Facing Our Fears

giantforestAnything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.
~Fred Rogers

For me, fear is the most challenging emotion to face. Even just thinking about it, I notice that my heart is starting to beat a little faster, and I feel some shortness of breath.

Over years of working as a mental health counsellor specializing in emotional wellbeing, the way I’ve learned to face fear, and what I teach others, is to spend as much time as I can with this part of myself when it shows up, to name it, and to listen in to what it has to say. This way I can hold this part of myself like I would a scared or injured child, listen to what this part of me needs, and choose what steps I can take to best meet those needs.

The tricky part is that fear triggers our well-evolved fight/flight/freeze response so quickly and effectively that we often miss the chance to notice what we're feeling, let alone listen to it, or make a conscious choice about how to best respond.

Whether I’m confronted with a legitimate threat, or something that’s challenging me to stretch and grow, fear can grab my emotional steering wheel so quickly and convincingly, that I’m barely aware of what's happening until it’s over. This is especially challenging when in an attempt to protect myself or others, I end up causing harm, or turning away from what could have been a life-enhancing opportunity.

So how can we discern in the heat of the moment what we're feeling, and how to best respond?

Here’s how I do it:

Feel It
Just feel what you're feeling right now as you breathe. Notice any sensations you feel in your body. If you feel any discomfort or pain, just notice how it feels, how it comes and goes, and whatever thoughts or images come and go with it. Do this for a few breaths. No need to push it. No need to analyze or fix it.

Just be with yourself as you are right now, and notice the effect.

Name It
When you feel ready, name the emotion you're feeling, and any physical sensations, thoughts or images that you notice coming and going. Name them out loud if possible, just to yourself.

Notice the effect of feeling and naming what you’re feeling.

Ask It
When you feel ready, ask the feeling, “What do you need right now?” Let it answer for itself.

If you hear an answer, take some time to feel this need, and savour how important it is to you.

If no words come, just hold the feeling and whatever sensations or images that come and go with it. Just be present to whatever you are feeling.

Act On It

If you feel the need to take action, ask yourself, “What can I do to meet my need for __________ right now?”

If you receive an answer, let yourself feel this truth, and notice the effect.

You can do this anywhere and anytime... while waiting at a stop light, while doing the dishes, in the middle of an argument, whenever you feel a wave of emotion coming up. It's a safe, easy, and portable process to help you experience your emotions in the moment, connect to the need that underlies them, and choose how to respond.

It takes practice, lots of it, discipline, and humility; but it is possible, and in my experience, very worthwhile to face our fears, and listen with love to what they have to say.

I’d like to thank some of the teachers who’ve helped me learn how to face my fears over the years: Thank you Joanna Macy, Ann Weiser Cornell and Lucinda Sykes for teaching me how to "Feel It" with The Work That Reconnects, Eugene Gendlin’s “focusing” techniques, and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness techniques. Thank you Larry Nusbaum, MD for teaching me how to "Ask It" questions, and listen for, and trust what comes. And thank you Henry Wei and Gina Cenciose for teaching me Marshall Rosenberg’s non-violent communication technique of asking myself what need underlies every emotion I have.

Originally published in and reprinted with permission from www.onethousandtrees.com