We’re in the very middle of a five-week series on fear. We’ve talked about safety and regret in episode 56 and last week I explained how I used three tools to help me get out of my comfort zone. Today, we’re going to talk about responding to four different types of fear.
As I’ve been reading and thinking about how fear affects us and what to do about it, I realized that just saying “fear” lumps a whole lot of different reactions into one big category. It’s like talking about a stomach ache. Abdominal pain can be caused by something as common and harmless as gas and as life-threatening as appendicitis. Choosing a treatment or a course of action depends on knowing what kind of stomach pain you’re having. Because I certainly don’t want to be treated for appendicitis if I just ate too many beans for dinner.
We immediately understand needing to clarify stomach pain to determine treatment. But, with fear, it’s a whole different story. First, because we don’t always think we can or should do something about it. We assume that fear is fixed, that we can’t change it. We assume we should and can treat and correct a stomach ache, but we often just think we need to live with fear and muscle through it. Plus, the idea of dealing with fear is scary in and of itself. We’re already afraid of whatever we’re responding to, so intentionally dealing with it is likely to be even scarier. It’s more comfortable (short-term) to ignore it or muddle through it as fast as possible and move on with life.
But, what if we could talk about fear in a way that made it possible to know how to resolve it? As I was reading, I ran across a framework that I thought was helpful and I wanted to share it with you. This terminology comes from a writer, coach, facilitator, and speaker named Heather Plett. There are other ways to think about categorizing fear, but her way to think about it has practical application for helping us deal with it. She sorts fear into four categories. I’m going to give you each category, describe it, and then tell you how to respond to each of those types of fear.
Warning fear is responsible for keeping us safe. We’ve all experienced this kind of fear. It’s the body-flooding fear you get when you step off a curb and suddenly a blaring horn and a rush of wind tell you there was a car coming that you didn’t see. Probably because you were looking at your phone. It’s the healthy fear that gives you a surge of adrenaline to help you catch yourself when you trip on the stairs. Or, in my case, over cracks in the sidewalk. Warning fear also crops up in much more subtle situations, like those mental and emotional warnings that say that this really isn’t a relationship or business partnership that you should get any deeper in and would be better off pulling out now.
When we feel warning fear, we should listen to it and take action. Jumping back on the curb out of harm’s way is an instinctual and immediate action, but the more subtle warning fears should be acted on as well.
This is the kind of fear that says that my ego is in danger. It’s trying to keep me from feeling shame, embarrassment, guilt, or any other feeling resulting in a perceived threat to my carefully devised assembly of personal identity, worth or capability. Fear of success and fear of failure both fall into this category. Fear of “other-ness” also lives here. It results in divides across belief, race, culture, class and gender barriers. Immanuel Kant calls our ego our, “precious little self.” It’s not who we are, but rather, who we think we are. And we are very, very good at protecting our precious little selves. Fear thinks that it’s in charge of that, but it shouldn’t be.
Ego fear is one that we should thoroughly examine and disassemble. While warning fear should be allowed the reins of our lives at times, Ego Fear is one that we should be directing when to speak and when to be silent. Once it’s surfaced, this is the kind of fear we need to choose how much freedom it gets in our lives. It needs to be our choice, we’re in charge.
If you’ve read Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, you’ll recognize invitational fear as what he calls “resistance”. This is a type of fear that you might experience before stepping into something you were meant to do. It’s closely linked with creative work and it often appears when we are starting or approaching something; a project, a job, a new task, a new idea, a blog post, even.
I remember learning a new quilting technique several years ago. It’s a non-traditional art quilt method that’s fairly unusual. Instead of using the technique on an instructional project, I thought I understood the concept and tried it on my own piece. I’d cut all the pieces and before I started to sew, I felt the strongest resistance. I sat there for a few minutes at the sewing machine unable to start until I realized it was resistance. It was starting something new. Something that I didn’t really know how to do. It was venturing into the unknown. Which is kind of silly when I realized if it didn’t work, I could just try again. I was talking about a 4″ square finished piece. It had about 30 pieces, so it was complicated…but there was certainly no major life-threatening situation if it didn’t work. It was just the fear of something new.
This is the kind of fear we need to befriend when we feel it. Treat it as a sign that you’re doing something right, not wrong. Work with it and let it help fuel you to move forward or at the very least, ignore and proceed anyway. This fear tends to dissipate pretty quickly when we begin doing the thing we’re supposed to do. Ms. Plett also calls it “the trembling”, because it often manifests physically in your body.
Finally, the appendicitis of the fear categories. Trauma-related fear should not be treated lightly. This can be fear related to an injury, a sickness or disease, an assault, abuse, an accident or any other traumatic experience, both small and large. These may be logical or seem illogical.
While the other three we can often work through on our own, you wouldn’t feel qualified to take out your own appendix, right? So, allow professionals to help you with trauma-related fear.
How Does This Help?
If you’re feeling fearful about something and you can label it as trauma, invitational, ego or warning fear, you can then choose an appropriate response. If it’s a subtle warning fear, you might realize that you need to pay attention to the warning and take action. If it’s an invitational fear, realizing that it will dissipate quickly if you step over that threshold is helpful in moving through it and even using it as motivation.
If you’re experiencing ego fear, well, now we come to the type of fear that we need to work through and not let control our lives. I’m going to give you a process in the next two weeks that helps me and hopefully, it will help you too, move through that type of fear, so come back for those episodes!
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