Anxiety is the kind of fear that isnʼt based on an actual threat. It is a deeper fear, a fear that can haunt us. It is a fear of life…of worries about the future and of our abilities to handle the life we are living.
Our fear may come from experiences in injured early childhoods. In our book Into the Heart of the Feminine, Massimilla and I both describe how in our own childhoods, we were each prevented from internalizing the needed trust that life would support us and that we could trust ourselves to face life.
When any of us are caught in stressful jobs, relationships, or other events that we can see no end or resolution to, our anxiety may actually be “eating us up.” Our most severe anxiety/fear may be taking hold in our unconscious when we live in a manner that is taking us farther away from our true potentials and from the person we are meant to be.
I write about these aspects of anxiety in the section, “Driven by Fear” in my book, Sacred Selfishness: A Guide to Living a Life of Substance and I would like to share these thoughts with you:
Fear is a dragon we have to face and a question we have to answer again and again during a life thatʼs being lived wholeheartedly. Just as we find that other strong feelings, or even illnesses, are the seeds for our future growth, the same is true of fear. Itʼs something we should pay attention to, listen to, question, and reflect upon because our fears are a treasure house of self-knowledge.
When Boss in Zorba the Greek was attracted to the dark-eyed widow and she returned his glances, Zorba urged him to pursue her. Boss demurred, saying he was afraid he would start trouble with the other men whom sheʼd refused. Zorba replied, “Life is trouble, Boss,” and urged him on.
In mythological language, the woman symbolizes life and if Boss failed to pursue her he would be failing to become alive. The truth of myths applies to all of us, men and women alike. We must choose life. And there will be trouble. That is life, though we often have the mistaken belief that a good life is a trouble-free life.
But neither God nor Buddha or any other great spiritual leader or tradition guarantees or even encourages a trouble-free life. Instead the great spiritual figures inspire us to grow through our painful experiences by seeking to understand their lessons.
We often feel itʼs safer to avoid trouble than to seek it. But when we do, trouble finds us anyway. I am reminded of a man in his thirties who wanted to avoid a confrontation over his wifeʼs spending sprees. As his inner frustration grew, it began to show up as stomach pains. And when another woman in her early forties decided it was safer not to confront her partnerʼs drinking, she found herself becoming increasingly depressed.
In another situation a man continued absorbing his bossʼs belittling remarks out of the fear that if he confronted him he could lose his job. He too became more and more depressed. When we choose safety over self-love, the price we pay will always be higher. Would you rather pay the wholesale price today or the high retail price tomorrow–the amount that has a higher markup in disappointment, shame, and self-loathing?
Fear is seductive. In his lovely novel The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has a wise old man tell the story of a young man who wanted to travel, challenge himself, discover what his dreams were, and learn what people are capable of doing with their lives. But because he felt insecure he decided he should work for a while and put some money aside.
The young man wondered whether he should become a shepherd or a baker. Then he decided that people thought more highly of bakers and parents would rather see their daughters marry a baker than a shepherd. As time passed he began to think to himself that bakers slept in nice homes while travelers and seekers often had to sleep out in the open.
Soon he became a respected member of the community and what people thought about him as a baker became more important than his dream of living life as a journey and an adventure. His small, practical fear about financial security had put him on a path that taught him to become afraid of how other people evaluated him and of risking the hardships pursuing his dream might have brought. Stepping onto the path of fear has its consequences. The old man concluded by saying, “He never realized that people are capable, at any time in their lives, of doing what they dream of.”
If we allow fear to drive us it becomes our Satan and enables us to be seduced by the false gods of security, money, appearances, power, and all they represent. Once we give into fear we lose our control to outer forces–to what other people think, to dysfunctional relationships, to collective values, and to the addictions such as drugs, alcohol, and sex that make up the dark sides of these forces. The voice or face of fear–like the social Satans or cultural Mephistopheles that consume our lives–can hypnotize and leave us unable to think or act with clarity.
Let me give you an interesting example that has to do with fear. John wanted to write a novel but once he began he soon found himself blocked and afraid. When he dialogued with his fear he was surprised to discover that what he feared was not writing but success.
As a deeply introverted person he feared the marketing aspect of publishing, the rituals of selling that would require him to give readings, talks, and appearances at book signings. Of course he also feared failing and being rejected by editors. But more than anything else he feared failing at his dream. He felt that if he failed at his dream he wouldnʼt have anything left to live for. Whichever way it went, the result would be the same. Publish and fail; be rejected and fail.
After listening to the flood of Johnʼs fears I decided to share one of my favorite stories with him. The story is one author Sam Keen tells about himself. Once when he was talking with his friend and mentor Howard Thurman, Thurman asked him what he wanted, what his dream was. Keen, who was a successful professor at the time, answered, “I donʼt have any dreams right now.” “Well, ” Thurman replied, “youʼd better start looking for one.” And that is the straight-ahead answer I gave John. Cut the B.S. and get going after a dream.
Part of self-love is learning how to be tough with ourselves and take the driverʼs seat when we need to break a fearful mood. Most of us have learned very well how to be hard on ourselves. Weʼre really good at being self-critical, resentful, guilty, and self-depreciating–we never fail there. But being hard on ourselves is not the same as being tough with ourselves. There is a difference. Being tough means we are committed, energetic, have high standards, and tenacity. Being hard is to be perfectionistic, self-judging, self-punishing, shaming, and unaccepting of our mistakes and weaknesses. The pursuit of excellence in any domain requires toughness but is defeated by qualities that make us feel insufficient, fraudulent, unacceptable.
If we want to worship fear all our lives it will feed us all we need to keep it as our god. We can fear betrayal, fear not being taken care of, or fear not being loved; we can fear failure, fear being old or broke or in bad health, or fear success. We can fear being abandoned or criticized or looking like a fool. The list is endless. It can fill a life. Your life. Fear feeds off negative acts and negative thoughts, brings about destructive results, and destroys our ability to move confidently in the world. And yet in every life there is a Zorba or a gypsy woman within us who can lead us away from fearʼs embrace and teach us to laugh at failure, to persevere against the odds, to dream and to dance with joy.
The stories of the mythological heroes–Psyche aided by Pan in her search for Eros, Ulysses helped through his journey by Athene, Prometheus who stole fire for humanity freed from his punishment by Heracles, and King Arthur guided by Merlin- teach in every case that once we step beyond the boundaries of accepted conventions, life will support and aid us with inner strength and help, no matter how difficult our journeys become. Our inner work can carry us beyond fear, but if we give into it we may end up hollow and haunted by our unlived potentials.
I remember in an interview that underscores these thoughts, writer Erica Jong reflected, “I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased letting fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of change, the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, youʼll die if you venture too far.”
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris, Book Excerpts and Resources
, anxiety, fear, Jung, living authentically