On fear : befriending and working with it

The following insights on making friends with fear are taken from Chapter 7 of Miriam Greenspan’s wonderful book Healing Through the Dark Emotions : TheWisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair.

Befriending fear in a fear negating culture is essential if we want to use this emotion wisely. To do this, we have to be aware of our negative, limiting beliefs about fear, and to reconstruct and affirm a new set of beliefs.

We cannot be warriors of vulnerability, if we think fear is a shameful, debilitating emotion… Think of fear, not as a weakness, but as information, a signal of unsafety, a usable energy, a way of knowing… What fear tells us is that we are human. We are vulnerable. You are interconnected with others in the fabric of life. You can let yourself feel fear, breathe through it, and use its energy. You don’t have to let fear become panic by avoiding it. You can feel it and let it be, and doing so can open the gates to joy.

These affirming statements about fear may seem dubious. Honouring fear and treating it like a legitimate emotion can be uncomfortable, and feel ‘wrong’. Affirming the value of fear requires a kind of revolution within, to transform the fear negating culture we have internalised.

Try this : Write a list of fear affirming statements and pin them on your bedroom or bathroom mirror or some other place you look often. Changing what you believe about what you feel is one of the most impotant ways to shift an old emotional pattern. Psychologists call this “reframing” and its one of the important skills in the alchemy of the dark emotions.

The following questions might help you frame your fear affirmations.

What fears have you faced? What did you gain from facing them?

If your answer to that question is “none’, ask yourself Why not? What got in the way of facing your fears?

Think of a time when you felt paralysed by fear. What kept you from moving through it? What, if anything, helped?

Think of a time when you acted in spite of fear or acted with fear. What happened?

What did you learn?

What fear(s) are you holding in now? What fears are you avoiding? Aht do you think would happen if you let yourself feel them.

Following this, try the following sentence completions:

If fear didn’t scare me, I would use it to……

The resources and strenghth I now have to face my fears creatively are…

When I view fear as a teacher, I learn…..

Something productive I can do with my fear is…..

Changing your shaming beliefs about fear creates an opening, a place in the heart where fear can live without wrecking your self esteem and composure. The open heart can befriend fear and is ready for alchemy.

Getting it touch with fear in your body and soothing it is the next step….hang in and use mindfulness of what it feels like and stay with the discomfort without acting it out (unless you are in real danger) Consciously experience it and talk to it in a soothing way and to find out what it has to say..

The third step is to find the context of fear.. Say you have a fear of heights, in that situation you question exactly what it is you are afraid of : falling and dying, being out of control, fear of uncertainty. Try to find the peace inside that fear, if you cannot control the time of your death what can you control?… fear of death may underline much of our anxiety.. The antidote is to recognise it is inevitable but not always likely… what might it mean to live well, with a fear of death? And if the fear is in response to a real threat what can you do to minimise the threat, what action can you take or changes can you make? What is one simple thing you could do to make things a little better?

The fourth step : mindfullness of fear is related to feeling it in the body….and relates to tolerating fear as a part of life while using a meditation practice to be with it and breathe it in, instead of push it away or avoid it.. taking fear into our heart we may even find a part of us so scared just in need of some love and kind words. Tonglen, a spiritual practice shared by Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron asks us to breathe in fear and breathe out joy. This practice gives an antidote to the ‘spiritual bypass’ of many New Age practices and involves alchemising the dark and primal. If we avoid painful feelings we only end up creating more pain and suffering.. When we react or lash out, out of fear things never improve, we just get trapped in a further cycle of suffering.

The fifth step is related to taking action in the context of fear. Finding out the things that fear or upset us may promote us to take positive action to make a change.

The sixthe step involves the path of surrender, it comes after looking fear in the face and seeing it for what it is.. Prayer may be a part of the path of surrender, this is the practice of handing over what seems too much for us to a higher power or place of faith. Here are some helpful prayers.

May I accept my fear. May my fear guide me to do the right thing.

Help me when I am afraid, not to be afraid of my fear. Help me allow it to move me to an action in service of life.

When all else fails find some comic diversion.. taking a break from fear to laugh and experience joy provides an antidote to the suffocation and heaviness of spirit fear can bring about in our lives…..

Pain of early separation from our mothers and its impact on relationships

Pain of early separations from our mother can haunt us for a long time and we may not always know what the pain is about. It’s an issue that Mark Wolynn, San Francisco based therapist on multigenerational trauma addresses at length in his book It Didn’t Start With You : How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle.  The separation may not have been physical alone, it could be just that our mother was undergoing a depression, grieving a loss or being unseen and unnurtured by her own mother did not know how to be fully present for us.  (According to Wolynn the original problem or disruption often lies a generation or two back and we may be unaware of it).  We feel the loss and absence keenly and such feelings can cause us to actually turn away when our mother tries to connect with us another time.

Wolynn shares just such a story on page 175 about a baby Myrna whose mother leaves for three weeks.  On her return as she waits and longs for her daughter to run to her Mryna’s mother experiences instead a daughter who turns away becoming even more distant.  Rather than understand her daughter’s reactions and look for a way to restore the bond Myrna’s mother instead encourages her independence.  The mother loses sight of her child’s vulnerability, so where did it go for Myrna?  Answer in short.  Into the unconscious.

Of course later when Myrna fell in love, love was experienced as a minefield and its something I can relate to as will anyone with insecure, avoidant or anxious attachment.  Vulnerability of needing another opens up a pit of loss we do not fully understand and we can relate by sabotaging things further should we choose to deny or repress our true need feelings and vulnerability.

Mark Wolynn talks of interruptions to the flow of love and energy between parent and child a lot in his book.  He knows a lot about it as he pursued a path of so called ‘spiritual bypassing’ seeking a healing he could not find in ashrams and through meditation (though he does use visionary meditations with a clients ancestors in order to effect healing of past wounds carried on).  Wolynn did not heal his early trauma with his mother until years later understanding how its roots lay far back in his own mother and grandmother’s history and eventually becoming a therapist himself.

When our early experience with our mother is disrupted by a significant break in the bond, shards of pain and emptiness can shred our well being and disconnect us from the fundamental flow of life.  Where the mother-child relationship remains severed, empty or fraught with indifference, a stream of negative images can lock the child in a pattern of frustration and self doubt.  In extreme cases, when the negative images are continuous and unrelenting, frustration, rage, numbness, and insensitivity to others can emerge.

Psychopathic behaviour can be the result but the key result if often a form of pathological narcissism – an inability to truly connect and take in love.

According to Wolynn the majority of us have experienced some kind of break in the bond with our mothers.  Many though, got enough of what was needed to be able to maintain healthy relationships later in life.  Many of us were not so lucky.  Ideally disruptions to attunement need to be healed in the context of any relationship.  How we deal with them are important as are the beliefs about our inherent lovability.  According to Janet Woititz adult children of addiction and trauma believed they will only be loved if they act in a pleasing happy way.  No relationship can survive like this and neither can we.

Knowing what happened in the bond with our mother and the impact it had on our attachment style as well as inherent negative self beliefs and development of what Wolynn calls ‘core sentences of separation’ is vitally important if we wish to heal.  We can become conscious of these, work to understand how they may be influencing our present and do inner work to change negative core beliefs we may have absorbed unconsciously so they do not continue to play our in our relationships.  I have found so much help myself reading Wolynn’s book which I shared from extensively in my blog last year.  It is well worth a look if you struggle to maintain healthy loving relationships in your own life and are working to understand how the flow of love between you and a parent (not only your mother) is impacting you in later life.

(Examples of core beliefs which negatively impact our capacity to love and be loved are :  I’ll be left:  I’ll be abandoned. I’ll be rejected.  I’ll have nobody.  I’ll lose control.   I’ll be helpless.  I don’t matter.  I’m too much.  I am not enough.  I’ll be annihilated.  I’ll be destroyed.  I will push love away.)

The importance of good therapy support

We all need support.   We cannot exist in a vacuum and so many of our wounds come out of early relationships so those wounds can only really be healed and explored in relationship.  This is something that we may get mixed up about, especially if we had to develop an avoidant style to cope.  We can and do on our path of confusion get drawn towards certain spiritual disciplines and then we may be told we have a problem with our ego or need to learn not to ‘attach’.

For a really interesting perspective on this I highly recommend reading Mark Wolynn’s book It Didnt Start With You.  Mark had a traumatic relationship with his mother who carried lots of wounds, he went on a spiritual path and it was when he was caught up in meditation in a monastery or ashram he got the inner message that he was never going to find true relief or healing until he reconnected back with his Mum and learned about her life.   A lot of his book concerns what happens we learn to block the love we give due to love blocked coming to us from a parent for some reason.  Often the root of the blockage or disconnection or even complicated enmeshment which ensues lays several generations back and may be hidden or shrouded in silence.  I have a number of posts which share research from that book to back up this point of view.

I was prompted to write this due to some comments back and forward about how much good therapy helps us and to my mind it has less to do with the type of therapy we engage in and more with the person we chose as well as with how accurately our true self and attachment wounds are  ‘got’ by the therapist and contained.  If you have ever had serious therapy ‘misfits’ or clashes you know how painful these can be.  If you have early attachment wounds and a borderline personality style the important of a consistent reliable, emotionally present person in your life is essential.

I listened to the second of a series of radio programmes on Sunday on BPD and the girl interviewed was told she would never recover by several professionals, but she has and part of her story was a story of maternal separation going several generations back.  The girl in question was aboriginal and her grandmother or mother was one of the ‘stolen generation’ those kids forcibly removed from their mothers or families by white colonisers ‘for their own good’.  As she pointed out in the programme, she carried that wound for the collective and is now healing and addressing it.  She is now helping others to come to terms with and understand the deep roots of a borderline personality diagnosis.  The programme gave me real hope that things can change for those who suffer in this way.  What she mentioned as being most important was the consistent love of a therapist to be available, something I shared about in several posts last year.

In my own life, I know the legacy that inconsistent, unreliable or emotionally neglectful attachments had on me. I was taught by my older sister to bond and seek relief in alcohol and I idolised and idealised her for years.  I know she learned this coping style in my family but it got worse over several generations until it reached critical watershed in me.  I am so grateful not only for the sobriety I attained at 31 years of age but for the family member who in doing ancestral research gave me essential missing pieces of our multigenerational inheritance about 10 years into my recovery.  Up til then I saw myself as the failure, the one who couldn’t cut it, the one who was hopeless or a helpless alcoholic.

All along the way of recovery my higher power helped me try to undo this mistaken belief though.  There was the woman who came to me for an astrology reading in 2003 and told me of the book How AA Failed Me.  Apologies here to active members of 12 step groups. I did get a lot of help in AA but defects of character and some of the strong moralistic tone of the programme did not help but confused me more.  This book which I was never able to find again and which she loaned to me helped me at a critical time not to become what I now called scapegoat identified.  AA was though, like everything, not totally good or totally bad, parts of the programme still sustain me and I use them in my life but other parts didn’t explain to me the important missing human attachment dimension of my own psychic wounds and injuries.

For me therapy has been the healing place, a place to be mirrored effectively in my true self, a place to be given good boundaries of care, a place to be myself, to be nurtured, to grow, to freely express all of me and never, never to be shamed ever as I was at times in other therapies.  I know how set right I am after a good session, how it wasnt an ego problem really but a problem of a healthy emotionally grounded and aware ego that lay at the root of a lot of my difficulties.

Its been a long road to get here but without that help and support I would never have got this far.   And it has helped me to undo the fallacy I was told by certain older sober members that I could only ever look to God for that kind of understanding and care rather than ever fully trust another human being.   Not everyone will fail us, and when we find the right person we can finally heal our deeper attachments wound and learn how to trust the right people, developing a deeper inward discrimination for whom is helpful or harmful to us.   When we understand how that injury underlay so much that came to pass in our lives we can learn also to let go of self blame which can dog so many of us who were never adequately mirrored, held, affirmed or nurtured in childhood.