I remember walking down a dark alley late at night. Halfway down the alley I saw, at a distance, a large dog chained to a metal post. I decided to walk on by as though I was unimpressed with him. I’m not sure what it was that gave me away, perhaps the deluge of sweat pouring from my brow. I was thinking, “I’m going to die. This is it! I’m some big dog’s midnight snack! Just keep cool! Maybe he won’t notice this trespassing biped in the middle of the night, in his own home territory.”
Well, he saw me and I felt him see me. It gave me the shivers! The whole atmosphere changed. Nothing in the world existed but him and me. It was life or death. He was big and muscular enough to kill me. Without looking back at him, I heard him stealthily come to all fours. As I turned to run, he lurched into full attack.
Now, before I get too far into the story, I’d like to note a fine distinction between myself and the dog. I was a cross country runner. He was a sprinter. That’s an important distinction at a time like this. Sprinters get there quickly. Cross country runners get there eventually. It seemed to me that, given that distinction, there was going to be a problem in the case of the dog and me. I wasted little time giving that distinction much consideration and set my mind upon learning the fine art of sprinting, post haste. Never could it have more aptly been said, “Use it or lose it!”
I’d always wondered if I’d be able to scream if I needed to. Well, yes I can. I found I could sprint, too. Lightening would have had to catch up with me on that night as I raced away from the dog. I heard the chain snap against the pole and the dog yelped. The chain had stopped him.
It felt like days before my adrenaline stopped pumping! Eventually, however, all of the fear subsided, and I determined, in the future, to avoid the combination of dark alleys and dogs on chains. I hold to that determination to this very day!
It’s the nature of being human to be acquainted with fear. We fear the dark, mad dogs, war, nightmares, and bad hair days—the latter being the most frightening!
Yet there’s a difference between an occasional justified fear, like the near miss on the highway, and the weakness of persistent or pervasive fear that extends beyond the point of reason. It’s the latter at which we’ll look in this chapter.
My grade school class decided to put on a play about American history. Students lined up against the blackboard, volunteering for the roles. Some volunteered to be native Indians. Not me; I didn’t want stuff on my face. Some wanted to be pilgrims. Not me; the costumes were scratchy. Some chose to be Jefferson or Lincoln and some the foodstuffs of the first Thanksgiving. One boy actually begged to be the turkey. I’ve wondered about him ever since. He’s probably some gazillionaire computer geek now who secretly owns Alaska and all the salmon therein.
I was afraid I wouldn’t remember my lines, and that everyone who saw the play would think I was stupid and reject me. So, I pursued the role of the Statue of Liberty, who only stood there, arm in the air, holding perfectly still. I figured I could do that.
Well! I wasn’t alone in my thespian pursuit. Three similar chicken tots shared my interest in the role. Standing there against the blackboard, hopes soaring, competition stirring deep in our souls, I noticed myself becoming a bit taller, straighter, my raised arm taking on attributes of torch-bearing. It was sheer unabashed desperation for the part.
I got it! I stood there, silent, holding a stupid cardboard torch in the air until my arm almost fell off! I was a hit, although I teetered in a slight circular motion. Draped in a wrapping that itched like crazy, I crossed my eyes, held my breath, and turned blue. No one knows the extraordinary pains actors endure for the sake of the craft!
What lengths we go to in order to avoid rejection! Fear of rejection and its cohort, fear of abandonment, are common. When excessive and unwarranted, they become weaknesses, barricades to success in life. Jill is a good example.
Today, Jill and her husband Kevin share a marriage of strength and trust that other couples envy. Yet there were once weaknesses standing in the way. They came to me with Kevin’s concerns about Jill’s jealousy and rage.
“She accuses me of not loving her, of wanting to leave her, of having affairs,” Kevin broke down. “I tell her I love her, how wonderful she is, but nothing sticks. She doesn’t believe me! I’ve never been unfaithful, not once!”
Jill didn’t know why she was doing these things, but she knew she was afraid of losing Kevin, who had given no indication of wanting to leave her. Her fears were driving her insatiable demand for absolute assurance he wouldn’t leave. His reassurance could never resolve her fears. Her fears weren’t new. She had been clingy and jealous in previous relationships. Her fears existed before Kevin. It wasn’t about him. It was about Jill.
What is the origin of these fears of rejection or abandonment?
Actual or perceived rejection or abandonment in the recent or distant past. When someone experiences a global, pervasive reaction like Jill’s, often the source of that reaction is in the person’s more distant past. This was true with Jill. When she was five years old her parents died in an airplane crash. Ever since the accident, Jill had feared that those she loved would leave her.
Many others, through divorce or death, have lost a parent or parent figure at an early age. The effects can be devastating. When we’re children, our parents are our world, our security, and the most important people in our lives. If we lose either of them, our sense of security may be shattered.
Our ability to trust in the permanency of anyone in our lives may be damaged, since those who promised to take care of us are gone. We may feel rejected, because we’re too young to understand loss. All we can see is that they’ve left us. These same reactions can occur to varying degrees with other types of rejection or abandonment.
When significant individuals don’t emotionally invest in us, or they abuse us. Since we get our self-definition from our parents, their neglect or abuse may cause us to see ourselves as unworthy of attention or support, or worthy of being abandoned or abused. We may fear those circumstances reoccurring.
If someone leaves us when we’re older, with no history of rejection or abandonment, the effects are different. Our fear of abandonment or rejection is narrower. We may avoid only those with similarities to the one who abandoned us, instead of distrusting people in general.
Some fears of rejection or abandonment are warranted. If someone has left us before, it makes sense that we may fear their leaving again. Most of that fear will go away if that person stays long enough. If someone constantly threatens to leave us, our fears will remain until the threats stop and the person stays for an extended period of time.
Other fears may be warranted but excessive. If one person rejects us, and we fear that all people will reject us, that fear is excessive. It reaches beyond that circumstance and colors the future. If one person abandons us, then returns and remains, yet we refuse to trust again, our fear is excessive.
Here are some steps to take if excessive fears of abandonment or rejection are problems in your life:
Whenever Jill fears being rejected or abandoned, she stops and determines if the current situation alone warrants fear. If not, she knows it’s her past fear making its way into a current situation. Jill then refuses to entertain these fearful thoughts, redirecting her thoughts elsewhere. By doing this, Jill relegates childhood fears of abandonment to the past, where they belong. At the same time she’s building trust in her husband’s commitment to her. Over time, the weakness has disappeared, replaced with trust based on truth. She now lives free of these fears and understands herself better. The fuel of her weakness now fuels her strength as she lives according to current truth instead of limited childhood perceptions. She lives by a principle: Never let fears live any longer than it takes to conform them to current truth.
Do you remember this kids’ game? One reaches out, touches the other, and says, “I touch you.” Then the one touched reverses the process, touching the other kid back, saying, “I touch you back.” This continues until one final swat ends the play.
In this game, neither kid wants to have any real contact. The point of the game is the invisible line they’ve drawn over which neither one is to venture without consent. This skirmish is reminiscent of what adults do when there’s a problem with intimacy.
The fear of intimacy is a weakness with painful consequences. Ron’s story is one example.
Ron wasn’t the one who came to therapy, in the beginning. It was Megan, his wife, who came to the office with the look of confusion and pain common among those in love with someone who fears intimacy. She couldn’t understand the arguments, the distancing, and the criticism, which were often preceded by wonderful closeness.
According to Megan, this was a pattern that had occurred throughout the three years of their marriage, and even before. Just before the wedding, Ron disappeared for several days, saying he just needed to get away and think. He called while away, assuring her of his love for her and sounding even more in love than when he left.
Early in the marriage Ron began to work late, coming home grumpy. Within two years he was drinking. Arguments escalated, with Ron often storming out and remaining away for days. While away, Ron missed Megan, calling her and coming home to deep, satisfying intimacy. Then the cycle would repeat: closeness, grumpiness, criticism of Megan, working late, alcohol, a big explosion, and Ron’s leaving again.
Megan’s heart was being torn apart. She loved Ron and knew he loved her. That was what was so hard to understand. Why would someone who couldn’t think of living without her have to get away from her?
Ron was a good man and didn’t understand why he treated Megan this way. He just knew that he felt smothered and had to get away. When he felt that way, everything about Megan bothered him, and he felt suffocated. After some time, Ron disclosed that this pattern had been a part of his relationships previous to Megan. Things were beginning to make sense.
Certainly Ron was capable of intimacy. Yet he could tolerate only so much intimacy before having to run away. This push-pull behavior, in which he was, in effect, saying, “Come close to me, but don’t get near me!” was causing Megan great confusion and deep emotional pain.
Underneath Ron’s fear of intimacy was a fear of commitment. When he got close to Megan he felt trapped. When he ran, it was not from her, but from commitment. While away he felt less trapped and could reach out to Megan again. He ran away by staying late at work, leaving town, or escaping into alcohol. His criticisms of her were intended to get her to distance herself from him, so he could breathe. Ron’s fear of commitment drove his fear of intimacy, almost destroying his marriage.
What are the origins of the fear of intimacy?
Fear of loss of freedom, of change, or of commitment. Ron’s fear of intimacy, undergirded by his fear of commitment, originated over a period of years. He came from a home where his mother did everything for him. He was catered to and given his full freedom. His mother still catered to him, and he didn’t want things to change.
Lack of familiarity with intimacy. Some of us fear intimacy because it’s unfamiliar. We didn’t see it modeled in our families. It’s a skills deficit. We haven’t learned how to be intimate.
Fear of losing opportunities to be with others or of making a mistake. We may fear that there are others to whom we may be drawn yet will not be able to have. We may fear mistakenly choosing the wrong person.
Fear of losing ourselves. For some of us, underneath our fear of intimacy is a greater fear of losing ourselves. We’re afraid to give ourselves away. We lack a solid sense of who we are, and we fear that if we give ourselves away, we will lose who we are.
Fear of losing control, being exposed, or being hurt. For some of us intimacy sparks a fear of losing control. We may also have been hurt before and fear that intimacy will make us vulnerable once again to rejection, abandonment, or betrayal. We may fear that intimacy will expose us, or reveal that we’re not good enough. We may not want to risk someone validating our negative self-appraisal.
In all of these scenarios, our fear of intimacy protects us from an anticipated harm. It protects us from emotional discomfort and leaves us in control. Yet it also stands in the way of true fulfillment in relationship. Following are some steps toward healing for those who suffer from a fear of intimacy:
Though it wasn’t easy, Ron followed these steps to healing. In the long run his weakness of fearing intimacy was starved into submission as his energies were redirected to developing the strengths of concern for and interest in others. Ron finally came to understand that his intense focus on himself and his own concerns had become a prison that eventually only he would inhabit, unless he began to care more for others than he did for himself.
I used to have a black box with a lock on it. Inside I kept all of my important keepsakes. Because it held important things, I became very protective of it. Just the thought of it could bring anxiety. Over time I removed the items in the box, as each item became less important to me. Eventually all that I had left was the box, yet it was the hardest thing of all to let go of. That’s how our memories are, sometimes. They’re all we have left of someone or something, and we find it hard to let go of them for that very reason. Let me use Beth as an example here.
Beth’s contribution to grief counseling is enormous. She has helped many people recover from grief and loss and move on to healthy, productive lives. Many have looked to her to learn how to find strength to carry on in the face of loss. Yet, there was a time when weakness kept Beth from her own recovery.
“It’s been three years now.” Beth began. “We’ve been divorced for three years and I still think about him every day. I’m losing my friends because they’re getting tired of hearing about Ed. The kids are getting tired of it, too.”
Beth was holding on to her painful memories because they were all she had left of Ed. To let go of the memories would mean that she had to let go of Ed and move on. The loss was no longer the problem. It was the failure to let go. Her fear of loss was unwarranted because the loss had already occurred. What was left was only a memory, which she wasn’t at risk of losing.
Beth, without realizing it, was using her memories of Ed to protect herself from becoming involved in another relationship and from the risk of losing again. She was choosing to live in self-produced and self-maintained pain as a way of avoiding the possibility of another. Had she not decided to change her thinking, her self-inflicted pain could have become permanent.
This same thing can happen to us when people hurt us or let us down. When we hold memories in our minds so we don’t have to get over our pain and move on, it’s our way, subconsciously, of punishing those who have hurt us, of still holding them accountable. Yet, most often these people don’t even know we’re doing this. They’ve moved on. We’re the ones who are stuck, because we’ve decided to hold a grudge. Take a look at what Allen was doing before he turned his own fear of loss into the courage to move on.
Allen had been hurt by his boss at a company in which Allen owned part interest. He had been reprimanded in front of the whole management team, and his reputation had been seriously damaged. In his hurt and anger, Allen allowed his productivity to deteriorate.
“Why should I make him so much money?” Allen pouted. “After what he’s done to me, why should I bring in big numbers just to let him destroy what’s left of my dignity?”
Allen’s income was based on those numbers, however, and to produce less in order to hurt his co-owner was to cut his own income, which he used to provide for his own family. Fear of future loss was leading Allen to self-sabotage. By punishing his boss he was punishing himself.
Allen couldn’t get an apology from his boss, and he felt that keeping his production up was conceding that what his boss had said was right. He wasn’t going to let that happen. Instead he slipped into depression and financial distress, all of his own doing. Holding on to his memory of the incident seemed to justify his anger, disappointment, and failure.
We hold on to our memories of loss because we think that somehow they’ll protect us from further pain. Yet pain and life are inescapably connected. To master one we must master the other.
The excessive fear of loss becomes a weakness that keeps us mired in the losses its isolation brings, and causes us to merely survive, rather than live our lives to the fullest.
What are the origins of the weakness of excessive or unwarranted fear of loss?
Previous loss. We may have already suffered a loss, which sparks fear of future losses. This was the case with Beth.
Threats. We may be in a relationship with someone who threatens to leave. We may have a boss who threatens to fire us. We may be struggling with the impending loss of someone or something. This was Allen’s story.
Valuing. We may anticipate loss when we have something or someone we cherish. The value of the thing or the person may drive the fear. The fear may prompt us to take precautions that simple reason would contend against.
How, then, do we combat excessive or unwarranted fear of loss? Following are some things we can do.
Beth focused on moving on. She diverted the energy she was investing in fear of loss into recovering and developing the strength of compassion for others who have suffered loss. The fear of loss was deprived of the energy it needed to survive, and Beth moved gracefully from survival into the fullness of life.
Allen redirected the energies he had invested in fear of loss into increasing his productivity and strengthening his character. In challenging his unwarranted fear of loss Allen learned that he relied too much on what others thought. He invested his rerouted energy into the strength of honest and accurate self-evaluation. He also began to develop the strength of humility as he learned to respect those in positions of authority over him.
I have brothers. I can’t help that. I was born that way. If you have older brothers, you’re probably aware of their particular gifts and talents. One of those talents is the ability to jump out from behind any available hiding place and scream in your face. I’m not sure why boys do that. I think it’s that hunting and gathering thing. They jump out from behind a tree and scare their prey to death. Regardless of why my brothers would do that, the result was always the same. I’d freeze in my tracks, scream loudly, and be sorely tempted to have a heart attack.
That little exercise wasn’t performed often, but with enough frequency that for some time afterward, shrubs and trees without a clear view sparked my caution. Certainly I love my brothers and understand that boys will be boys. Yet this is an example of how repeated encounters with fearful circumstances may encourage us to be needlessly frightened. It can happen in any realm—emotionally, psychologically, physically, or even spiritually. With Jim, the catalyst was past fear of physical and emotional retaliation.
Jim has a calmness about him that’s soothing to all those around him. He trusts others unless they give him reason not to, and he no longer lives in the land of secrets. Yet that’s not the way things have always been. For many years Jim’s weakness of unwarranted fear of potential harm kept him from the life that rightfully belonged to him.
In the beginning, talking to Jim was like trying to capture fog. He was so evasive with his responses that it was impossible to get a clear answer from him. If you watched closely you could almost see him editing every thought, changing this one, excluding that one.
Jim existed in a state of unnecessary guardedness. His internal agenda was self-protection through non-disclosure. He called it his need for privacy, but that’s not what it was. He was struggling with an excessive and unwarranted fear of potential harm that he thought exposure might bring. Where do excessive or unwarranted fears of potential harm come from?
Previous harm or threats of harm. We may have experienced previous harm or threats of harm. Abused children fear further abuse, and Jim was an abused child. While his mother worked in the evenings, Jim’s alcoholic stepfather would drink himself into drunken rages and become abusive toward Jim.
“He used to threaten me all the time. He’d tell me that if I told my mother about his hitting me he’d leave us and take his paycheck with him,” Jim explained. “Mom didn’t make enough on her own. I knew we needed his paycheck. And Mom didn’t want to be without him. So, I didn’t say anything.”
Abused children learn, either by force or by instinct, to conceal the truth of inflicted abuses and the self-protective thoughts that come along with them. Because they conceal these thoughts, they don’t subject them to external objectivity, which might make these fears go away. So, the fears remain, fueling the guardedness.
As they grow up, abused children continue the secretive behavior. They may be having trouble with their spouses, but they don’t tell anyone. They may be uncomfortable, but they don’t tell anyone. They edit their thoughts so nothing is revealed. They do this because it’s what they have taught themselves to do. They turn inward. Their behavior in the real world is dominated by thoughts ruled by another day and time. They perceive threats where threats don’t exist, and they grant grandiose importance to these perceptions.
When we base our current thoughts and behavior on yesterday’s problems, we create turmoil in our relationships. We don’t trust people who are worthy of trust, because we don’t need to. We’ve learned by concealing our thoughts that we don’t need to trust.
Unfortunately, however, relationship is built on trust. Lack of trust leaves us in our own secret worlds and in relationships where we aren’t emotionally there. Emotional presence requires spontaneity, and our internal editing and guardedness leave us several degrees removed from others. Others sense the distance but don’t understand it. All they’re left with is confusion and eventual danger.
How can we avoid this trap?
Recognize. First, we need to recognize our fears of potential harm. We need to listen to others who are complaining of our guardedness and emotional distance, and recognize that our excessive or unwarranted fears of potential harm are actually harming others. If we don’t want to become the ones who now cause the harm, we must eliminate our excessive fear and the guardedness it creates.
Externalize. It’s important for us to externalize our internal fears and subject them to outside evaluation. Jim learned to say out loud what he feared. He could then get feedback from objective individuals whose continued and consistent responses showed him that he had no real reason to be afraid. This opening up to others allowed Jim to begin to develop the strength of trust.
Redirect. If our fears aren’t based in reality, we need to reinvest our thoughts and emotional energies elsewhere. Over time Jim became comfortable with those against whom he had previously guarded himself. The emotional energy he had once used to protect himself was redirected into developing those relationships.
Resolve. If our fears are valid, we must take steps to deal with the real potential of being harmed. Jim found that when he subjected his fears of potential harm to objective review, his unwarranted fears of harm evaporated. That left previously committed emotional and intellectual energies free to invest in developing the strengths of trust and responsible risk-taking.
Few things strike terror in my heart more swiftly than long division. I think this fear arose when as a child my family moved and I entered a new school where long division had already been taught. I’d awaken in the night with fears of having to go to the blackboard and divide one number by another. I was so frightened by the possibility of the experience that I froze, unable for a long time to learn long division.
Prior to that point, I’d been able to learn all I’d been taught, so there was no need for my fear. Yet as a child I didn’t understand that it was going to take time to acquire this skill. I thought I had to learn it immediately. I was afraid of failing.
Still, I had no choice but to make the attempt. Had I not jumped in and taken the risk, my fear of failure might have actually produced failure. That’s one of the attributes of fear. Left unchallenged, it tends to be self-fulfilling. Our fears of failure or success can be debilitating. Ed is a perfect example.
Ed is currently at the top of his region and second in the nation in sales for his company. Yet, this wasn’t always the case.
At my first meeting with Ed and his wife, Joyce, she told me, “He’s busy doing nothing. He’s taking care of the back yard and fixing up the garage. Bills are going unpaid and he gets mad if I suggest his getting a job. I think he’s just afraid of failing.”
Where do fears of failure or success originate?
Lack of familiarity with success or failure, or experience in either area. Perhaps we’re unfamiliar with failure or success, or we’ve had previous disappointments in one of those areas. Ed was the top salesman in the region until his new boss reduced his territory. Ed’s income plummeted. In his despondency he started missing work.
Ed began to struggle with fears of both failure and success. He was afraid that he might not be able to reach the heights he had once attained, that perhaps he no longer had the strength to get there. Yet, he also feared that he might succeed, and that success would bring with it all of the responsibilities he’d recently relinquished.
Now these competing fears were leading him to procrastinate. Furthermore, Ed was struggling with resentment about having been treated unfairly. Together, these factors combined to produce paralysis, causing Ed to lose much of what he’d worked for.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism may also be a culprit. Ed’s original success had been fueled by perfectionism and his need to earn the approval of all those around him. Deprived of attention and the approval of his father when he was growing up, Ed had sought to earn approval by doing things well. Because his father was not responsive to his efforts, Ed had continually felt the need to do even more in the attempt to earn approval, eventually becoming a perfectionist.
Because perfectionism was the force behind Ed’s previous success, he had never really accepted this success as his own. Perfectionism works on the premise that what is done is never good enough. That’s what propels the perfectionist to greater heights. Ed failed to see that each step he took toward success was actual, real, and not simply a result of good luck. So, he had failed to take credit for his success or recognize that the legitimate effort he had put into it was the reason for the success. Ed had made it to the top without developing genuine confidence in himself.
Now Ed was languishing in fear, mistakenly thinking that he would have to start all over again. Yet he was failing to see that he had plenty of experience under his belt that would make this current road to success much less intimidating. Furthermore, because he had been successful before, he had nothing to prove this time. The question this time was the quality of his success, not the quantity. This time his success, rather than being based on unmet needs for approval and attention, would be based on truth and real confidence. This time, success would not be the goal. It would be the by-product. This time, success would not be the goal. It would be the byproduct. He knew that the product he was selling was excellent. He believed that the product was good for people. He began to sell the product for them, not for himself. He operated off this principle: To do what is right for others is to do what is right for ourselves. He forgave the boss who had reduced his territory. He could then move on without being fused to the pain of past experiences.
How can we turn the weaknesses of fear into strengths?
Follow God’s example. The smartest thing to do is to follow the best example. On a number of occasions God told us how to feel! He said, “Do not be afraid!” Perhaps the earliest example of this is found in Genesis: “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward’” (Gn 15:1).
Other examples may be found throughout the Old Testament (see, for example, Gn 21:17; 46:3, Ex 14:13; Dt 3:22; Jos 10:8; 2 Chr 32:7; and Is 43:5).
Notice that when God told people not to be afraid, he followed it up with the reason why they had no need for fear. God’s solution for fear was trust in him. In this way, he told us how to handle our fears. He moved us ahead of our fears to our future. Our trust was to be in his promise for a planned outcome.
Plan. Fears flourish due to a lack of planning. We need to answer the question “What if ...?” We need to view our fears as possible eventualities and plan for how we will deal with them, should they occur. In doing so, we will be looking past our fears to their solutions. Once we’re prepared for any eventuality, the need for fear will disappear, replaced by confidence in having planned a solution. Here’s the formula:
Take feared circumstances ® See them as possible eventualities ® Determine plans of action ® The reasons for the fears will disappear ® Replaced with confidence in our ability to handle the future!
Face the truth. We must be honest, with ourselves and with others. Ed faced the fact that he knew how to become successful and had done it before. He realized that he was going to have to spend his time doing something. In light of this fact, doing something productive was more personally rewarding than sitting around feeling guilty. The prospect of dealing with the challenges of success began to appeal to him once more. He knew that he could summon up the energy to push for success because he remembered that in the past the challenges had actually energized him. He no longer needed to fear success. He didn’t need to be afraid, because he knew what he was doing.
The same formula works for those who haven’t experienced a major success or failure and fear either one. The way to eliminate these weaknesses is to anticipate that what we’re afraid of may happen, then devise a plan for how to handle it if it does. Once we’re prepared for these eventualities, the fear surrounding them will evaporate.
As we accept our fears and plan our actions in the face of these fears, we’ll develop the strength of confidence in ourselves to handle the future. With this strength will come the strength of courage to take risks.