Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Is Fear?

Fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat. YourDictionary.com defines fear:
1. a feeling of anxiety and agitation caused by the presence or nearness of danger, evil, pain, etc.; timidity; dread; terror; fright; apprehension
2. respectful dread; awe; reverence
3. a feeling of uneasiness or apprehension; concern: a fear that it will rain
4. a cause for fear; possibility; chance: there was no fear of difficulty

So, what is it about fear that influences our lives? I am not talking about phobias (did you know that the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth is called Arachibutyrophobia?); I am talking about fear as outlined in the definition above.

Fear can dominate, drive, ruin, save, build, or break you. It can spur you on, or it can paralyze you. Sometimes fears are imaginary; sometimes they were very real but in the past; sometimes they are very real and very much in the now. Sometimes others can save us from our fears; sometimes only we can save ourselves. For some, fear plays little or no part in life – some may argue they are the lucky ones, some may feel that those people have missed something important in their experience. Some have lived lives in a constant state of it and have been destroyed by it; others have emerged strong and triumphant.

What about you? What role has fear played in your life?

For me, I believe it was a big shaping tool in my life. I was never abused as a child and my childhood was, for the most part, happy and worry free. I was one of those that could be considered lucky. But I was a fearful child. I am told that I was somewhat timid and shy; when I see pictures of myself as a child, this surprises me. In some of my favorite pictures I look like trouble on a stick. I often wonder, what happened to me to make me develop such a fearful personality? And when did this happen? I have no memory of it, and no one else in the family seems to know what I am talking about.

We moved around a lot when I was growing up, and I always seemed to be starting a new school. The first day was always torture. I was afraid that I would not live up to the new teacher’s expectations, that I would suddenly be struck stupid and everyone would know about it; I was afraid that I wouldn’t know anyone in my new class (when attending the same school more than one year in a row) and that no one would like me. After a while, these fears would subside and I would get used to the new routine of things. Except for one year when I was in the 5th grade and I could not get situated in the school I was attending in Monroe, WA. I was almost pathologically terrified and was basically home schooled for a while until I could cope. It was in the middle of moving from my beloved little Oklahoma town back to California, and my mother and I were staying with my grandmother while my father tried to sell and buy homes, figure out his employment status, and deal with the storage and moving companies. It was too much for me and I just…shut down.

Also, I was raised in an atmosphere of fear and conditional love that was used to keep unwanted behavior, thoughts and actions at bay. I won’t go into that right now as I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it, but suffice it to say that it influences me to this day.

Every once in a while I surprise myself. I left all of my family behind in Oregon 10 years ago to move, all by myself, to Montana. I didn’t know a single soul in Missoula; but I did it anyway. At 32, I thought this may be my last or only chance to have some sort of adventure in life. Fear was there, my constant traveling companion along with my trusty road atlas, and in this case it helped to spur me on and helped to keep me safe. And it wisely kept its mouth shut when I needed it to, in order to trust the strangers that were there to help me when my truck blew its radiator 65 miles from Missoula and I was stuck on the side of the road with no cell phone, and no one to call even if I had one, for hours. I rode high on the crest of the wave that was true self-reliance for a few weeks, but then fear found its way back into my life and has held me captive, again, hiding in my home with only the TV and pizza delivery as my guardians. Oh, occasionally it mercifully allows me to go for long drives with my camera, or enjoy a visit with my family, but often when I am alone with my thoughts it wraps itself around me like cigarette smoke and gets into my brain, my heart, and my clothes.

And what is so incredibly frustrating about fear is that it doesn’t always tell you what it is that you are supposed to be afraid of. This is what I suffer from. I live in a constant state of fear, but I don’t know WHY. All I know is that it is paralyzing for me. I can’t live my life, I can’t lose weight, I can’t open my mail, etc. Why? What is this fear trying to tell me? I think that fear can be like cancer: it starts off healthy – fear is normal, and it keeps us from getting killed; cancer cells start out like any other regular cells in the body. But something goes awry; signals that it’s OK to stop being afraid can’t get through and fear starts to run amok in our systems. It becomes twisted and dark, dangerous and life threatening. If it is caught early enough, it can be treated and turned back; tamed if you will. But sometimes…well, it doesn’t get caught (or is caught and doesn't give a crap) and is free to run rampant and ruin lives from the inside out.

Fear stops me from losing weight. Why? I don’t know. My mother thinks that I am afraid that if I lose the weight, I might attract someone, fall in love, and be devastatingly hurt like I was in the past (my last relationship was headed for marriage but he left me for my mentor that was 16 years older than us). I think there is some of that in there, but I am also afraid that perhaps it isn’t the fact that I am not physically attractive to the men I meet that keeps me from building a relationship with someone; what if it’s ME? I am also afraid that since the last time I had a boyfriend was literally 25 years ago, I don’t know how to talk to someone. I feel socially retarded; I don’t know anything about life except how to order pizza online and be very good at customer service. I have no college stories to share since I never got to go; I don’t really have any unique skills other than usually being able to program my own DVD player; what do I have to contribute to a conversation? If it’s not about funny dog stories (I have a few) or the latest NFL game or Biggest Loser episode, then I’m doomed.

If I lose weight I might be expected to be more than I am. I am afraid that once I am able to start buying clothes that don’t have an X in the size, I will start dressing inappropriately and wind up on the peopleofwalmart.com website or similar. I fear that now that I won’t be invisible because of my hugeness that people will expect me to have something profound to say, and I will just be standing there in my outfit more appropriate for someone that is 20 years younger than me, exposing my tattoos and belly button ring, with that “deer in the headlights” look on my face. Everyone will see that I am a fake, a fraud; will say “I knew her when she was fat and she was funnier and much more interesting”.

What if I lose it all, change my life, and then gain it all back?

I am afraid that I will be afraid for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.

How do I do it? How how how how how how how…. And what if I…can’t?


  1. The oddest thing is, that that is the most articulate, sophisticated bit of writing that I have read for ages. You clearly do have things to say that are more than interesting. I am assuming that by now you have read 'Feel the fear and do it anyway' by Susan Jeffers, if not you might find it helpful.

    Fears of course are based a whole lot on 'I am different' and 'nobody else is like me' when the truth of it is, that there are lots of folks all sitting with the same fears and apprehensions. How good it would be if someone could start a 'fear club' -- or a 'fear anonymous' - where all those who are gripped by a gazillion fears could go share their fear....hey - now there's a thought :)


  2. I wrote a long comment yesterday, but had an error when I posted it. I will be more to the point. I TOTALLY related to how you feel. I would suggest you try to get out more and do something you are interested it (book club, photography class, gardening etc.) I am only new to your blog so I don't know enough. What this will do will start to build your self confidence up, and enable you to be a bit more sociable, and start to open you up to the possibility of different experiences.
    I enjoy your blog!!! Keep it up :)