Take a good, long moment to consider this proposition.
Your mind may be flipping through images of famous foes in history and in current events.
But how about the invisible, silent, amorphous kind of enemy?
Until just a few years ago, that's how I would have described my relationship with fear:
"an inner enemy hell-bent on sabotaging all my efforts at living a fulfilling life".
Before you jump to the conclusion that I've wrestled it down and conquered it completely, let me temper your excitement a bit. No, I have not yet reached that level of Zen.
The good news I want to share, however, is that fear is no longer an outright enemy for me. Looking back on the last few years, I see that this transformation has been (and continues to be) catalyzed and sustained by the synergy of influences of the many teachers and friends that have come into my life.
What follows is a list, in no particular order, of some of the most memorable teachings about fear that I've encountered so far. In addition to being a grateful tribute to my teachers and friends, I share it in the hopes of spreading the wisdom and love, so as to help catalyze and sustain the transformation for you and anyone whose life you may touch.
Fear versus Excitement
In the summer of 2015, I participated in a live event hosted by one of my first coaching mentors, Jeannine (Jey) Yoder. The event gave me, and a few dozen other women, the opportunity to create and deliver a signature talk – a way to share our message.
"As the cliché goes, speaking in public scares us adults more than even death."
Everyone knows that.
But through the training leading up to the event, and then at the event itself, Jey taught me a lot of valuable stuff about fear that was new to me. Among the most powerful was this: The physiology of fear is mostly indistinguishable from the physiology of excitement.
I still remember vividly those moments when I walked onto the stage, reached the mic, and soothed the emotional storm inside by reminding myself gently, "Excitement... Excitement..."
Did it magically calm my nerves and stop the shakiness in my voice? No.
But expanding my perception and interpretation of the physiological experience – allowing for the possibility that it's a good thing (who doesn't like to feel excited?!) – enabled me to start loosening the paralyzing effect that fear used to have in my life.
The Amygdala as Prison Warden
In the summer of 2016, I began studying with my second coaching/business mentor, Mindie Kniss. One of the first topics that Mindie discussed was the amygdala, the tiny almond-shaped area in each brain hemisphere associated with the conditioning and experience of fear.
Mindie offered a helpful metaphor for understanding and working with the amygdala, likening it to a prison warden who is always on the alert for any sign of danger. As long as nothing changes, as long as life remains predictable and familiar, the prison warden remains blissfully asleep. All that familiar, predictable terrain is known as our ‘comfort zone.’
But what happens when we venture out toward the edges of that terrain, when we want to experience growth? Well, any experience (often even the mere thought of an experience) that gets a little too close to the edges of our comfort zone is perceived by the amygdala as danger! So even if we simply imagine taking such action, the danger alarms are triggered – waking up the warden and keeping us from moving forward.
We can prevent activating those alarms by identifying and taking small steps in the desired direction – so small that the prison warden doesn't notice that anything is changing. With practice, I’ve gotten better at isolating the one small step I can take, right here, right now, in the direction of my dreams.
The Peace Process and the Fire of Focus
Also during 2016, I learned a powerful healing technique from Christian Mickelsen (who credits his own teachers, especially Raphael Cushnir, for inspiring it). Christian shares and teaches this technique, the Peace Process, as part of his coaching/business training programs.
In a nutshell, it begins with focusing the mind on the specific part of the body in which the fear (or any other uncomfortable emotion) is felt with the greatest intensity. Rather than the typical default experience – wanting to understand the fear, to stop it, to make it go away, or to force it to change somehow – the Peace Process involves holding our focus on the physical sensations in the body with complete acceptance and even love!
"The physical sensation is to be treated like a tiny innocent baby who wants and needs loving attention."
When I was first introduced to the Peace Process, like many others in Christian’s community, I found myself wondering if such a simple technique can be effective at dissolving very intense or very deep fear. Happily, I've discovered that one of Christian's fear-related metaphors has helped me to harness the power of the Peace Process more effectively. Christian likens the fear to oil in an ancient oil lamp: no matter how much oil is inside the container (representing the depth and scope of the fear), eventually the fire (representing the mental focus we direct at the physical sensation) will consume all of the oil.
The Common Thread: Community
Glancing back at my own experience of cultivating self-mastery when it comes to fear, one theme emerges that is common to all of the teachers and mentors who've influenced my growth. Ironically, this theme is particularly challenging for most adults in Western culture, because it seems to contradict some of the fundamental guiding principles that got us to the 21st century.
If you're anything like me, you learned from a young age to push yourself, to strive for visible achievements, to focus your energies towards tangible results. You adopted 'optimization' as a leading value in all areas of life, which means that you prefer the fastest, shortest path to any destination.
"When everything in life is on a schedule, you're not likely to take the scenic route; instead, you rely on your GPS gadget to calculate the directions, and you follow them."
You also adopted 'individuality' and 'independence' in all areas of life, which means that, on some level, you believe that you're supposed to be able to figure things out (using one or more technical gadgets) and reach your destination on your own. Look no further than school kids during homework time or during a test; the school system is designed to treat each student as an island unto itself, and, with few exceptions, 'collaboration' is generally viewed as 'cheating.'
That programming produces adults who tend to view themselves as separate entities from their fellow humans. Even when life bombards us with challenges, we shy away from admitting – even to ourselves – that maybe it's too much and maybe we'd like some help.
A few years ago, I was riddled with fears that kept me in a box defined by old beliefs and programs. As confining as it was to live so small, I couldn't see a way to break free. It's only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I can see how the rigid boundaries of my box began to soften and expand – when I opened up to the possibility of community.
For all the drawbacks of the digital age, one huge blessing that I've tapped into in the past few years is the vast power of the internet to transcend geography and connect with like-minded people worldwide. Each community that I joined (Jey's community, Mindie's community, etc.) has been a source of unique, intangible support. And taken together, all of these interconnected communities comprise the larger 'tribe' that I've leaned on, in thousands of moments of fear and self-doubt.
The sense of belonging within this growing community has helped me keep taking those small steps forward – in the face of fear – because I've surrounded myself (albeit virtually) with people who are also on this path of expansion and growth. Each time I see someone conquer a fear that used to paralyze them, I add to the growing collection of evidence that it's possible – which dissolves the corresponding programming behind that fear in my own mind.
Sometimes, the breakthroughs are massive and dramatic, but most of the time they're small and incremental. Regardless of the size of each breakthrough, however, the essential part is that being buoyed by the energy field of the community makes the difference between succumbing to the weight of fear and discovering my own capacity and strength to rise above it.
So what’s my current relationship with fear? Well, it’s not the enemy it used to be. I now see it as a signal that some part of my comfort zone is stretching. And rather than running the other way, I reach into my toolbox and lean on the power of community to find my footing and adjust the way I take the next small step.
Rosalie is a life coach who is passionate about helping parents with all aspects of the parenting journey. After two decades as an engineer in corporate America, she switched gears to focus on her true calling, informed by extensive training and studies in psychology, life-coaching, and various healing modalities – and, most importantly, her own experience as a mom. In addition to a Bachelor’s in chemical engineering, she holds a Master’s in Spiritual Psychology and is certified in several healing and coaching approaches. She lives in beautiful Pasadena, CA, with her son.