“Do not slay your demons, dissect them and find out what they have been feeding on.”
– A Man Frozen in Time
I would like to try applying a medical concept on the topic of fears. In medicine, you always start out with a search for symptoms, which lead you directly to a disease that causes them. Since we know a lot about many diseases, we know what causes them and which treatment to apply. So what if we regarded ego based fears as a symptom of a bigger problem?
This is the third part of my trilogy on fear, if you’d like to read more about it, you’re welcome to check out part 1 (where I explain what I consider ego based fears) and part 2 (on confronting fear).
The Idea behind this is that with ego based fears, you are always most afraid of what you desire the most, because you are afraid of your biggest dreams not coming true. I would like to explain this further using a metaphor that fits perfectly:
You can compare the structure of fear to that of a flower. (No I’m not trying to be poetic, this is just the perfect metaphor so bear with me :D)
Starting from the bottom, there are the roots. There are thousands of different manifestations of fear, they are incredibly diverse, multidirectional and can be very thick or thin, prominent or hidden. Because they are so diverse, they immensely influence our thinking, our behavior, decision making, our communication and our relationships and we usually don’t even notice it. Fear can manifest as a panic attack the night before an important exam, or the subtle decision not to go out with your friends today because you might be confronted with someone you like not sharing your feelings.
If you grab a shovel and try to dig out the roots of a flower, you will inevitably find some and that is the same with fears, and the good thing they have in common is that they are not there without a source or a destination, no matter how small the root is, it will lead you to a larger one which leads you to an even larger one and you can follow them up until you reach the stem. The same goes for fears, it is impossible to detect every manifestation of fear in your life, but everyone you do find leaves you to the underlying things they have in common which are usually a handful of major fears everybody suffers from.
The second part of the flower I would like to use for my metaphor is the blossom. The blossom represents a persons dreams, wishes, hopes and aspirations. It’s who we are as a person, what we strive to, what we are made to do and for some people the meaning of life. It is the dream of a happy healthy loving family, your dream job, spending your life with the person you love. Every person has those dreams and I genuinely believe that they are what keeps us alive, what keeps us going. But how are they connected to our fears?
Well, let me introduce the third part of my metaphor, the stem of the flower. It connects the roots to the blossom, the fears to the dreams so what could that possibly be?
The answer is what psychologists call attachments. That is a quite visual term, being attached to something. I think if I explain where those attachments come from, it will be easier to understand:
We live in a society that ideally everybody would contribute to, so that everybody can profit from the joint effort. This means that our society depends on us to perform at our peak at every moment in our lives, leading to one of our biggest problems — our motivation to work as hard as we can, and I believe everyone can relate to that. Other problems we face as individuals in our modern society are our identity and self confidence. Those problems become especially apparent when we hit puberty and start to be confronted with them.
And what is our ultimate solution, making us work as hard as we think we can, giving us the drive, the strength, the self confidence and the identity we need? We are taught to define ourselves by our dreams. There you have the stem, the attachments. You are not a person who is working as a policeman, you are a policeman. You are not a person who is going to med school, you are a medical student. You are not a person who is particularly good looking, you are a model. You are not a person who coincidently won the lottery, you are a millionaire. And that is the problem. Because of these attachments, we are not chasing our dreams for the dreams sake, we are chasing them to protect our Identity, our self confidence, our happiness, our meaning of life, and that inevitably leads to fear because losing those values would be the worst thing ever to happen to a person.
So the motivation we generate from that is not based on our dreams, rather than it’s us using our fear of our dreams not coming true to motivate ourselves. But as we know, fears are paradox and you can’t profit from them, use them without them evolving, growing deeper and deeper into your life. Society actually supports this by continuously supplying us with data to measure our progress, our abilities which we attached to our self worth. Whatever you are doing, if you need to perform, you are supplied results in the form of grades, times, likes and many more. The thought of the fact, that there is no correlation between these results and my self worth or my self confidence was incredibly liberating for me, since as a student, performing and being evaluated sometimes is all I do all day long.
I believe that there is no need for these attachments, they are unnatural, unhealthy and inevitably lead to our biggest fears. Every person is individual, has a certain set of genes, a certain surrounding and a certain collection of memories and experiences, so every person is fit individually for the perfect occupation, the perfect partner and the perfect lifestyle. The only thing preventing us from finding what we are searching for are our fears. But again as paradox as fears are, they don’t only get in our way, they can guide our way as well. Based on these thoughts, I came up with six steps to not only fight your fears, but to defeat them. (Please keep in mind that this process could take a lifetime and will never work when you try to force anything or speed it up. It’s something that comes to you from hours and hours of reflection, reading and understanding yourself which is one of the most difficult things you will ever do!)
1. Accepting you have fears
This first step is incredibly challenging, but if you dig deep enough and accept that vulnerability is nothing to be ashamed of, I guarantee that you are going to find your fears.
2. Identifying the fears
Now, as I explained in the Flower Metaphor, you can follow the loose strings you found to your underlying fears, which requires a lot of self reflection, critical thinking and digging in your past. This process can take months or even years because it is in the nature of fears to undermine your conscience in a way they are incredibly hard to find.
3. Identifying how they affect your everyday life, thinking & decision making, Relationships
This step allows you to see the downside of fears, how they continuously influence you in every second of your life, every decision that you ever make. A lot of mindfulness is required to complete this step since you have to be incredibly observant of yourself to realize when you are being influenced.
4. Identifying the Dreams they are attached to
Finally we can use the psychological map we just drew to our advantage. Because of our attachments, we can interpret our fears to find the underlying dreams we want to pursue. This usually is very revealing, because we learn a lot about ourselves when we are not influenced by our fears.
5. Understanding your attachments and why they harm you
Now for the hardest part. You have to understand that you are not attached to those dreams, you are not who you want to be, you are who you are! If you are made to achieve what you are hoping for, you are going to make it. If you don’t, you don’t loose your identity, you’re on your best way to finding it — and that is true for every aspect of your life, relationships, your career, even your hobbies. I love the metaphor of a pebble rolling down a river. It would require the pebble a lot of energy to stick to a place in the river where the flow is too strong for him to stay. But if he lets go and accepts that he has got an individual shape and weight, he will finally end up exactly where he belongs to. We should stop to try being someone we’re not. One of my favorite movies teaches us:
“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
– Fight Club
I would like to add to that: To pretend to be people we aren’t. Do what you love, spend time with the people that you love and occupy yourself with things that you love to do, no matter how much money you make from them.
Finally, after you took your time to understand yourself and accept your identity, there is just one more thing to do: Go out there and confront what is left of your fears, find out who you are and go ahead and do what you love, because that way, you are guaranteed to end up exactly where you belong.