathing deeply and going inside to reflect (maybe journal?) will help you access your wiser self to make a responsible choice.
3. Is the fear keeping me from an important goal or aspiration?
These are fears that offer an important challenge to lean into, to risk failure or rejection.
In this case, your wiser self might advise you to stove up your courage and move toward versus move away.
4. Is the fear overpowering a deeply held principle or ethical code?
In this case, your wiser self might call for moral courage to lean into whatever barriers are creating injustice and crossing critical boundaries.
Mark Twain wrote, “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” We need our children and teens to learn to not always run from fear or pretend, like a zombie, that it doesn’t exist. Instead, how can we teach them that the roles fear plays in signaling us to deeply reflect gives us the opportunity to be our wisest, most courageous selves?
For further reading, check out:
Emotional Agility; Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David
Doing the Right Thing; Twelve Portraits of Moral Courage by Tom Cooper
- Sturgeon JA, Zautra AJ. Social pain and physical pain: shared paths to resilience. Pain Management. 2016;6(1):63-74. doi: 10.2217/pmt.15.56. Epub 2015 Dec 17. PMID: 26678402; PMCID: PMC4869967.