The following guest blog will appear on Amanda de Cadenet’s new Lifetime TV website, TheConversation.com.
To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
As a young child, I convinced myself that my mother was an omnipotent being. Then one day, a neighbor’s puppy got hit by a car. I remember blurting out that my mother could save it. I scooped up the broken, bleeding animal into my arms, ran home as fast as I could and I presented the dying dog to my mother. I got the shock of my life when my mother told me there was nothing she could do. The puppy had died.
That experience rocked me to my core. Like many young children, I set my parent upon Mt. Olympus’ highest throne because it made me feel safe and secure. With the myth of my mother’s omnipotence suddenly shattered, I felt real fear rise inside me for the first time. In that instant, the world had become a dangerous, unpredictable place.
For the Ancient Greeks, concepts of fear and terror occupy a prominent place in their mythology. They believed Ares –the god of war and bravery- led Greek forces into battle astride a great chariot driven by his twin sons, Deimos, the god of terror, and Phobos, the god of battlefield panic. Their “job” was to strike fear into the opposition and raise the specter of battlefield rout. And because their mother was Aphrodite – the goddess of love – Deimos and Phobos also represented the fear of losing a loved one.
It is significant that the two-headed beast of fear drives the chariot into battle, but it is Ares -the mythic ideal of bravery– who directs it. Aphrodite, the goddess who bore fear and panic, was also the goddess of wisdom. So metaphorically, wisdom and courage override and control the forces of fear and doubt.
As we all know, in real life, this matrix is typically turned on its head. We allow our fears to drive our actions. Like those soldiers in battle, we fear loss above all else. Fear clouds our perception, makes us hesitate -or worse- retreat from what is best for us.
Early in human evolution, the fight or flight instinct was a necessary response to protect us from physical harm. Where fear becomes problematic is when it keeps us from realizing the full potential of who we are. This chronic type of fear is usually instilled in us from an early age when we are most vulnerable. The deeper the impression, the more difficult it is for us to stop fear from coloring our decisions as adults.
This is especially true for people who have suffered sexual, physical or emotional or abuse during childhood. Because these individuals were betrayed by parents, relatives and other adults whom they implicitly trusted, they came to perceive the world as a completely unsafe, threatening place. Fear doesn’t just inform their decisions; it literally rules their world.
Women who have survived childhood trauma are particularly vulnerable to this brand of life-impairing fear. They make poor decisions based solely out of fear: staying in an abusive relationship; seeking out dysfunctional partners, staying in a job that is unchallenging and/or unrewarding. The dark inheritance that stays with women long after their childhood abuse is the fear they are damaged beyond repair and therefore, unloveable.
By surrendering their life to fear, women ignore the truth of their lives. This is the most toxic aspect of chronic fear. The longer this denial continues, the harder it becomes to actually confront the truth. Fear is the villain paralyzing us in hopelessness and stopping us from moving forward to become the heroine of our own life.
A life lived in fear is a half-lived life. But a life lived without fear is unrealistic. So the goal should be to manage your fear; not let it drive you. You can even use fear to your advantage as a constructive initiator. Sometimes controlled discomfort is excellent motivation to climb out of the passenger seat and take the wheel. In fact, entering an unfamiliar, even uncomfortable emotional space is a crucial first step to reaching your full potential.
If you want to live the life you’ve always imagined, kick fear out of the drivers seat and take some risks. Start With These Basic Steps:
1. Be honest and tell yourself the truth about your life. How has fear directed your decisions up to this point? What might fear prevent you from doing in the future? Is it worth staying where you are now?
2. Ask yourself, is there any truth to my fears? You can’t know the answer to that question until you’ve faced them. Generally speaking, things are usually not as bad as you imagine. Remember what FEAR stands for: False Evidence Appearing Real.
3. It takes courage, but you should risk telling others the truth about how they have impacted your life – negatively or positively. If you fear they will abandon or no longer love you, ask yourself: “What good is having someone around with whom I can’t risk telling the truth?”. If you fear being alone, consider how alone you’re already feeling right now.
4. Do something that scares you. You don’t need to ride a rollercoaster or jump out of a plane to accomplish this. If finances scare you, balance your checkbook. Risk being honest will yourself and others.
If you’re frustrated with where you are, take a page from Greek mythology: adopt the warrior mentality of Ares to contain and channel your fear. Employ the wisdom of Aphrodite to understand that the truth will ultimately set you free, even when that truth scares you. Put fear in its place. Use its energy to get what you want. Take the reins to the chariot, choose a destination and live the life you’ve always imagined.
Arlene Drake, Ph.D., is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist specializing in childhood trauma recovery. For more information, please visit ArleneDrake.com.