Changing our Relationship to Fear

I recently took the University of Pennsylvania’s VIA Survey of Character Strengths in an effort to leverage my strengths and become happier. Marty Seligman, the father of positive psychology, said to be happier we can use our top strengths and apply them to something we don’t like. For instance, if you don’t like filing your taxes and your top strength is humor and play, you can gamify filing your taxes.

My top strength completely shocked me. When the result came in, I texted a friend and said, “Is this right? This doesn’t seem right.” My top strength? Bravery and valor. BRAVERY AND VALOR. UPenn defines this as, “You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.” OK, well, when you put it like that, it’s true. And then the universe answered my question about whether that’s my top strength because independently, unprompted, someone told me over Facebook that I’m like a first responder always running toward the fire, that I don’t shy away from issues. Message received!

in the desert

I don’t know how this picture relates but somehow it does. Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

I don’t know how to apply bravery and valor to filing taxes but what I am applying this character strength toward is other things, namely my relationship to fear itself. Our society has a very combative relationship to fear. We say, “Screw fear! Don’t let fear stop you! If you’re scared, do it anyway!” We think of fear as a bad thing, something to push away or bulldoze over. I get it. Me too, but it’s not really working for me anymore. I find that instead of feeling less afraid, fear is taking over and I’m falling into a fugue state where I can’t concentrate on anything because there’s not anything to do. In other words, my fears are not around things like ice skating or public speaking. They’re abstract.

Telling myself all the reasons why I shouldn’t be afraid, also doesn’t help because I become irrational when I’m afraid. I thought about it and asked, “What would approaching this issue from my top strength of bravery and valor mean?” And you know what it means? Facing fear head-on without trying to fix, change, or solve it. I’ve been setting a timer for 15 minutes for the past few days and just letting fear flood my body. I’m not trying to soothe myself, push it away, or do anything. I’m letting it be. I’m saying to myself, “It makes sense that you feel afraid. It’s OK. I’m here. It’s safe for you to feel afraid.”

No one has ever said that to me in my life. It’s safe to feel afraid? I don’t have to run from this emotion just like I don’t run from anger and sadness? I’m finding that’s exactly what I need. Like I wrote about a month ago, change requires not only awareness and action but also acceptance. Before I can do anything about the fear, I need to feel it. I need to accept that it’s there, not minimize the emotion or declare all the reasons why it’s invalid. I can’t speak for everyone but for me, I perpetually want a container. I want a safe space to fall apart, to unravel. I want someone to witness me with love and neutrality. It’s one of the reasons I love therapy so much.

However, I only talk to my therapist once a week. What about the other 167 hours? I am the only person who is with me constantly so the best thing I can do is become a safe space for myself. It feels like the most terrifying thing I can do, let myself feel afraid, and yet doing so I feel more settled, more present, more adult because I’m not letting a scared inner child take over my body. I’m giving myself the space to feel my feelings like a good parent. In other words, I’m being brave. And wouldn’t you know it, I do feel happier.

I dream of a world where we stop trying to force ourselves to feel one way or another. A world where we create a safe container to feel all of our emotions. A world where instead of making fear an enemy, we recognize there’s a reason we feel scared. A world where we let ourselves feel afraid because we know it’s safe to do so.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

P.S. If you take the strengths test, I’d love to hear your results.

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