Pema Chodran tells the following story about fear.
A young warrior was told by her teacher that tomorrow she would have to face her greatest opponent, fear. She was very scared but that evening she made her mental preparations and laid out her armoury as she had been trained. At noon the following day, she found herself across the ceremonial battle square from fear itself. It looked monstrous and it was all she could do to muster the courage to meet it in the centre of the arena. Fear was large, horrific and its rasping breaths shook the little warrior to the core. She wanted to run but she had learned discipline and was self-possessed enough to put her training into practice. She bowed respectfully before her opponent. Fear was impressed and thanked her. “I appreciate your respect,” it said, “do you have any questions for me?”“I have one question,” she replied. “How do I defeat you?”
Fear stared at her for a moment then sighed. “Good question, young warrior. I will tell you. The truth is I only have two weapons. I speak very quickly and I shout right into your face. That is all. If you resist doing what I tell you to do, you win.”
That day, the young warrior embraced the onslaught and stood her ground. And that was enough to win.
Fear is a troublesome emotion.
I’d love to say that I’d learned the secret of expelling fear, but I haven’t. Once or twice a year, I feel acute anxiety in my bed as I try to sleep. The trigger will have happened during the day and it could be getting something wrong, being manipulated, familiar shame or being overwhelmed. My bones burn, my face itches, my body arches and constricts and my mind is filled with worst case (and often absurd) scenarios. I hate it.
As a trainer of leadership behaviour, I decided to study the phenomena. I wondered if I could apply some knowledge I have about fear, in real time, while it was happening?
I travelled to Florida earlier this year and one night, I felt the familiar signs of an imminent worry attack after I’d gone to bed. It was the usual compulsion to explore worst case scenarios and illogical threats. I couldn’t stop the mental process of scrabbling for solutions only to generate more adapted threats. The fear entangled me but this time, I was present enough to observe it. Although the experience was acute, I was able to pause and think about what was going on.
I listed off five pieces of acquired wisdom I’d gleaned over the decades to see if they would ameliorate the experience. I had five major pieces of learning.
Fear is a signal rather than a trauma. When I am scared, I often think of the emotional pain as the end point; that suffering is the only conclusion to the realisation of threat; an unavoidable trauma. Since it is the end-point, with no purpose other than to torment me, the only valid response is distraction or repression. This time, I thought, “What if the fear was a means of getting me to notice something? What if it was just a signal, an attempt to warn me rather make me feel bad?” I tried that on.
My head cleared a bit. I felt that the signal was for me to notice a mistake I had made that day and my denial of the consequences. I felt shame. Then I wondered if the fear might be a racket emotion to mask my aversion to personal culpability. The more I examined the experience the calmer I felt.
1. I felt more peace by looking for the truth in the suffering rather than resisting it.
Fear is the anticipation of future suffering. From the previous thought experiment, I concluded that the future suffering was shame. Right? Wrong. As I thought about it, I realised that shame is a self-directed, internal affect, which has no significance to the external world. To believe it was the base driver, might create a cyclical emotional trap, all internally referenced, unable to get earthed in reality. I considered the notion that fear is pragmatic and wise. What suffering was it signalling in the real world that I could do something about? I had a flash forward to the logical end point of the incident that sparked the worry. I knew that if I allowed the problem behaviour to become a practice, it could lead to pain.
2. I stopped justifying the problem behaviour, committed to arresting it and the internal turbulence settled down.
The absence of fear is not courage;the absence of fear is brain damage. Fear is an important emotion in the battery of experiential responses. If an articulated lorry is ploughing towards you, a jolt of terror to propel you off the road is no bad thing. The purpose of fear is to keep you out of danger. Its absence can give rise to socio-pathology and unsafe risk taking. Heightened vigilance and focused self-analysis keeps us sharp, vulnerable and relatable. As I reflected deeper in my Florida hotel room, I realised that I also felt shame at being afraid; a fear-filled, shameful, poor wee soul is not the idealised ego image I was shooting for. When I realised that it was costing me insight into my genuine experience I challenged my relationship to the fear.
3. I felt the relationship to my fear improve a little and include some curiosity. The shame lessened.
There are only really two emotions: fear and love. Focus on love and fear diminishes. I began to reflect on other people’s shadows and how much I love them despite their flaws. I remember one young friend having the courage to spill all his shadiness to me in the first two months of our friendship. At the end of the conversation I experienced him as more whole, interesting and likeable. He has since become like my little brother. I realised that my coping strategy for fear was withdrawal and hiddenness. Focusing on the love I felt for others despite their faults, encouraged me to try out the same compassion on myself. I spoke my situation out loud, describing the accompanying emotions and listened to my words. I was surprised. No repulsion, no judgement; just a little compassion.
4. I felt a broader more enriched experience, which diluted the fear; similar to the times when I have spoken to friends about my worries.
Fear is physiological. When I opened Cantle, the leadership centre I built on Loch Tay, my first year was anxious. It was a money pit and we had builders who were bilking us for all they could. I was in debt and everything cost three times more than I budgeted for. Most of my nights were charged with fear. This was strange for me. My personality style is much more predisposed to guilt or reputational fears; money was never something that worried me before. One day, I was drinking a glass of water, I’d poured from the tap. My groundsman, Davie saw me and asked what I was doing. He had lived his entire life in that town and would never drink from the tap; only bottled water. He explained that the water was dirty from the peat and it upset his stomach, even to cook with. I stopped drinking tap water and started sleeping. My financial challenges suddenly had logical solutions. The business became an adventure again and I started to love Cantle.
I noticed that when I got up after my fearful night in Florida, my stomach was upset. I wondered how much of my anxiety was generated from a stomach in turmoil that had confused viral symptoms for anxiety and worked a fairly innocuous event up into a reason to be scared.
5. When my stomach is ill at ease, it opens up the sluice gates for anxiety and I can exaggerate an incident from that day to fixate upon and generate worries.
The wisdom statements were helpful and each resulted in its own insight. These insights didn’t alleviate the fear but muffled it with a more crowded experience. I was quite content with that and happy to wait for my next episode with my new knowledge. That was until tonight, here at Barnes and Noble, in Houston, in the middle of a lightning storm when I believe I found out what was really going on.
I am writing in the coffee shop. Earlier I was reading this blog, the part I’d written in Florida, wondering why I hadn’t posted it. Obviously, it wasn’t finished. Suddenly I knew how it should end, I realised what I had actually learned and more importantly I understood the purpose of the bi annual sleepless nights. I like to think it was the ghost of Carl Jung, exhausted by the books in the Self-Help section, who ambled over and whispered in my ear but it might have been a sugar rush.
In the last couple of years, the main subject I have been asked to speak on at conferences is the shadow; the part of us which is formed when we create an idealised ego state. With an idealised ego, we take all the parts of ourselves that match how we want to be seen and put them on show to ensure our success, attractiveness and reputational gain. It is called our pride position.
When we create a pride position, we automatically create a shame position. All the parts of our personality that we don’t like are dumped in something called the shadow. It is the bin, the dark cupboard, the oubliette of the mind. Our hope is that, through neglect or repression our ugly bits will go away.
But they don’t. The ugly bits have a charge; they have life and repressing them, just builds up their resistance and potential energy. They leak destructively in rackets, hateful projections and, as I discovered, in freakishly amplified worries in the middle of the night. Marie-Louis Von Franz warns us that, “(the shadow) is exactly like any human being with whom one has to get along, sometimes by giving in, sometimes by resisting, sometimes by giving love – whatever the situation requires. The shadow becomes hostile only when he is ignored or misunderstood.”
I live my life in a fairly happy state. I’m quite balanced, rarely too joyful or too sad, just kind of samey and content. I love this sleepy state of peace. I protect it, warding off disturbances and limiting my time with scratchy people. I keep an eye on my shadow and explore it occasionally in confessional prayer and late-night conversations with friends, but I don’t believe in getting too heavy about it. I prefer to direct my mind to positive things and a preferred future.
Lately though, I have become more active in the world. I am advising at more senior levels and impacting events that have a broader impact. My attention is being drawn to world events: threats of war, political corruption, corporate misogyny and plastic pollution. I have withdrawn deeper into my soul to reflect on these things and think about how I advise the leaders involved.
As I reflected, I recalled another Carl Jung quote:
“If you imagine someone who is brave enough to withdraw all his projections, then you get an individual who is conscious of a pretty thick shadow. Such a man has saddled himself with new problems and conflicts. He has become a serious problem to himself, as he is now unable to say that they do this or that, they are wrong, and they must be fought against…Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day.”
Carl Jung said that the best thing we can do for the collective shadow in the world is remove our own contributions to it. In other words, if you want to fix the world, do the work on yourself. The truth of this struck me like one of those lightning bolts over Houston tonight. The deeper I go into the world’s shadows, the more familiar I need to become with the shadow in me. I am resistant to too much disturbance in my happy life; I avoid therapeutic encounters and emotional pain. As a result, my night time terror trips became a necessity, forcing me to confront my shadow, providing the reflection needed to stay healthy in the face of a darkening world.
As I deepen my faith and become more concerned with evil in the world, I have to deal with the darkness in me. Fear is the catalyst, the ignition point. It is like a lightning bolt, searing my bones, driving the shadow out from the inside; requiring me to confront it. Fear is the only way for my shadow to get my attention otherwise I would continue to ignore it and live in a scarier world, where all the evil, darkness and threat are “out there.” I would be trying to change the world and all the while wrestling with demons of my own construction.
I reflected back on the key learnings I took from my first attempt at dealing with the fear and realised that through this Jungian lens of the shadow, the learnings had much more resonance.
1. I felt more peace by looking for the truth in the suffering rather than resisting it. I got that the shadow isn’t going to just slip away and I felt the relief of no longer repressing it.
2. I committed to arresting the problem behaviour and my internal turbulence settled down. At a pragmatic level, I withdrew my contribution to the collective shadow and it satisfied the subconscious strategy of preventing me from continuing my negative behaviour.
3. I felt the relationship to my fear improve a little and include some curiosity. The shame dissipated. My fear isn’t a mask for shame. It is a catalytic electric shock, stronger than my denial or repression, requiring me to deal with my shadow.
4. I felt a broader more enriched experience, which diluted the fear; similar to the times when I have spoken to friends about my worries. Richard Rohr believes the embrace of the shadow is the path to wholeness. I felt psychologically healthier and more complete having had a richer experience.
5. When my stomach is ill at ease, it opens up the sluice gates for anxiety and I can exaggerate an incident from that day to fixate upon and generate worries. If I haven’t had a clean out in a while (psychologically speaking), my subconscious will take advantage of my first illness and any flimsy incident to expose built-up shadow including justifications for negative behaviour and excess negative emotions.
Additional insight into the five learning points was cathartic but the main epiphany was that my fear now had meaning for me. My hero, Victor Frankl, built his therapeutic approach, logotherapy on the notion that any nightmare situation can be negotiated when we can make meaning of it. I now understand why I experience occasional bedtime terrors. My success at creating a peaceful and easy life had to be counteracted so that I would face my own shadow and have integrity combatting the collective shadow in the world.
Carl Jung believed that 90% of the shadow is pure gold. My shadow still occurs for me as a fetid swamp of fear, shame and apocalyptic predictions. However, armed with this new understanding of what is going on, I am excited for the next episode (if there will be one). I want to take my engagement with the shadow to the next level.
I wonder, if I can face myself down and stare long enough into the gloom, will I glimpse the odd glint of treasure?
Till the next lightning storm.