June 20, 2017 by Dymphna 10 Comments

TBT: Defusing the fear of the unknown

There’s nothing wrong with being scared.

I overheard a conversation at one of our gatherings a little while back. A woman was talking about how she felt stuck in some of her old patterns, and how she was having trouble letting go of her old life and embarking on the bold new adventure of becoming a full-time investor.

One bloke there said, “You’ve just got to get over your fear of the unknown. That’s what’s holding you back. Just let it go.”

I had to interject at this point. And I know he was probably coming from loving place. He was genuinely trying to help, but I think this advice you hear of “just letting go” of your fears isn’t particularly helpful.

Your fears aren’t like a handbag you can decide to put down and not pick up again. (Arachnophobia is so last season.)

Fears need to be worked with. Deconstructed. Defused.

And often when you hear people telling people to “just get over” their fears, they have very little idea of how that particular fear actually works – how deeply it gets into the psyche. It might seem irrational to people on the outside, but when a fear has a hold of you, it’s a very real experience.

Imagine a child standing on the edge of a pool, about to jump into his mother’s arms. The kid is terrified. You, with your adult life experience, know there is nothing to be afraid of. The kid is safe. But this isn’t something you can easily tell that kid. And telling him to “get over it” sure isn’t going to help either!

And when we’re talking about ‘fear of the unknown’ in particular, people often tend to lump that in with irrational, crazy fears. Like fear of taps, or flowers. Like the fear of the unknown is some sort of pathological phobia, and is evidence of a dysfunctional mind.

I think this couldn’t be further from the truth. I actually think the fear of the unknown is the most rational fear we have.

If the aim of the mind is to keep the body alive (with a bit of space for sexy-times here and there) this helps us understand our aversion to the unknown.

The unknown contains unknown challenges. Unknown dangers. Even if these aren’t fatal, it takes energy to explore the new, figure out the nature of the challenges, work out solutions.

The unknown takes work. Work takes energy.

The mind would like to conserve energy and minimise risk where possible, so it has a deeply held bias to the known over the unknown. Wherever it can, it will steer us away from the unknown, back into the comforting familiarity of the known.

And how does it direct us?

Comfort. Comfort is the steering wheel the mind uses to navigate us about the place. The unfamiliar will feel uncomfortable. The familiar will feel comfortable. We instinctively run from one to the other.

This is just the way we’re made.

And that’s what I mean when I say this aversion to the unknown is totally rational. It’s totally normal.

A fear of taps on the other hand, which might come from some traumatic experience someone had when they were a kid, maybe that does reflect the mind’s settings going a little hay-wire.

But we are all built to be uncomfortable with the unknown.

Now, once we understand how normal this is, and where it comes from, then we have the tools to start defusing it.

Because it is definitely true that “outside your comfort zone” is where the magic happens.

Now, the point I would make, and the point I made to this bloke the other day, is that becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is not a process of beating yourself up and telling yourself to ‘get over it’.

Imagine that kid on the pool’s edge again. Imagine if his dad comes along and says, “C’mon son, get over it,” and then just pushes him in.

Maybe the kid realises its not so bad and laughs it off. But it’s just as likely to cement a connection between water and trauma in his young, impressionable mind.

And it’s not a process of forcing yourself – not ideally. Imagine you’ve got to do some public speaking. It terrifies you. You imagine is everyone is naked because nothing says familiar and comfortable like standing in a room full of naked people, right?

Oh my God, can you imagine?

No, say you decide to get through it by clenching your teeth, locking out your fears and just pushing through it – racing through your speech to the end.

“… and so I commend this appropriations bill to the House.”

That might work. But the trouble here is that you’ve taught your mind a coping strategy. What do you think will happen next time you’re in a situation like that. Yep, you’ll clench your teeth and charge your way through.

That’s ok, but an opportunity’s been lost – an opportunity to be with the unknown and to be with your discomfort. To let those pressures shape you into a new kind of being – a being that can respond from a deep, still and loving place.

But for that alchemical magic to happen, it needs space and it needs time. So don’t be too hard on yourself.

Your fears are totally normal. And it’s not about getting over it.

It’s about moving through it.

How do you work with your fears?