Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why Be Afraid?

On Monday, during a conference call with some colleagues, I found myself, for the millionth time at least, debilitated by fear of judgment. I knew on some intellectual level that there was no reason to be afraid. The other people on the call, only 4 of them, were close colleagues, all former students, all but one NVC trainers, who were there because they trust what I have to offer and who I am. That didn’t help. Although I was able to talk about the fear, and I was even able, to a significant extent, to make choices despite it, I remained emotionally consumed by fear.

But I made a leap in my experience, perhaps precisely because of the presence of trusted colleagues. A new question arose: Why, in those moment, do I generate fear (I, and so many others, I didn’t for a moment think this was unique to me)? For the first time I was able to consider consciously that fear, like every state we have, is a choice that our organism makes based on some internal process of considering what would most meet needs in the moment. This process usually remains out of our awareness. I had such excitement at bringing this process to awareness and investigating what could be the internal mechanisms that generate the fear.

Today, in a conversation with my beloved empathy buddy, Francois Beausoleil, we took on this question, and I immediately wanted to share the results in the hopes it can support others in working with their fears. First, a word about our interdependence. I believe this, and so many such processes, require the active participation, beyond mere support, of others in discerning what is going on, so self-knowledge combines with the outside insight of a loving witness to recognize truth.

The core insight that Francois and I arrived at is that the purpose of fear, the reason the organism mobilizes it, the need that it attempts to meet, is that of awareness and choice. Usually fear gets mobilized around essential needs, which either now or at some point in the past, are completely intertwined with survival. The purpose of the awareness is to ensure that real choice is made around the level of risk-taking involved with such high-stakes needs.

Given that so often the survival issue is in the past, and the present doesn’t actually pose a threat to our survival (as was the case for me on Monday’s call), how can we work with the fear to increase capacity for present-based choice?

I see two options. One is the path I have been on for so many years now, the path of vulnerability, openness to the risk, stretching our wings, recognizing our resilience and our capacity to survive that of which we are afraid. Often, we can use the specific strategy of imagining worst case scenarios and seeing that we can, indeed, survive them. In addition to imagining them, strength on this path also builds on success, on the actual experience of surviving, beyond pure imagination. This path, to me, is a core element of what it means to live nonviolently.

Today I discovered a whole new direction for working with fear. This is the path of tenderness towards myself. Fully consistent with all I have been teaching for years, just that I had never brought it to bear on fear. Fear was always, for me, something to overcome. What does tenderness look like when it comes to fear? This kind of tenderness is different from simply not doing what we are afraid of doing. It’s all too easy to remain within the confines of the fear, to give in to the contraction and intensity of protection. Bringing tenderness is about connecting with the underlying longing that the fear is calling us to make choices about.

Fear of judgment, on my part, is calling attention to how much I want to belong, perhaps. Maybe it’s about wanting the deepest freedom to be myself. Or maybe it’s about wanting peace and ease. Or all of the above. Bringing tenderness means opening my heart; holding those longings with utmost care; allowing myself, in full, to feel the depth of the longing, separate from what will or will not happen. This builds a different kind of strength that is soft and gentle. I want that strength, for me and for others. I plan on adding to my daily practice some form of meditation on some of those needs, to settle into this softness, so I can do what the fear ultimately wants me to do: be mindful and clear about my options when these needs are at stake in any given moment, and have full choice.


  1. THIS IS RINGING sooooooo TRUE to me. I just took a deep breath of relief right now, thank you. This last week I felt fear in the presence of someone I normally trust. When I look at it from your inquiry, I see so clearly I was wanting mutual awareness in the exchange, and CHOICE to not hear one more word. I did not know how to stop this person from sharing. I wanted to live my values of being in empathetic presence, and it was too much. It took a week, and a lot of inquiry to see my edge is speaking up, using my voice connected to my needs. To understand my boundaries and limits, while remaining connected to care for the other. I heard you speak of what would we like to see in your blog, this would be one topic I would love to explore. many thank you's for the depth of your personal inquiry. I LOVE IT!

  2. Concerning the title of your post...
    I remember Marshall Rosenberg saying in some seminar - never answer a why-question.

    Somehow "Why be afraid" (in context with your post) reads to me as "Common dont be afraid, there is no reason for it. Dont be afraid. You should trust more in yourself and others."

    Is that true for you?