I’m going to come clean right up front and admit that this blog post about fear has been very difficult for me to write and has brought me to tears more than a few times. The emotion of fear is so complicated and personal that I really struggled to turn my thoughts into words that would make any sense. Fear has many different faces to me and my relationship with this emotion has changed a lot over the years. Writing this blog post is a therapeutic attempt to try and explain to myself what I understand about my relationship with fear, but also give you the reader some insight that might help you better understand your own relationship with fear. So let’s get this party started - it's going to be a long one.
We have all heard the Franklin D. Roosevelt paraphrased quote, 'There is nothing to fear but fear itself '. Every time I hear someone utter these words I want to scream and punch something. I mean logically it makes complete sense, but the delivery of this phrase is usually so casual and condescending that it drives me crazy. I feel the same way about those stupid NO FEAR bumper stickers that every meathead jock had on the rear window of their big truck back in the 1990s. I think the reason that quote bothers me so much is because fear is way more complicated than those simple words suggest.
If someone gave me a piece of paper and told me to list my three greatest fears, this is what I would write down without any hesitation:
- Fear of dying and leaving my wife and kids
- Fear of not being able to support or provide for my family
- Fear of my wife or kids becoming seriously ill or dying
That is a true and honest list of what I am consciously afraid of and it doesn’t seem like much at all. For the sake of being completely transparent, I will also admit that I am terrified of birds because they are unpredictable and have hollow bones and can fly, but that’s a blog post for another day. What I haven’t put on my list is the imaginary or elusive and mysterious type of fear that manipulates and occupies my subconscious mind and triggers my emotions. The same fear that is an illusion, or worse yet cannot be predicted or even identified, but that lives inside of me like a shape-shifting parasite slowly draining my life force and then attacking me unexpectedly when I’m all alone. This is my dear friend fear and I want you to meet him.
As I reflect back on my life there are a few experiences that stick out as ones where I experienced what I would consider true fear. The first was at age 4 and being lost and separated from my family at a large outdoor swap meet. I was taken to the office by a security guard and my father and grandfather were paged over the loudspeaker and came to pick me up, probably after first making a quick stop at the beer trailer. The second experience was when I was 13 and my father had a heart attack while we were on a family camping trip. The last experience was when I was 28 and my father was dying of cancer and I had to make an emergency Do Not Resuscitate decision and watch him take his last breath after the doctors pulled the plug. I suppose that I could have a little PTSD from these events, but honestly I don’t ever give these experiences much thought. There are so many people who have experienced such horrible trauma in their lives that I sort of feel embarrassed to even mention these experiences as traumatic life events.
At age 25, I met my wife and we fell deeply in love and moved in together after only about a month of dating. We were dirt poor and living in Long Beach, California in an apartment that was $100 a month and we could barely afford to make rent. I was still partying hard back then but something happened around that time that positively changed the trajectory of my life. I was given the opportunity to interview at a well known pharmaceutical company for an entry level position. I interviewed and was offered the job and then heard the dreaded words drug screen come out of the Human Resource manager’s mouth. This is NOT something I wanted to hear back in those days. Divine intervention is the only explanation and I somehow passed the drug screen test and started the job the next week. That was in August 1996, and this new job was the catalyst for me to leave the hard partying lifestyle behind me for good. This was my big break and I wasn’t going to screw it up!
Soon after starting the job I began to feel a very deep sense of regret and guilt for the self-destructive activities and behaviors that had been part of my life as a teenager and young adult. I was a good guy and never hurt anyone, but I definitely experienced some crazy shit and dodged a few bullets that could have significantly altered the course of my life. These strong feelings of guilt and regret just wouldn’t go away and I felt like a serious case of karmic whiplash was headed my way. The best way I can describe the feeling back then was that now that I had a woman that I love, a great job and a solid plan for my future, that God or the universe was going to man-slap me with something awful as retribution for my past sins. These feelings set me into a bad spiral of serious obsessive/compulsive and hypochondriac-type behavior that occupied my mind with fear and anxiety from the time I woke up in the morning until I went to bed at night. I went to the doctor and asked him to put me through the whole series of what I called the blood tests of irresponsibility that in the end would prove me healthy and fine. It was actually a really scary and difficult time for me but I fought through it. That was also the first time my friend fear showed me his ugly face. I never shared any of these feelings with anyone at the time, not even my wife. I kept all of this fear, worry and anxiety to myself for almost 5 years and I never sought help.
Fast forward to my early 30s and I was now married with a kid and successfully climbing the corporate ladder. I was at a point in my life where I was feeling really good. I had conquered the daily episodes of fear and anxiety about karmic whiplash and my health and life was going great. But then one night my friend fear brought a new trick and its name was panic attack. It was the worst thing that I had ever experienced. The feeling of everything moving in fast forward with my heart pounding out of my chest and the feel of impending doom like I was going to die - it was brutal and terrifying. This happened again a number of times over the next 10 years, and although it was awful when it happened, the episodes were so spread out that I just dealt with it. I’m not an anxious person by nature and I actually perform very well in stressful high pressure situations, so there was never a reason or root cause for these panic attacks.
Entering into my 40s, I now had three kids, a great career and was a respected and competent leader at a big global pharmaceutical company managing a large team of people. At this time fear was hibernating and life was good. I would occasionally have a mild anxiety episode at night when I was trying to sleep, but it was nothing too worrisome for me anymore. One thing that I haven’t really mentioned is that I was still a moderate drinker and would occasionally over do it from time to time. Nothing that I considered out of the ordinary, especially considering the glorified social and binge drinking culture we have in our society. During this same timeframe my perspective on life seemed to slowly change and for a number of years I went through a big personal transformation and was rethinking my life and future career plans. This transformation was the door that fear entered back through because the panic attacks started to get really bad again. There were times at work when my chest would tighten, the room would spin and I was very close to going to the company nurse and having her call an ambulance. I remember having such a bad panic attack at work one day that I walked out of the building and down the street and just started crying because I seriously felt like I was going to drop dead. There was still no root cause and nothing that I was consciously worried or anxious about in my life. I kept this all to myself and never told anyone about these panic attacks at work and my wife is finding out for the first time while reading this blog. I believed that this problem was just something I had to deal with because that is the manly thing to do and I didn't want to burden anyone with my suffering. Stoicism was my mask of masculinity.
This brings me to present day where I am just now starting to uncover the truth behind the fear that has lived inside of me for so many years. I am not a psychologist or psychotherapist but this is my hypothesis; In addition to the traumatic events that I experienced related to my father’s health and his death, I believe that I inherited emotional trauma and the emotion of fear from my mother and quite possibly from my grandmother too. This inherited trauma and the emotion of fear has been with me my entire life and is an active part of my core operating system.
Genetic traits might not be the only things that get passed down from previous generations. There is evidence that a person can also inherit negative feelings and emotions like fear, anger, sadness, shame, frustration and guilt. These negative emotions are believed by some experts to be passed down at the time of conception or during pregnancy while we are in the womb. Before birth our parents create some of our emotional environment and then after we are born we learn from our actual environment how to feel and how to think. It’s easy for me to remember specific experiences in my life, but what if the trauma and emotions that I am carrying inside of me were not mine to begin with? Could it be that the emotion of fear that my mother experienced during her life or that was imprinted on her by her own mother has been passed to down to me? There is also a belief that from the scientific understanding of resonance and vibrating patterns of energy that every thought, word and emotion has its own vibrational frequency pattern. This might seem like a very New Age woo-woo concept, but it makes sense if as newborn babies we synchronize our energy patterns with our mother’s energy and vibrations as part of the natural bonding response as a survival mechanism - assuming our mother’s emotional baggage at the time of birth.
My family tree breaks down like this on my mother’s side. My grandmother was an orphan and although I don’t know much about her story, I do know that her father died when she was a very young baby and her mother gave her up for adoption. My grandmother lived in an orphanage as an infant until she was an older child and she had very difficult life. My assumption is that she lived in a constant state of fear, terror, and suffered from abandonment issues and anxiety about not having her most basic emotional and material needs met as a child. My mother was born the oldest of five children and later assumed some responsibility for helping to raise her siblings. My mother grew up poor and in an environment where there was also a lot of fear and anxiety about not having enough resources. My mother tells stories of my grandmother and grandfather fighting a lot and my grandmother taking off and leaving the family for periods of time. The way my mother described it to me was that she never really knew if her mother would come back home or not. So my mother also lived with fear, terror, abandonment and anxiety about not having enough resources for her family to survive. Are you starting to see the ancestral pattern? It makes sense that the inherited negative emotion of fear was most likely passed down to my mother and then she also experienced the same real life traumatic experiences and emotions when she was growing up. The energy pattern of fear was carried by my grandmother in her cells and energy field, and when she gave birth to my mother her energy field was synced and so my mother carries that vibration of fear too. And guess what? My mother passed this vibration of fear to me when I was born. This is the only explanation that makes sense to me.
What I have learned about my experience with fear and anxiety is that I never see it coming, but when it shows up it’s a serious fight or flight response. To better understand the fight or flight response, we need to remember that emotions have a purpose and our most basic emotions like fear are vital messengers and evolved as signals to help us survive and stay safe. It would be detrimental if logic and analytical thinking were applied during an acute threat to our survival, so the brain runs these signals through the most primitive, instinctive and reactive part of our limbic system and brain, the amygdala. This part of the brain sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (command center of the brain) which kicks off a sequence of messages in the body to create powerful signals, emotions and symptoms such as increased adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, sweating, and shuts down our brain so we think less and react more. Although fear and anxiety are somewhat indistinguishable when it comes to the fight or flight response, there seems to be a subtle difference. Fear can be a state caused by a specific stimuli that can give rise to a defensive behavior (fight) or escape (flight), and anxiety is often considered a general response to an unknown threat or internal conflict, but can stimulate the same fight or flight response.
If my hypothesis about inheriting the emotion of fear from my mother is correct, then connecting the dots on my past experience with fear and my pattern of self-destructive behavior makes a lot of sense. I don’t ever remember feeling fear or anxiety as a child or teenager growing up, but there is an experience that I had as a teenager that I still remember very clearly and I believe this is where I find some truth in my story.
One summer night I went to the beach for a bonfire with my friend and his older brother and some of his friends. I was 15 years-old and this was the first time that I drank alcohol - three Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers (pause here for masculinity jokes). I still have a vivid memory of feeling buzzed and riding in the car on the way home from the beach with my head hanging out the window feeling the cool air and smelling the salt water from the ocean. I felt euphoric and remember a strong sense of feeling peaceful, safe and free. That night was the start of a 10 year career of hard partying for me which at the time I thought was just a natural part of being a teenager and young adult growing up in Southern California. We surfed, skated, played punk rock music and partied hard! Everyone was doing it so it must be OK.
I now realize and accept that whatever that fear was inside of me was easily suppressed and kept in its cage as long as I was self-medicating enough to not let it surface. So when I was 26 years-old and quit the hard partying lifestyle, this fear inside of me came out of a 10 year hibernation to rip into me knowing I was no longer numb and protected. This is difficult to accept looking back at my life and now understanding the why behind the self-destructive behavior that I engaged in for so long. Because the truth is that I just now figured this shit out, and although I stopped the hard partying in 1996, for the past 22 years I have been slowly and steadily self-medicating and abusing my body with food (overeating), alcohol (bing drinking), and an assortment of other numbing behaviors that have kept me seriously fucking stuck in my life and far from being the best version of myself. To anyone looking at me from the outside it appeared as though I was seriously kicking ass at life, but I know in my heart that I was not showing up as the best version of myself as a man, husband, father and corporate leader. The self-destructive and self-medicating behaviors were all subconscious tactics to keep my fear in its cage so I would feel peaceful, safe and free.
I have been on a serious journey of self-discovery and what I describe as a spiritual awakening for a couple of years now. This has been a very emotional and lonely time in my life even though I was always surrounded by my wonderful family and friends. I never discussed this process of self-discovery with anyone because I didn’t know how to put this experience into words and I was afraid of being vulnerable and misunderstood. The beautiful truth is that I came out of this experience with a strong understanding of myself and my purpose, with clear directions of what I’m supposed to do with my life. But following my true path and purpose involves some risk, and I am very consciously aware of what that means. It means starting over new and potentially walking away from my successful career where I have great benefits and earn really good money. The same career that allowed me to finally feel like I made it back in 1996, when I landed my first real job. The career that allowed me to get married, raise children, buy a big house, put money in the bank and provide a great life for my family. This was an identity that I created and worked really hard to maintain and I am very proud of what I have accomplished in my life.
And this is where the intersection of my rational and conscious fear and the inherited emotion of fear collide. Let me remind you again of two of the fears I listed at the beginning of this story:
- Fear of dying and leaving my wife and kids (abandonment)
- Fear of not being able to support or provide for my family (lack of resources)
I suspect most men who are husbands and fathers would have the same fears too and it makes complete and logical sense. But for me, compounding these rational fears with the inherited emotions of fear, terror, abandonment and lack of having enough resources to survive has crippled me and kept me paralyzed. After rising out of this incredible personal transformation with my true sense of self as a man, I wasn’t able to make a single move towards following this new path of purpose and I basically lived in palpable fear which for me showed up as deep sadness, depression, envy and self-doubt. I finally couldn’t take the pain anymore and was so sick of the pattern and failure to launch, that for the first time I sought help from an amazing psychologist and coach who helped me piece some of my story together. I also started openly sharing all of this experience with my wife, family and other people who are close to me and it was liberating to allow myself to be vulnerable and honest about my struggles with fear.
Today when I think about fear there is a vivid image that always come to mind: The image is of a dead tree in the middle of a beautiful and thriving forest. The tree was once planted and its roots took to the ground and the tree received abundant nourishment, sunshine and felt love and had purpose. The tree grew strong and had an infinite number of branches that gave shade to other plants and served as a home to other animals who nested in the tree and fed off the fruit of its branches. The tree was alive and thriving and an important part of the forest. But then several harsh winters came and the weather began to take its toll on the tree. Then the drought came and there wasn’t enough water and the tree became weak and prone to injury and infestation. The insects started to do damage to the weakened tree and before long the tree was so fearful of what was to come next that it could no longer survive, so it shed all of its leaves and eventually died, leaving only its strong roots that nobody could see and its empty branches that were once a beautiful canopy of life.
The reason the tree is so symbolic for me is because that is exactly how I felt for the past couple of years; dying inside but at the same time completely surrounded by so much beauty and life all around me. I couldn’t touch or experience any of the beauty though because I was paralyzed by fear. As long as fear is present and in control, everything in your life goes dormant or even worse - it dies. Fear is a destroyer of dreams and ultimately keeps us paralyzed, complacent and stuck if we give it power over us. There is only one solution that I have found that counteracts fear and that is LOVE. The more that I love myself in body, mind and spirit, and the more that I share my love with others the less power fear has over me. There is a quote that I saved in my phone a long time ago and later discovered it was from the Book of John in the Bible. The quote so accurately captures the relationship between love and fear.
‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. For fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears has not been perfected in love.’
I am still doing the hard internal work necessary to figure this fear thing out, but I can tell you it’s a lot better and those subconscious self-destructive behaviors are no longer part of my life and my emotional load is so much lighter. I have had to turn back into some dark places and piece it all together, but now my story makes complete sense and there is freedom in my understanding and I finally feel peaceful, safe and free. Taking small steps in the direction of my true purpose and starting this Man Reconstructed Project is an amazing feeling and it’s something that just last year I would never have been able to do. But my fear, the one that I emotionally inherited from my mother will never completely go away. It still occasionally comes for me at night after I go to bed and it wakes me from a dead sleep. I go downstairs and for the next few hours I do battle with my friend fear until we are both too exhausted to continue. The next day I am physically and emotionally hungover and then life goes back to normal.
There is one major regret that I have from my experience with fear and that is not asking for help a long time ago. I know that if I would have asked for help at 26 years-old when I first experienced the feelings of fear and anxiety, I most likely could have avoided all of the pain, suffering and self-destructive behavior that plagued me for more than 20 years. All I can do now is be grateful for the experience and accept that this was all just part of my journey. I also believe that my subconscious fear pushed me to a level of success in my life that I might not have achieved without it and for that I am also grateful. My relationship with fear has changed now and I am no longer feeling paralyzed or stuck. Fear now serves as an indicator or guide that I am headed in the right direction and tells me exactly what I need to do in the pursuit of realizing my true self and purpose. I have started to grow again and I can't wait to see where my journey takes me next.
If anyone reading this blog post is suffering or feeling stuck because of fear or anxiety, please talk to someone about it and get help. There is no shame in asking for help and our lives are too important to waste being crippled by fear. Asking for help is one of the greatest acts of self-love we can do. It’s also important that we not only understand our personal experiences and their correlation to the emotions we feel such as fear, but that we also consider the possibility of inherited trauma and emotions that were never really ours to begin with. Sometimes it can be as simple as understanding the small connections to our past that can unlock the door to our personal prison and set us free. This is my hope and intention for sharing this long and personal story about the fear inside of me.
Always remember that there is no fear in love and that perfect love drives out fear. So if all else fails, do everything you possibly can to be perfected in love. Fear doesn’t stand a chance when it's fighting against love.