Like many of us, my goal in life is to be happier. This is so difficult when I read the news everyday. There are constant stories that stimulate fear in me, such as this, this and this. If I don’t get sent to jail for failing to signal a lane change on my way to the movie theater where I will get shot, I’m going to die in the devastating earthquake. That’s not even counting the constant little daily fears about my job and family.
Being happy isn’t going to happen in a life full of fear, so I’m working on decreasing fear in my life. Leland Beaumont does a good job of clarifying some thoughts about fear. Beliefs play a major role in our fear. We have a natural, innate fear of certain things that has been built into our brain. This is related to actual, physical harm.
We have learned over our lifespan to fear things that aren’t related to physical harm. These are related to beliefs. When we experience shame, embarrassment, anxiety, or any number of feelings related to unmet needs, we become fearful of experiencing that again. We learn to be afraid of the situation that stimulated those feelings.
What’s important to remember is the beliefs we had about that situation formed our perspective that lead us to believe our needs weren’t being met. For example, if I’m a child who is called on in class to answer a question, and I don’t know the answer, and I’ve been taught to believe that I’m not a competent person, a person of worth, unless I know the answer, I will feel shame. I will believe there is something wrong with me. I won’t want to experience that again. I will become afraid of having an experience like that again and will change my behavior somehow to try to avoid this.
This is a trap because we are just validating that belief by doing this. However, if I have learned that what I know, say and do has nothing to do with my value as a person, I will experience that situation differently.
Fear is one of the strongest teachers, and we have figured that out. If I can connect a behavior I want to change in you to fear, I will probably be very successful at that change. That is the crux of punishment in children. If I can make a consequence of some behavior so uncomfortable that the child develops a fear of having that ever happen again, I will be successful at changing that behavior. Unfortunately our learned fears over a lifetime actually lead to an unhappier life.
The real key to happiness is to uncover those beliefs that are driving your perceptions. When you begin to understand that perhaps you have a deep, hidden belief that if you make a mistake you are not a worthy person, or if you make a mistake you will loose something very valuable to you, or if you make people unhappy there is something wrong with you; you can choose not to believe them and become happier. It is so freeing to instead develop the belief that you are worthy just as you are, and that you are responsible only for your intentions, not for the responses of others.
In the diagram, Paths of Fear, developed by Beaumont, it’s evident that fear drives behavior. What isn’t as evident is the fact that it’s the perception of the threat that is core to the problem. In other words, how you see your world, in the moment, determines whether you will determine something is a threat, and that perception is based on your beliefs developed over a lifetime.
When you feel yourself experiencing fear or anxiety you can do two things that will really help you in the long run. First face the issue, focus on it, and that involves feeling the feelings involved with this no matter how painful. By doing this you will self-connect, which in itself leads you to relief or peace.
The second is to step back, understand what you are doing, and find the beliefs that are leading you to the unmet needs that are stimulating the feelings. This will help you understand what your perception is. Without changing your perception, although you can get relief from that situation, you are doomed to repeat it. By changing your beliefs you can stop the entire process and become happier.
So what do I do with some of the news lately that is stimulating fear in me? For instance, the Louisiana theater shootings; am I going to stop going to the movies? With a little internet searching I can find that the probability of getting shot in a movie theater is about the same as getting hit by lightening, and I don’t worry about that one unless I’m golfing in the rain.
The real underlying belief I find for this fear is the belief that if I’m just careful enough I can get out of this life alive. That’s not going to happen. So maybe one of my strategies should be to stop worrying about death that’s hiding around the corner, and enjoy the moment I’m in. And that leads me back to my goal of a happier life.
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.