The fear of fear

When I felt fear in the old days, I just felt fear. But since I learned about the law of attraction, which has become mainstream since the movie The Secret came out, things have gotten much more complicated. In a nutshell, the law of attraction means that like attracts like: positive thoughts attract positive things and negative thoughts attract negative things. So, basically, if I dwell on the things that scare the crap out of me, I’ll create them.

Now I’m scared of being scared.

On some level, this strikes me as wrong. Emotions are messengers that bear information for us, and we ignore them at our peril. They must be invited in, heard, and then released. Carl Jung said that what we resist persists, and being afraid to fear seems like resistance to me. If I resist fear, won’t I create what I fear?

Instead of resisting fear, what if I felt it, made a decision about how I’m going to respond to it, and then moved on? Fear motivates us to act like nothing else does, and perhaps I just need to work up the courage to feel and transmute it.

This works for me on a philosophical level, but on a practical level, I hate feeling fear. I have never understood why people go to horror movies.

But hang on a minute. What if my fear is just a judgment? Raising a son brings many opportunities for fear and watching Adrian has often made me wonder how our species survived. When he was younger, Adrian seemed to need to take risks. Life for him was a perpetual if-then loop. If I do this, then what will happen? It was challenging to balance his need to explore with my desire for him to survive his childhood. But he has survived, and all the things I considered risky did not turn out to be fatal after all. I feared for his life and in my fear, I judged many things dangerous that didn’t turn out to be.

Walt Whitman wrote “Be curious, not judgmental.” What if, instead of judging that whatever I fear (and indeed, fear itself) is bad, I were curious instead?

What if?

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Emotions as messengers

I have wrestled my son to bed for the night, and am sitting on my own bed, ready to do some work on my laptop computer.

“Mama,” he calls down the hall, “I’m sad.”

“About what?” I ask, trying to determine whether this is just another ploy for a “sleep-over” with me.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Well, your sadness is just a feeling you’re having. It’s a messenger that has some information for you. What is it trying to tell you?”

After a long pause, he says, “Connor gave me a stick and made me hit Tunji with it.” (Tunji is Connor’s dog.)

“I’m your mother,” I say, “and I know how hard it is to get you to do something you don’t want to do. There’s no way Connor made you hit Tunji.”

Long pause.

“So, you’re feeling sad because you hurt Tunji?” I say.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Tunji forgives you,” I say, knowing that he’s just one tail-wagging ball of love and fogiveness. “Now you need to forgive yourself.”

“How do I do that?” he asks.

“You need to love yourself,” I say.

After a bit, he says, “I still feel sad. Can you tap?”

“Sure,” I say. And after two rounds of tapping, he goes to sleep.

Adrian was born with an instinct to provide and defend by killing, which we don’t really value or create a natural outlet for in the 21st century. Being male, he is the result of thousands of years of natural selection, in which only the best hunters and warriors survived. He loves animals, though, and is often conflicted. One minute he wants to hunt rabbits and deer to provide meat for us, and the next minute, he wants to help a local farmer’s beef cattle escape so they won’t get slaughtered. Sometimes his wires get crossed and he hurts an animal he cares about, such as Tunji.

When Adrian feels sadness and doesn’t know what to do about it, he talks to me. Sometimes, he refers to an undefined jumble of negative emotions as a “clump,” and we sort through it to figure out what he’s feeling and why. This typically happens at bedtime, when he begins to reflect on his day.

Sad

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Sad” card from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Guilt as a motivational tool

As a child, I believed that I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. The way I ensured her happiness was to behave in exactly the way that she wanted me to. I believed that my mother would love me only if I stayed within the “target zone” of her expectations, and losing a parent’s love is a risk that a young child cannot safely take.

I became a master at reading the subtle changes in her facial expressions and moods and adjusted my behavior accordingly. In my constant attentiveness to her needs, I never became acquainted with my own. In fact, it never occurred to me to want anything that she didn’t.

What I learned from my mother served me well when I went to school, because meeting my teachers’ expectations led to good grades. And it made me a good employee, because I could anticpiate my employers’ expectations and quickly respond to their needs. But I still didn’t know who I was, what my own expectations were, or how to think for myself. That didn’t happen until I was in my late 20’s, when I quit my job, cashed in my 401k, and spent a year in Europe.

The farther I get from childhood, the more I doubt some of my memories–especially those having to do with my mother’s parenting techniques. Fortunately, I have an 8-year-old son, and watching the two of them interact confirms that my memories are accurate. If Adrian doesn’t do what my mom wants, she says something like, “Well that makes me really sad, Adrian.” I watch to see if he will be as consumed by guilt as I would have been, capitulate, and do what my mom wants. But he doesn’t. For him, guilt doesn’t work as a motivational tool, and I am so relieved to know that he has not inherited what I call my “overactive guilt gland.”

When I read Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, I realized that my mother had used guilt to get her needs met. It takes a special combination of people for that parenting technique to work–a match made in Hell, if you will. Guilt doesn’t motivate Adrian to do her bidding, for example, and it didn’t work on my sister either. But me? Oh, God. On me, it worked in spades.

It has taken a lifetime to overcome the effect that guilt has on me, and I’m still working on it. Even as I write this, I worry that my mother might see this post. What if it hurts her feelings? What if . . .

But the silver lining is that, in the process of working through all this, I created Mixed Emotions.

Guilty

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Guilty” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

A universal language

When I was 28, I traveled behind what was then the Iron Curtain with friends. You know the part in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy & Co. enter Oz, and the movie changes from black-and-white to color? Well, crossing the border between West and East Germany was exactly like that, only backward. Everything became gray and colorless, and it seemed like we went back in time about 40 years.

We stayed with several families there–people that my friends had met through their church. Sitting at their kitchen tables behind the Iron Curtain enabled me to confirm that Sting was right. The Russians (or in this case, the East Germans) really did love their children, too. They experienced joy, grief, and fear just like I did. And a Berlin Wall in my own heart came tumbling down.

That’s when I realized that our emotions are a universal language. No matter where we live or what language we speak, what we feel is exactly the same. And that makes us One.

Loving (platonic)

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Loving” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

How it all began

When I was in my thirties, words were my trade. I was good at expressing things–especially technical things. Yet, I found myself sitting across from a therapist, perplexed by the question she had just asked, which was: “How do you feel about that?”

I was tongue-tied. How could it be so difficult to put my feelings into words? And I found myself wanting to cheat. What I needed was a list of feelings that I could choose from whenever she asked me that question. But a list alone wasn’t enough, I needed each word on the list to be movable. Maybe it needed to be something like emotional Magnetic Poetry or emotional Scrabble or, maybe it could be cards.

Hey, cards. Now there’s an idea.

So, I created a deck of cards to help people put their feelings into words. It’s called “Mixed Emotions,” and I’ll be writing a whole lot more about what I learned, and the mistakes I made in later entries.