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Overcoming Fear

free of fear newLast week I wrote a post titled “Free of Fear,” employing the name of the musical group my two sons, Jack and Lennon, happen to be in.  They had just released a new album, See You on the Other Side, and when I went to the album release party it got me to thinking about the subject.

When we become free of fear, it seems to me, we still experience fear from time to time, but we are no longer imprisoned by it.  As I discussed in last week’s “Free of Fear” post, a key that can set us free from this imprisonment are inspiring narratives that includes a fearful struggle that ends in success, coupled with a vision of why the particular form of success was of value not only to the struggling individual but to others as well.  During this past week, I’ve thought about some additional ideas for overcoming fear and I received a couple of worthwhile comments about my last post on this topic that I hope will spark some debate.

Additional Thoughts on Overcoming Fear

Before I went to the Free of Fear show, I viewed fear simply as a type of emotional pain which can be dealt with pretty much like other types of emotional pain. Regular readers of this blog know that I have proposed three approaches to dealing with emotional pain that doesn’t cost a cent and yet are highly effective—sensory focus, an expressive writing technique, and meditation. Although I contend that all three of these approaches can also be helpful for freeing us from fear, by participating in the Free of Fear multi-art event that included music, paintings, dance, poetry and a short story, I came to a deeper appreciation that fear has something about it that makes it, in a way, somewhat unique from other forms of emotional pain.

In our culture, unlike other forms of emotional pain, there are numerous narratives that have instilled within our breast the notion that to be fearful is cowardice, whereas to not be fearful is associated with bravery and courageousness. firing squadmedel of honorCowards, in some circles are shot, hung, and despised, whereas those who display courage are cheered, given tickertape parades and Medals of Honor.

Such narratives do have something to offer in our coming to an understanding of the nature of fear. And yet, to truly become free of fear, an additional narrative that offers a more nuanced understanding of fear’s role in life is necessary. For your consideration, I offer you the Wright Brothers.

The Wright Brothers Find That Their Fear is Helpful.

For hundreds of years many people have dreamed of flying. Some folks found that this dream led to some ideas for building various contraptions. A few rather fearless people built and tried out first attempts at flying machines. Unfortunately, these brave souls usually either perished in their attempts or became so injured that they ended up giving the project up. Then the Wright brothers came along. They, too, had the dream of flying. And they, too, had some ideas of what type of contraption might make their dream come true. But when they built the first version, their hearts began to beat wildly and they began to sweat, and they decided not to try it out right away. They at first criticized themselves for not being brave, but then they sat with their emotions, allowed themselves to experience their physical sensations mostly nonjudgmentally, and at one point they experienced a creative thought—maybe we can come up with some way to first test our ideas out in a safer manner. They sat on this idea while also experiencing their fear and then another creative idea burst into their awareness. From this idea, the Wright Brothers developed wind tunnels that allowed them to safely observe what happens when they systematically varied different shapes of wings and propellers under various wind conditions. As they began to learn more and more about the nature of the materials that they would use wright Brothers2to improve their original design, they managed to survive far longer than others who so bravely jumped right into trying out their early flying machines. At the same time that this was going on, some other people knew that they, personally, would be way too fearful to try out any flying machine, and yet they still sought to help this project. They found that to be part of this dream, to enter into a connection with this dream inspiring.  One guy, for example, was trying to come up with an engine that was lighter and more powerful than other engines because a real practical airplane would need that type of engine. This guy was actually afraid of heights, and yet he eventually did develop a much improved engine. The Wright Brothers, having at this point lived long enough to learn a great deal from their observations in wind tunnels, combined this with this new type engine. Now they really were ready. And then they found that they now had enough confidence in their well tested ideas to try out their newly designed airplane.

This type of narrative reveals that a certain amount of fear can be helpful, and even lifesaving. Moreover, we all benefit from the diversity of fearful experiences found in human nature. As people come to a better, deeper understanding of this, the simplistic thoughts that associate fear with nothing but negative attributes are transformed into something far closer to the truth.  Rather than being imprisoned by the idea that experiencing fear can only mean we must be a coward, the idea that fear can be, at times, a useful tool can serve to help us overcome our fear.

Now, some people have expressed a concern that my parable might lead to people becoming complacent with their fears. Perhaps in certain situations this might occur.  But I contend that the Wright brothers never became complacent, and their narrative of overcoming their fear by careful planning serves as an enduring inspiration to all the inventors that will follow in their brave footsteps.

Two Comments From my “Free of Fear” Post

I want to finish up this post by sharing with you a couple of comments about my last post on this topic that throws some additional light on this topic.

Comment by Frank Farley, PhD

Frank FarleyDr. Farley is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. Upon reading my post from last week, he wrote:

Nice post on “Free of Fear”. Any artistic, or psychological, process that will help liberate people from their fears is worthy of our attention and support. The constricting effect of fear on the possibilities of life is profound, and the potential of so many lives never get realized. One avenue to freedom from fear is through risk-taking, through confronting uncertainty in small steps, building up to self-confidence in the face of the major uncertainties that many experience. Positive risk-taking can to some extent be learned, be educated for (the “Fourth R”), and if started early in life, can strengthen us to move forward against those fearsome uncertainties that may confront us.

All the best,

Frank Farley

Naturally I’m honored that Dr. Farley took the time to comment on my post.  I particularly liked the part in his comment where he mentions confronting uncertainty in small steps.  It reminded me of a time when I was a teenager and I was trying to ask, for the first time in my life, a girl out on a date.  Several tries ended with me chickening out and questioning my manhood.  Feeling like a total coward, I tormented myself over this for weeks.  And then, one day I came up with the idea that perhaps asking this girl out was too much to take on all at once.  Maybe I  should start small and just try to go over to her and say something brief about some movie I had seen.  Without the pressure of saying something to her AND asking her out, I found that I was able to manage this smaller task.  Fortunately for me, she responded in a warm and friendly manner, and it wasn’t long afterwards when we were going to a movie together on a star filled Saturday night.

Comment by Tom Greening, PhD

Tom GreeningTom is the author of Nasreddin the Psychologist, a book of droll stories about a wise fool, and Words Against the Void, a collection of thought provoking poems.  Upon reading my post from last week, Tom wrote:

To Jeff,

Here is my response…


I¹m full of fear and angst and dread,
so sometimes wish that I were dead,
but worry that I¹d land in hell
and know no sinner who can tell
me what it¹s really like down there
and whether Satan would be fair
and give me credit for good deeds
and cater to my special needs.
Thus I will grimly persevere
and struggle sinfully up here.

I replied to Tom’s poem with a poem of my own:

Your Fear of Hell

Your fear of hell
Is like a well,
And really something swell.
Sip its water
Enjoy the border
Where good and bad
Merges to sad,
Twists into dread,
Freshens your bed
Where your dreams lead,
Sprinkled with seeds
For the flowers
Of creativity.

Well, those are some thoughts on overcoming fear that I wanted to share with you this week. Thanks for taking the time to read them! Please let me know your thoughts, questions, or feedback by leaving me a comment below. I always do my best to reply to everyone.

Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.





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