Fear can be a friend, if its an opportunity to develop courage. However, it can also be your enemy by preventing growth, new experiences and confidence gleaned from courage.Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net
Fear can be a natural response to a perceived or real threat. In this context, fear is obviously our 'friend'– it is protective. Fear envelops us, shielding us from being hurt physically or emotionally.
However, sometimes fear does not serve an adaptive purpose. An example would be if someone is afraid of meeting new people to the extent that new associations are avoided entirely. In this case it is maladaptive. This is because:
• Our fear response is self-reinforcing. We perceive ourselves to be afraid by ‘watching our own behaviour’. Each time we avoid the subject or object of our fear, we prove to ourselves, in a manner, that we are indeed afraid.
• We are prevented from growing.
For example if we are afraid of examinations to the extent that we avoided them entirely, we would always have this phobia. We wouldn’t learn not to fear tests. We wouldn’t learn that indeed we could cope; at the very least we wouldn’t learn that we had the courage to at least try, which would harmful to our self-concept.
Suppose we are afraid of public speaking. Talking in front of others could actually be seen as an opportunity to prove to ourselves we could and walk away with self-confidence. That is, growth.
• Fear may stop us from reaching our full potential.
Even though nervousness is a natural response to a new job interview, if we were so afraid we didn’t even attend, we would never have a chance at being a successful applicant.
•Fear can prevent us from enjoying life fully.
If we were preoccupied by a fear of snakes while trying bush walking, we may not ever have a new experience that we grew to enjoy.
(These are just examples – peoples’ fear response to various situations are unique, of course!)
When fear is not serving your best interests, there are a few things I’ve found to be helpful to deal with this dark shadow.
1. Be gentle on yourself. .
If you are afraid anyway, there’s no use beating yourself up about it, because I know I feel worse, anyway!
2.. Weigh avoidance against facing the fear; that is, the benefits of fighting your fear, versus the alternative of just sitting with it.
I’ve always been scared of rides at an amusement park that require me to gravitate many metres off the ground, such as rollercoaster rides and ferris wheels. While facing my fear and “doing it anyway” would be good for my self-confidence and self-respect, it just is not a practical or high priority thing to do.
However, a fear of talking to people (I am shy) can prevent me from sharing with other people. Obviously we meet people everywhere. This would be a fear I would fight. Everyone is different of course.
3. You can try a technique of sudden immersion.
This means that say you are frightened of spiders. You could put your hold a (non poisonous!!) one in your hand with the guidance of someone who knows something about arachnids.
Sudden immersion or quickly facing your fear could be like jumping into really cold water all at once when you feel you’d like to inch in comfortably instead.
4. Graded exposure.**
Using the example of spiders, you could first look at a picture of a spider, then look at it in a jar, then touch it, and finally hold it.
Fears are useful. At two opposite ends of the spectrum it can serve as a friend to prevent us from harm. Or, fear can be a friend as tool to encourage personal development, courage and confidence.