Some people are afraid of the future, some of ill-health, some of death. Others go in terror of certain physical circumstances- confined spaces, darkness, heights, water. Yet others are in a continual state of panic about the safety of those near and dear to them. And some are just afraid. They could not put their fears into words. They don’t really know of what it is they are afraid but a dark shadow seems to hang over them, and they live in a perpetual state of uneasiness. Normal fear is a protection against danger. But these morbid, enervating, illogical phobias which destroy so much human happiness are enemies to be fought resolutely. Here is a threefold weapon for the battle.
First comes the acceptance of our fears. There are those who try to help us by saying, “There is nothing to be afraid of” or “Your fears are quite imaginary.” This is often the worst kind of advice. Fear is never imaginary. It may be foolish and illogical. The thing we fear may not actually exist, but the fear is real and often there is something to be afraid of. To pretend there is not is unrealistic and dangerous. To try merely to dismiss fears from our minds by pretending they do not exist is to lay up more trouble for ourselves. Well-intentioned as such advice often is, it is most dangerous. It has the result of driving the fear into the subconscious mind. We don’t banish it; we only bury it. Our object should be to dispose of it altogether, not just to cover it up.
The first step in dealing with fear seems to be the exact opposite of pretending it does not exist. Face it and bring it into the light. Accept the fact and reality of your fear- don’t try to run away from it. The second step follows naturally from acceptance- it is analysis. Try to discover the real nature of your fear. Why are you afraid of this particular thing? Sometimes the cause of a fear is very deep-seated. It may have its origin far back in the life of the individual, often in childhood. For example, fear of the dark or of dogs in an adult can often be traced back to some fright in childhood. Similarly, sexual phobias of one kind or another may have their root in a sexual assault suffered when young. Fear prevents the child relating the incident to its parents, and the memory becomes buried in the subconscious mind, sowing the seeds of much disharmony and misery in later years. Often such incidents may be hidden entirely from the conscious mind, and it may require long and patient expert treatment to unearth them.
Many of our fears, however, yield to a simple process of self-examination. It often helps to write down a fear. The actual process of expressing it in words helps to clarify the issue. Sometimes, simply seen in black and white, it reveals itself for the innocuous thing it really is. In any case, set down in the form of a simple statement, a fear is easier to come to terms with it. Fears which arise in connection with having to make a decision of some kind lend themselves especially well to this rather detached kind of “book-keeping.” Writing down briefly the pros and cons of a particular action allows one to examine them dispassionately, trying to strike some kind of a balance. This may seem a rather cold and impersonal way of dealing with what is, after all, a personal problem. But the fact is that we do often need to disentangle our emotions, to some extent, from the actual problem which they so greatly complicate.
One of the results of this kind of analysis is often the discovery that many of our fears are bound up with our self-esteem. Our fears are frequently a subtle expression of our selfishness. This is seen clearly again in this matter of making decisions. It is not so much the fear of making a “wrong” decision which worries us basically (though we think it is); it is rather the fear of making a decision which will in some way react to our disadvantage, causing us unpopularity, difficulty, pecuniary loss, or one or more of a host of other discomforts. To analyze our fears in this way is to take a further step towards their ultimate conquest.
The three steps are acceptance, analysis, and then action. This means doing something about our fears. There is an important distinction to be made here, because the well-intentioned people, to whom we have already referred, who try to tell us that our fears are imaginary, often follow it up with the advice to “get busy with something.” The suggestion is that, in the midst of the activity, we shall promptly forget our fears.
This is often a vain hope. It depends, certainly, to some extent upon the nature of the activity, but unfortunately a good deal of business involves largely only physical activity, so that the mind can be occupied with something quite different. A man digging in the garden can still brood and worry about his fears while he is digging. The kind of activity that helps in fighting fear is the activity of doing something practical about the thing which worries or frightens us. Procrastination is not only the thief of time, it is also a rich food for fear. Fears thrive on having their objects postponed. It will be harder to pay a difficult visit tomorrow than today. This is the three-fold weapon with which we may effectively fight the fears which afflict us- acceptance, analysis, action. These three- and the greatest of these is action.