Understanding Fear's Gifts

How to work with fear?

This month’s Ask a DEI Professional question is about listening to fear. Our questioner writes:

Hello! 🙂 I remember that I listened to my fear, but after a while I realized that I probably lost an important opportunity because it was really nothing to fear.

Thanks for your question! We have replies from two of our Dynamic Emotional Integration® professionals.

Jen Asdorian answers:

Photo of Jennifer Asdorian, a smiling woman with green eyes and light brown hair.
Jennifer Asdorian

Hello – Thank you so much for asking us about fear and how it informed a decision you made.

When I consider your question, I first think about what fear’s job is in the emotional realm. Fear helps us to notice anything that has changed around us and tunes us into our present state. Fear also points us toward taking an action (or a non-action) in response to the changes. I wonder what fear had sensed when you were first considering the opportunity? What was it pointing to that felt important at the time?

There seemed to be a message of, “No, let’s not do that.” The action was to not take the opportunity, to let it pass. However, now, as you reflect back you see it as a missed opportunity. Have you gathered new information? What is informing you now?

In DEI, we recognize that our emotions can arrive in soft, medium, and intense ways. Most of us are most familiar with recognizing emotions on an intense level. When we have an intense level of fear in our system, that can be a lot of energy to contend with. For some, it can even nudge us toward overwhelm and into confusion. For me, it can be so hard to see the whole picture when I have intense fear that I can just shut things down. For others, it could show up as impulsiveness or perhaps decisiveness. How was it for you?

If the fear was intense, I would want to know why. Did the situation call for intense fear? Did it echo a past experience that brought forward fear?

Working with Emotions

Sometimes, when we have a single emotion leading the charge on a situation, it can block out messages from the 16 other emotions that want to weigh in to help.

We would expect that envy might want to advise a person on an opportunity pointing to security, access to resources, and recognition. Anger would also help us see if the experience would line up with our desires, interests, and values. Sadness could also help us let go of the opportunity once it had passed. It offers release and rejuvenation. Were you able to confer with any other emotions aside from fear?

As you can see from my response, I have so many questions and wonderings about how your emotions were working then and what they have to say now. They are wise and helpful. I’m so glad you are digging deeper to see how they support you and your decisions every day.

~Jen Asdorian

Ariane writes:

Ariane Cimon-Fortier

To answer your question, I would like to bring in a great teacher of mine: the horse. You see, as a prey animal, horses are masters at dealing with fear. So, let’s take a look at how horses behave while affected by fear.

If you look at a herd grazing in a pasture, you’ll see that one of them is the designated lookout for the group. They never know when a predator may come knocking, so they need to have at least one herd member paying attention to their surroundings to alert the group if something is amiss. If that horse, while grazing, spots a change in his environment, he will stop eating, lift his head, and turn it in the direction of the possible threat.

Fear just kicked in and the horse is now in assessing mode. His lifted head gives him a broader field of vision. His ears will pivot and zone in into the direction he is looking. His nostrils will open wide to take in any weird smells and prepare him for huge intake of oxygen in case he has to run. His muscles will tense up, ready to spring into fast and sudden movement if need be. All his senses are alerted and in full use.

What happens next? The horse needs to assess his environment (there is a threat or not) and make a decision. This decision can be:

  • Go back to grazing (there is no threat or the threat has passed);
  • Stay vigilant until he knows more (the change in the environment is unclear as to its threatening nature);
  • Flee to safety (the threat is real);
  • Fight (the threat is real and fleeing is a difficult option).

In this whole process, fear acted as an alarm system to help assess the change in the environment leading to an appropriate course of action. In the horse’s case, this is intimately linked to its survival.

As humans, we experience fear in a similar fashion, even regarding changes unrelated to safety. When change occurs, we need our fear to help us assess our needs and navigate the next course of action in order to adapt.

Fear of Change

Change generally brings us out of our comfort zone. The discomfort may be small, almost undiscernible. Other times, the discomfort is so huge that it is impossible to ignore.

In between those two extremes, our senses fire up at various levels of intensity to help us assess what’s going on around us (for example, our hearing sharpens and gets attuned to hallway conversations to gather much-needed information, our eyes will target individuals or environmental clues that could inform us better, etc).

Thus, listening to fear means noticing the change, using our multiple senses to assess the situation, and decide on a course of action: going forward with the change and adapt, or backtracking into your comfort zone (lots of other options exist in between those 2 choices, but I want to keep it as simple as possible).

Fear zaps us to bring our attention to what is changing and asks us the question: “What should we do now?” This decision, however, is up to us, not to fear itself.

Working with Fear

3 horses in a field; one looking toward camera
Photo courtesy of Bobbi McIntyre

Last winter, I was offered a teaching position at the university I’m working at. It was going to be my first time teaching at this level. I felt excited about this opportunity, but I was also fearful. This change put me into unknown territory (defined university teaching structure with specific competency goals, content and course work that I did not personally provide nor create, some content themes that I had less expertise in but needed to be taught, etc.).

Even though I knew very well the overall subject I was going to teach, my senses and my mind picked up on all the ways this new task would put a strain on my time management as well as challenge my felt sense of competency. I was given a week’s time to think and decide if I would say yes or no.

In that time, my mind zeroed in on that offer. I had to ask questions to quench my need for information. I had to take stock of what I would need to change in my schedule to allow time for this venture. I needed conversations with my partner to assess if I could count on his support in the moments I would inevitably be unavailable for our family.

That week was a fear assessing period. At the end of it, I needed to decide if I would indeed teach the course or go back to business as usual. Going back to business as usual would allow fear to recede as I stepped into my comfort zone again. Taking the teaching position meant working with fear as my ongoing assessing ally until the point when teaching became a new comfort zone, even slightly so.

I ended up saying yes. My fear helped me assess that I could do the work and that I would learn a lot in the process even though it would not be easy peasy.

During the teaching period, my fear varied in intensity, depending on my needs, my capacity to adapt, and the amount of newness I encountered every step of the way.

If I was to say yes again today, my fear would not be as intense as it was previously, because this territory is not completely new. But because I am not entirely comfortable with the task yet, my fear would still rise up to help me navigate what is still unknown to me in that situation. Depending on what is at stake in the moment and what my needs are, my decision, this time could be no. Or it could be yes again.

“…the truth of it is I did so with my fear’s help.”

In retrospect, was teaching a university course for the first time something to fear? Well, I’m still standing and I succeeded. My students acquired the knowledge and the abilities they needed in their program. But the truth of it is I did so with my fear’s help (and other emotions as well) and dedication to guide me through this adaptation period.

At times, fear can seem paralyzing. If that’s the case, it’s likely because other emotions are stepping in. Anxiety may join in to help you plan and organize yourself to welcome and integrate the change that’s coming (or already here).

If, for some reason, the change you encounter (not life threatening) is perceived or assessed as a threat by your psyche, panic may barge in. If you add fear, anxiety, and panic together, you have a highly energetic emotional cocktail that can feel very overwhelming and propel you into freeze, flee, or fight zone. No wonder one may be tempted to retreat into comfortable territory.

But before doing that, when that emotional cocktail arises, the first thing to do is to notice which emotions are present together and to separate them. If you peel the layers of other emotions present in order to work specifically with fear’s assessing attributes, you’ll have a better sense of what’s going on, how the situation affects you, your level of discomfort, and what you need to know to make the best decision in this instance.

I humbly hope this is useful in your quest to befriend fear in a way that is wholly supportive of you!

~ Ariane Cimon-Fortier

We hope this is helpful!

Thanks so much for your question and for working to welcome and understand your emotions.

How do you work with fear and understand its messages?

Share your thoughts and comments with us below!

Each month, we’ll choose a question or two for our licensed Dynamic Emotional Integration® professionals to answer right here on our Empathy Academy blog.

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