What is the genesis of your fears?
The answer usually seems obvious. Your heart is racing because you’re headed to a job interview. Or you just learned your first child is on the way. You’re about to climb into an airplane that’s so small you have to tilt your head to get into your seat. Or you just received test results, and the doctor says the prognosis isn’t good.
We tend to conclude that our fear is generated by specific situations, and believe that if we could just change those circumstances — or, better yet, if some higher power could rearrange them for us — we would feel better. Yet according to psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, such thinking not only ignores the real source of our discomfort, it can actually feed our anxieties.
In The End of Fear: A Spiritual Path for Realists (Hay House, 2010), which Schaub cowrote with his wife, Bonney Schaub, RN, MS, he suggests that rather than believing our fears are a sign that circumstances need to change, we can reframe them as resulting from our “innate love of life.”
His theory is that fear is triggered because humans love life so much that they are hypervigilant about any threat to it; this often manifests itself in outsized, anxious reactions like lashing out or shutting down.
Such reactions may work to keep us alive in urgent and dire circumstances (just what the survival instinct is designed to do), but day-to-day, these protective responses can diminish the quality of our lives and relationships.
“Until we realize that our fears originate in our own awareness of inevitable change and loss,” Schaub writes, “we blame them on causes outside of us, convinced that other people, places, and things are making us feel vulnerable and threatened.”
He uses case studies to show that the various ways we avoid facing our mortality (or, as he regularly refers to it, our vulnerability) ultimately fail. A successful businessman is unhinged by a midlife crisis as he begins to sense that no amount of material success will keep him alive forever. A woman who has always found comfort in her religious faith discovers it isn’t enough to protect her and her loved ones from harm. Conversely, her husband, who had always taken refuge in his rational skepticism, finds that logic fails to provide answers when he’s faced with loss and change.
None of these very human attempts to handle fear — materialism or blind faith or entrenched skepticism — succeeds in providing peace, because each one relies on the idea that loss and death can, with the right formula, be cheated.
So, does accepting vulnerability doom us to a life shrouded in a gloomy awareness that this is all going to end anyway? Absolutely not, says Schaub. In fact, those who understand the underlying causes of their fear are often in the best position to find relief from the stressful experience of repressing their feelings — and they become considerably more at ease as a result.
“I consider fear to be absolutely normal, and something to be respected, so I don’t pathologize it at all,” Schaub says. “It doesn’t become a disorder for me. I think there’s a potential in fear to get to something good. It’s not like you just have to tolerate fear. You can find a skillful way to work with it, because it is, it exists, and it isn’t going away.”
Schaub teaches his clients (who have included hardcore substance abusers, middle-class professionals, Academy Award winners and hospice patients) simple methods to help quiet the mind and accept vulnerability as a natural state. They include taking a walk around the block while looking carefully at everyone, with the understanding that he or she is just as susceptible to loss, change and death as you are. (An added benefit to this practice is that it really knocks the life out of jealousy and competition.)
Another exercise involves “turning toward fear with affection” and simply thanking it for trying to protect you and keep you living this life — one that, apparently, you really love. This fundamental desire for the life you have can be a wonderful thing to notice, and it can wake you up to the present moment like nothing else. “Surrender [is] an active decision,” Schaub writes, “an act of strength and courage, with serenity as its reward.”
Ultimately, cultivating an appreciation of vulnerability teaches us that life can be enjoyed even if it can’t be controlled completely, or prolonged indefinitely. This attitude can keep us from taking the people we love (and even the people we don’t like) for granted, since we don’t know how long they’ll be around. And it also allows us to use fear, which usually springs up at moments when we don’t know what’s going to happen, as an invitation to become curious — instead of worried.
“We believe that something bad or difficult is going to happen, but really, it’s all unknown,” Schaub concludes. “There’s a lot of unnecessary suffering about what might happen.”
Read on to learn more from Schaub about the nature of human fear — and more constructive ways to deal with it.
Leaning Into What Scares Us
Wisdom from psychotherapist Richard Schaub, PhD, on the connection between fear and vulnerability, and how learning to embrace our mortality can bring relief.
Experience Life: Most of us prefer to avoid the things that scare us. What got you interested in actively approaching fear and exploring it professionally?
Richard Schaub: I would say it was an awareness of my own nervousness and tendency to worry. I think I saw a lot of fear in people around me as well. In my first job out of college I was a caseworker, working with heroin addicts, and I saw that when they were in recovery, these were just sensitive people overwhelmed by the world. They weren’t the tough criminals they seemed to be on the outside. I had the sense that the people who appeared to be unafraid were really masking how they felt.
EL: In your book The End of Fear, you say that all fear is really just an indication of our underlying vulnerability. Is there a difference between fear and vulnerability?
RS: This is not an unusual confusion, because people think of vulnerability as a feeling. And it is a feeling, but it’s also more than that. Vulnerability is our situation. It is a natural state, our human condition: We are vulnerable beings, period.
We might think we’re solid and fine, but something could change on a dime. After this interview, for example, you or I could get a phone call with bad news.
So, that vulnerability is our human condition, and fear is the result of the fact that we are, in fact, vulnerable.
EL: What are the most unhelpful or destructive responses to fear?
RS: I think all destructive fear reactions can be categorized as expressions of three natural instincts: fight, flight and freeze. In my mind, the most destructive reaction is fight.
There’s a lot of anger that arises over experiences that stimulate our vulnerability. When people are not consciously aware [that what they are feeling is vulnerability], they tend to react with anger and a “fight” response.
The fight reaction directly affects other people, and it comes out in many forms. There’s violence, obviously. But there’s also sarcasm, criticism, revenge, blaming. Flight and freeze are definitely harmful to the person doing them, and can be harmful to people around them, too. But the fight reaction is the most destructive communally.
EL: Do you consider all anger to be a mask for fear?
RS: I would say 99 percent of it. For four years I ran a program for adolescents at a day hospital. They were thrown out of school because they were violent or vandals or whatever, and they were classic examples of disguised fear.
I mean, you could look at them and see clearly that their whole point was to look scary. But after you got to know them, it was obvious that they didn’t really know what they were doing. They were just hurt, vulnerable and protecting themselves in this way.
I’m not excusing their behaviors, but it’s evident to me that they were primarily fearful and responding to the world with a fight reaction as a result.
EL: Can you teach a kid like that to understand and consciously accept his fundamental vulnerability? It seems like that would require a degree of maturity not associated with adolescence.
RS: I think maturity can be translated as self-awareness, and that can be cultivated at virtually any age. If you can train someone to be more aware, they become more mature. If someone can notice — and that’s the key thing — if someone can notice the state that they’re in, they have the possibility of changing it, of choosing a different response to their condition.
EL: What are some techniques you teach to help people respond to their fear more constructively?
RS: Well, as noted, I think self-awareness is the prerequisite for everything else. That’s what changes things. So how do you learn self-awareness? You learn how to stop and name the state you’re in.
You might simply acknowledge, “I’m really angry right now.” Or you might notice you are feeling nervous and frightened and ask, “What am I so anxious about?” Just that moment of noticing and self-inquiry gives you the chance to do something different with what you are feeling.
From that point, once you’re aware, you are more capable of changing the state you’re in. I think that the best way to change [fear] states is through clinical or practical meditation techniques, which doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in a lotus position for 20 minutes. It just means lowering the degree of alarm in the system.
It could be putting on your favorite music, just doing something else instead of automatically acting on the feeling inside you. Some people like mental imagery. Some people like breathing. Some people do self-talk, where they talk themselves through processing the feeling, but it’s all about calming the state of alarm in the brain. Doing this for ourselves means that we are aware, and we are accepting that the state we are in can be changed.
EL: You’ve helped clients face the fear of death by teaching them about the “transpersonal” aspect of themselves. Could you explain that idea?
RS: The word “transpersonal” and the word “spiritual” are used interchangeably in some circles. Transpersonal is not a very well-known word, but it means beyond the personal, beyond the personality. People become convinced that they are just a mind and a body and a personality, but actually we’re much more than that. I get a lot of clients now who are very ill, and they’re looking for something beyond the body because they know their time in that body is limited.
EL: What would an experience of the transpersonal look like?
RS: It’s more what it feels like. What it feels like is that temporarily you’re not you. What you are is a state of awareness. You are aware of being connected to or participating in something greater than yourself.
EL: And this helps calm us, because we know some part of us lives on and exists beyond the fragility we feel in the moment?
RS: That’s right.
EL: How do people behave differently when they’ve learned to accept their fundamental vulnerability?
RS: The first thing that happens when people accept their vulnerability is that they become more compassionate, both toward themselves and others. This doesn’t mean they automatically love everybody; it just means that they can see, “Wow, that person is struggling, too.”
I think the second change happens when people begin to have more insight into behaviors, including their own. In the book I gave the example of the business executive who’s sitting down at the conference table. Usually this guy would be intimidating and motivating everybody through fear. Instead, as he starts dealing with his own [fear], he just sits there, and he notices how each of his managers is actually reacting to his or her own vulnerability. So because he’s accepted his own vulnerability more, he’s beginning to have insight into other people. And they start to respond to him less fearfully; it changes the whole relationship.
The road to accepting your vulnerability is made easier by realizing we’re all in this together. There’s nobody outside of this. Nobody.
Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor.