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Fear: Intuition, instincts, and awareness

June 21, 2013

Welcoming the gifts of fear!

As we take an empathic tour through the emotional realm, we’ve started with the emotions that help you set boundaries: Anger, guilt and shame, the masking state of apathy, and hatred. Today, we’ll look at an intuitive emotion that helps you orient yourself, connect with your instincts, and keep yourself safe: fear.

Fear arises to orient you to change, novelty, or possible physical hazards. Fear focuses on the present moment and your immediate surroundings.

Most of us have been taught to see fear as a problem in and of itself, and even the mention of the word can make people uncomfortable. If you think of the ways we talk about fear, you’ll be hard-pressed to recall anything that suggests fear might be useful or necessary. Though all emotions are valenced into the simplistic and unhelpful categories of positive and negative, fear gets valenced so strongly that it’s normal for people to speak of it as toxic and unwanted: “There’s no need to be afraid,” “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself,” “Don’t be a coward,” or this simple slogan that’s even a bumper sticker: “No fear!”

Here’s the problem: Fear is a crucial emotion that exists to help you orient to your surroundings, identify change and possible hazards, and take actions to keep yourself safe. Without your fear, you’re not a superhero, no. No. Without your fear, you’re unaware, unintuitive, disoriented, and unsafe.

So let’s clear away the very backward training we get about fear, and let’s look at fear empathically and intelligently.

FEAR: Intuition & Action

ACTION REQUIRED: Fear arises to orient you to change, novelty, or possible physical hazards. Fear focuses on the present moment and your immediate surroundings.

GIFTS: Curiosity ~ Intuition ~ Instinct ~ Focus ~ Clarity ~ Attentiveness ~ Readiness ~ Vigor

THE INTERNAL QUESTION: What action should be taken?

The message in fear (from The Language of Emotions)

The Language of Emotions Audio ProgramFear helps you focus yourself, identify where you are in relation to what you’re sensing, and bring all your faculties into the present moment. Fear comes forward to give you the energy and focus you need to orient to change or novel situations. This often means that you have to stop what you’re doing, or at least slow down. Unfortunately, most of us fight anything that tries to halt our forward movement – which means that most of us fight our fear. This is a serious mistake with serious consequences.

Fear is not cowardice; it is the protective mechanism inside you that knows you’re not adequately prepared for whatever is coming next. Fear stops you – not to immobilize you, but to give you the time you need to gather yourself and your resources. Fear steps forward when you require extra skills – or time to take a breather – so that you can make it through the next moment. If you trust your fear and take time to focus yourself, it will give you those skills.

When you ask your fear the internal question “What action should be taken?” your fear will tell you in no uncertain terms: “Stand still. Run! Speak out. Remain silent. Duck! Fade into the background. Walk forcefully. Move quickly to the left. Look blank and confused. Downshift and swerve. Yell! Roll into a ball and protect your head. Hide behind your book. Grab your children and get out of the house. Call 911. Listen carefully and slow your breathing. Don’t worry – false alarm! Study and research before you commit. Take a deep breath and dive in. Go back home.”

When your instincts are informed by your healthy fear, your actions will be unique to each situation you encounter. You’ll have hundreds of options – and if you let it, your fear will help you choose the right one each time.

Your fear is not cowardice; it is caution. It carries your survival instincts, which contain hundreds of thousands of years of resources and responses that helped your ancestors survive floods, fires, wars, stampedes, earthquakes, tornadoes, ambushes, famines, plagues, ocean voyages, riots, revolutions, inquisitions, and cross-continental treks. If you honor and listen to your fear, you’ll have instant, in-body access to all of the information that helped your ancestors survive while millions of other people sickened or died in the very same circumstances. Think of it this way: The fact that you’re alive proves that your ancestors were survival experts, and that you have inherited their genes and many of their skills and responses. If you listen to your fear, you’ll have access to more expert information, instincts, and resources than you could ever possibly need.

However, if you fly over the top of your fear and charge ahead unheedingly – if you ignore, squash, or rationalize your fear away – you may make it through by the skin of your teeth, but you’ll almost certainly initiate a feedback loop that will cause your fears to intensify or decay. Dishonoring fear (which most of us learn to do in early childhood) can lead to a situation where unhelpful levels of fear appear at odd times for no apparent reason, while focused and useful levels of fear aren’t readily available when they’re needed. This disorder does not originate in the fear itself; it often arises as a direct result of the way we’ve all learned to devalue, reject, and dishonor our fear (it can also arise as a result of chemical or endocrine imbalances, so please see your doctor or therapist if you’re dealing with constant fear).

Fear, like any other emotion, is supposed to arise when it’s needed, address the issue, and then move on. If you don’t welcome your fear because you’re trying to be brave, fearless, polite, or whatever, you’ll impede your survival skills and throw yourself into disarray.

Not listening to fear is almost a national pastime. Even when people learn something about the true nature of fear, they often continue to reject its primal wisdom.

Many people have learned to thank their fears for warning them while they proceed with their fear-inducing event anyway. My observation is that this is a way to rationalize the fear away, as opposed to channeling it properly. While it’s important not to let fear stop you completely (unless you’re about to wander off a cliff!), it’s even more important to find ways to work with, and not against, the instinctive brilliance your fear brings to you.

When you can channel your fear properly, it will contribute a sense of self-preservation while it pushes you to study, prepare, and renew your understanding of courage as the capacity to live life on your own terms, rather than throw yourself headlong into fearless or dare-devilish behaviors. In truth, each of us (whether we’re dare-devils or not) has learned to impede, reject, and disavow our fear in any number of ways. This is nothing to be ashamed of – it’s how we were raised, trained, schooled, and controlled. It’s also how we train and control ourselves – but it’s not a life sentence.

If you can connect consciously to your flowing fear, its fine-tuned awareness will help you revive your instincts and your resourcefulness. Your fear will also reconnect you to your innate intuitive abilities. Your fear can give you free information and advice on any topic, because it has its finger on the pulse of the true difficulties and obstacles you face.

When you need answers about the future, your career, your relationships, or anything else, you should ask yourself what you fear. Fear, better than anything else, lets you know where you need to focus yourself in order to prepare for your next step.

Fear also has another important function; it helps you know when you’re encountering true change. When you’re about to take on a new job, a new love affair, or any new direction in your life, your fear may move forward in its mood state. If you don’t understand fear, you may stop yourself dead in your tracks — or throw yourself fearlessly at the new thing; however, neither extreme reaction is correct. If you can welcome your fear as a certifier of the newness you’re facing, you can slow down, focus yourself, and rely on its instincts and intuitions to help you pilot your way safely and confidently into your new adventure.

A simple way to access your fear

I created an easy exercise to help you access your healthy fear. For this exercise, you’ll need a quiet place where you can sit or stand comfortably.

When you’ve found your quiet place, lean your body forward a little bit, and try to hear the quietest sound in your area. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears; good posture helps your hearing. You can also open your mouth a little (relaxing your jaw creates more space in your ears) and gently move your head around as you pinpoint the quietest sound and filter out the more obvious ones. Keep your eyes open, but rely on your ears for now.

When you’ve located your quiet sound, hold still for a moment. Stand up and try to locate the sound with your eyes, then move toward it – recalibrating as you near your sound. Time may seem to slow down somewhat, your skin may feel more sensitive (almost as if it’s sensing the air around you), and your mind may clear itself of anything that isn’t related to your quiet sound. When you pinpoint the sound, thank the emotion that helped you find it. Thank your fear. That’s it!

Surprising, isn’t it? Healthy and free-flowing fear is nothing more or less than your instincts and your intuition. When you need it to, your fear focuses you and all of your senses, it scans your environment and your stored memories, and it increases your ability to respond effectively to new or changing situations. When your fear flows nicely, you’ll feel focused, centered, capable, and agile. Thank your fear.

Your free-flowing fear brings you instincts, intuition, and focus. If you can rely upon this form of fear when you’re confused or upset, you can access the information you need to calmly figure out what’s going on; you don’t need to feel afraid to access the gifts your fear brings you. You don’t need to be in the obvious mood state of any emotion in order to access its gifts!

This is one of the specific things I’ve brought to the understanding of emotions, which is that all emotions flow in many different levels of intensity in every waking moment, though most of us can’t identify our emotions until they get to the level of a mood (see Bringing nuance to your emotional life).

Free-flowing, subtle fear brings you focus, instincts, and intuition. It’s a lot like curiosity when it’s at this level. Fear hones your senses, alerts your innate survival skills, and increases your ability to respond effectively to novel or changing environments.

When your fear flows freely, you’ll feel focused, centered, capable, and agile. Sadly, our connection to free-flowing fear has been so disrupted that most of us think we know fear because we have experienced the moods states of worry, anxiety, trepidation, terror, or panic. Though we have all felt true fear (there is no way to survive without it), we have so completely confused it with anxieties and terrors that we have obscured our ability to identify fear as the distinct and vital instinct it is.

Becoming intelligent about fear

Here are some examples of fear in its subtle and free-flowing form: Have you ever avoided an automobile accident by instinctively maneuvering your car out of harm’s way, or handled an emergency such as a house fire in a very calm and focused manner – only feeling anxious or jangled after the danger had passed? Each of us would most likely say that we felt no fear while the dangerous situation was occurring (and that the fear only arose afterward), but we would be absolutely wrong. Fear is the intelligence that takes over our bodies, our minds, and our emotions, and turns us into surprisingly masterful lifesavers. There exists many a detailed guide on car related fear and behavior, if you are interested you should pick one, remember that we are most afraid of what we don’t know.

In fact, in those times when we’re sure we feel no fear – when we’re completely focused, brilliantly instinctive, and amazingly resourceful – those are actually the times when our fear is flowing freely.

Your task in the territory of fear is very simple. All you need to do is learn to identify fear when it is flowing. For instance, when you’re driving and checking both rearview mirrors, easing out of the way of slowed or speeding cars, signaling your intentions, and making eye contact with other drivers – your flowing fear is at work. Your instincts are fully engaged, you’re constantly scanning your changing environment for change, novelty, and possible hazards, and you’re acting in a way that increases your likelihood of arriving at your destination in one piece.

When this subtle level of fear flows through you, it makes you focused, lucid, and able to respond effectively to your environment. If you should come upon something startling or hazardous, your focus and readiness will allow you to act in ways that protect you and the people around you. Fear in its flowing state is your constant companion – not just in potentially endangering situations like driving, but in all situations.

When you’re working at your office, answering phones, juggling schedules, carrying on two or three conversations at once, and tracking down supplies or contractors – your free-flowing fear (not your anxiety, your worry, or your panic) is on the job. Your entire being is engaged and focused, you’re scanning through significant amounts of information, altering your behavior in response to changing demands, interacting with many people, machines, and businesses in unique ways, and ensuring that your business (and therefore your financial survival) will continue to thrive and respond healthfully to changing market conditions.

When fear flows freely throughout your psyche, you become competent, capable, and intelligent in every area of your life. Free-flowing fear gives you the capacity to identify, sort, translate, understand, and act upon the emotional and physical cues you pick up. Free-flowing fear will make you intuitive, agile, balanced, and safe – not because you meekly tiptoe through life to avoid all possible dangers, but because you can trust yourself, your instincts, and your resourcefulness in each moment.

If you’re generally capable, naturally intuitive, and focused, you’re actually already connected to your free-flowing fear (even though you may not think of yourself as fearful). All you need to do now is to name your fear as itself, welcome it, and thank it for all its help. Fear is not your enemy. In fact, it may well be the best friend you have. Thank you, fear!

In the next post: The ingenious masking state of confusion

11 Comments

Bill June 21, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Thanks for this lovely reframe, Karla. And I imagine that consuming caffeine and other stimulants that activate our adrenals might make our fear emotion come up quicker and more powerfully than without it. It does for me, at least! And because of that, I wonder if people’s experience of fear is more frequent and more intense. It is for me, at the moment.

And so when my fear does come up, I can welcome it and work with it and become more present. And take necessary action. And it seems more intense to me when I’m sitting at a desk all day. Where my energy is not circulating through my body as much as when I’m moving. 🙂

Karla McLaren June 21, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Hi Bill!

Oh, interesting, your point about sitting. Fear is such an action-based emotion. I wonder if long periods of immobility might make it get a little hyperactivated or hyper-vigilant? Interesting!

And yes, when people are healing from problems with fear or anxiety, it often helps them to cut out caffeine and stimulants for a while so that their system can re-set itself.

Monique June 21, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Karla,

I was wondering about fear that is from a past stressful experience like PSTD. If that becomes activated how do you suggest addressing that, clearly it is not telling the person to take action, but just a reflex alerting them to past trauma.

Your thoughts are appreciated.

Monique

Karla June 21, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Hello Monique, good question.

I place PTSD in the area of panic rather than fear. If you have the book, PTSD is covered in the panic chapter. I’ll be posting about panic later this month, but I’ve got to first post about confusion, anxiety, jealousy, and envy!

For PTSD, the best work I’ve found is Somatic therapy, especially the Somatic Experiencing work of Peter Levine, who has trained a lot of practitioners. His website includes a directory of practitioners all over the world.

He’s also got a number of books and CDs out, plus an online course on trauma healing that’s very helpful.

Monique Gallagher June 23, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Karla,

Good distinction it is panic rather than fear.

Thank you for the referral.

warmest regards,

Monique

Bill June 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm

I just bought Peter’s audiobooks on Healing Trauma. Thanks for the rec.

Bill June 25, 2013 at 10:52 am

Started listening to Healing Trauma. Resonating as true for me. What’s interesting is that I’m getting that trauma is not necessarily being in war. Can also be smaller things. For me, trauma has looked like me making a mistake at work and having a panic attack.

Brene Brown makes a connection between Shame symptoms and trauma symptoms. Which to me is quite telling.

These are all helpful things for me to learn about and grow from. And right now I feel stuck in depression. Time for some changes in my life, perhaps.

Karla June 25, 2013 at 10:34 pm

When I used to work with dissociated people, I noticed a lot of what I called “dissociation from dissociation,” such that people thought their dissociation didn’t count because their situation wasn’t extreme – like war or torture. But some of us are simply very sensitive, and a trip to the dentist can shoot us out of our bodies like grapefruit seeds, while seeing a huge fire might feel like “ho hum.” I’ve often said that the game of “who has it worst” is not a game you want to win. Or even play, hopefully.

I’ve found that focusing on my own trauma, whatever it is, however it was caused, is a wonderfully deepening process that helps me understand exactly who I am, what my organism is drawn to and repelled by, and how my instincts and resources arise in the face of trauma. I hope you’re also having that kind of experience, and I’m so glad you have Peter’s work!

Judy July 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Hi Karla,
I recently was told of your work from a therapist in my networking group. I love your informative explanations and your intuitive understanding of emotions and people’s responses. I would love to attend trainings that you do—preferably in the Detroit, MI area, but am willing to travel (depending…).
Thanks,
Judy

Karla July 9, 2013 at 8:52 pm

Hello Judy, welcome to my site!

I’ll be doing a week-long retreat at Kripalu in the Berkshires of Massachusetts in January (the 5th through the 10th). It’s a lovely place to have a vacation, a health retreat, and a workshop all in one, and I’ll be posting about it here when registration is available.

We’re making changes to this website, and I’ll soon have a dedicated page for events and appearances. Cheers!

The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy, Part 2: Empathic Accuracy - Karla McLaren October 19, 2013 at 8:32 am

[…] instance, let’s imagine that you have sensed fear in another, yet due to an issue inside yourself, you might intensify that fear into anxiety or […]

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