You can be free: How fear holds you back

I’ve been reading Ryan Holiday’s inspiring Courage is Calling. Holliday practices Stoicism, a way of life that’s become my life credo, though I confess my frequent failure to live up to its tenets of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom.

Stoicism is a discipline requiring daily practice. It’s taught me how much fear lies behind our modern anxiety and behavior. As Holliday writes, “This is how it goes, whether you’re a billionaire or an ordinary person, no matter how physically tough or brilliant you are. Fear determines what is or isn’t possible. If you think something is too scary, it’s too scary for you. If you don’t think you have any power . . . you don’t. If you aren’t the captain of your fate . . . then fate is the captain of you.”

Anxiety with its burden of worries culminates in stress, and we know its harsh consequences for our mental and physical health.

Worry teaches you that the future is happening now.

It falsely tells you that worry will make it go away.

Worry makes you care more about what others think.

It inhibits your boldly attempting new things like falling in love again, having children, resuming your education, investing your money, traveling to new places, changing your residence, trying a new doctor. Maybe even quitting your job for something, even if for less money, but more fulfilling.

It says you can’t ever escape your past, whether a bad childhood or failed marriage, a hurtful friendship or demeaning rejection.

Fear anchors you to what’s familiar, seemingly safe. It forfeits possibility and, with it, the future.

The truth is life is inherent with risk. Loss, illness, grief, death embrace every nook and cranny of life. Its remedy is to step up and step out, doing what you can.

Paradoxically, mastering anxiety begins with acceptance of what you can’t change. Uncertainty is inherent with life. In his book, The Liberated Mind, psychologist Steven Hayes writes that “people like to think the world is ‘happy happy joy joy,’ but if you live long enough, you start running into pain and illness and loss and tragedies of all sorts. It’s just part of it. That’s part of life.”

But there are things you can change. Yes, you can master living in a temporal world of vicissitude, but you must be willing to sign the bottom line.

Take inventory of what inhibits your resolve.

It may cost you money, even estrangement, but how much better to walk away free. One of life’s caveats is knowing when and how to jettison habits and worries weighing you down.

You can be courageous in every day life in so many ways.

It takes bravery to ask for a pay raise, confront injustice, leave a demeaning relationship, find a new hobby.

Don’t let fear bully you.

Don’t let routine dictate your everyday doings.

Happiness doesn’t just happen. It requires flexibility, resilience and daily practice. Frequently, it’s a life of sips more than gulps to get there.

So much of life is living in the moment. You do what you can, attempt what you’ve wanted. You act to realize yourself, becoming agent of your own destiny.

Mastering your fears begins a new portal. Yes, you can find freedom in an unfree world.


Dodging puddles: Things we avoid

As a college freshman, there was one essay we had to read in composition class that made an indelible impression on me that lingers still: George Orwell’s “Hanging,” with its vivid irony in observing the curious behavior of an about to be executed criminal in Burma, where Orwell had served in the British imperial police for six years years.  The narrator takes no part, except to observe:

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we are alive. All the organs of his body were working – bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming – all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned – even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

While the essay surely delivers a right upper cut to capital punishment, its underbelly embraces that instinctual element in all of us for well-being, or the comfort zone, or as the behaviorists tell us, the quest for pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

This got me thinking just now of the myriad ways we try avoiding life’s stressors, or dodging puddles, and so this brief list to which I’m sure you can add your own items:

Accepting personal responsibility:  Beginning with Adam blaming Eve, it’s been a human tendency to fault others for our often self-inflicted wounds or make excuses for bad behavior.  Rationalization, like a subterranean stream, lies embedded in the psyche, seemingly dormant, only to spring to the surface in moments of duress.

In baseball, the sport I passionately love, I see it all the time, the batter striking out, jawing with the ump about a wrong call; the pitcher disgruntled with a strike zone, scowling menacingly at the call-maker.

In the legal realm, even in the most heinous crimes, defendants rarely plead guilty, buttressed by lawyers resorting to context.

Unfortunately, evasion rewards wrong conduct and encourages its repetition, often alienating our fellows, and even those we love; in worse case scenarios, severing relationships.  Its remedy lies in keeping our temper hosted, maybe counting to ten.  What really helps is learning from our shame  and wanting to do better to be our best selves.

Confronting fear:   No one lives without anxiety.  It’s simply a matter to what degree.   We can either face up to our fears or let them take charge, minimizing our happiness.   Unfortunately, many of us resort to escapism, often through excessive indulgence in diversions such as TV, movies, net surfing and video games.  When we take hold of our worries we often discover their baseless origins, making it easier to give them the toss.

This isn’t easy, of course, and often takes practice or determined resolve to see it through.  Small steps count, particularly in desensitizing  ourselves to chronically embedded fears such as public speaking or phobias that make us dread high places, narrow spaces, and social gatherings.

Running away doesn’t solve anything and, worse, may feed our anxiety and exacerbate our escapism.  The bottom line is, Who is in charge:  you or your fears?

Avoiding exercise:   Along with making changes in your diet, namely, cutting back on fats, sugar and salt, exercising vigorously minimally five days a week fosters good health, significantly reducing your risks for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and even cancer.  But it’s easier said than done.  Who likes coming home from work having to exercise?  For many of us it’s simply a good idea we’d like to go away, since it gnaws at our conscience knowing its importance, yet our seeming inability to get it done.

The trick is setting up a time and place; for me, it’s first thing shortly after breakfast that’s now a fixed habit.  For some, going right to a gym before coming home works best. The good thing is that it takes only about six weeks to establish the habit and it’s self-reinforcing in its dividends, reducing weight and stress while increasing energy and improving our mood.

Giving-up cravings:  Bad habits inevitably lead to bad consequences. The problem is that they can be pleasurable, not only to the senses, but psychologically as modes of escape.  Consequently, indulgences in eating, smoking and alcohol dominate a good many and, unresolved, become addictions affecting personal health, wallets, daily focus, and even those we love.

Alas, even the best counsel often falls short of remedy, for their resolution depends on motivation, which sometimes comes only as things worsen and we don’t like our excesses and what they do.  And even this is sometimes not enough.

But there are exercises psychologists often miss that can strengthen our resolve.  Try focusing, for example, on your goal.  Visualize it.  Post pictures on your mirror or wall that capture it.  See yourself as thin, muscular, photogenic. Or family amazed and delighted that you no longer smoke or drink.

Meditation with its centering on a mantra to reinforce focus provides yet another formidable exercise in strengthening will power and fostering self-realization.  Replace bad choices with positive alternatives: carrot sticks coated in hummus instead of potato chips;  fruit replacing candy and baked goods.  You can do this!

Unpleasant tasks:  There are things we don’t like to do and wish they would go away like paying bills, writing a paper, household tasks, running errands, etc.  Accordingly, we procrastinate, with the inevitable result the list grows longer and guilt accumulates.  I like to schedule things, a thing here or a thing there, making keeping-up more manageable.  It also helps to think of what happens if I don’t follow through.

And then there are the good vibes that always come when I follow through.  Having said this, there are some things that may need elimination, if possible, from your list if the payoff doesn’t justify the effort. The more what we do fulfills ourselves, the less difficult it becomes to do them and the more joy leftover to spend on others.

Truth facing:  There are things we don’t want to hear, since they make us  uncomfortable.  I’m as guilty as the next fellow.  Yesterday, my doctor asked me if I’d been checking my blood pressure and I had to confess I’ve been afraid to.  It’s silly behavior on my part, for it changes nothing and can make things worse.  Similarly, it’s sometimes not fun turning on the news, but again, we live in a real world where, yes, bad things happen, injustice occurs, people suffer.

I believe global warming exists and we’re the primary factor, but I know good people who don’t share this view.  They have every right, of course, though sometimes we filter what makes us feel insecure.  It helps to have someone you can talk to who really listens and can provide context, or a larger view of things.

Don’t flagellate yourself because you have anxieties.  We all have them sometime or other.  Just don’t hide behind them.  As for personal beliefs distilled into unthinking habit, better a mindset that follows truth than hugs deception.

Change:  Time often brings new outcomes and altered perspective.  It keeps company with sadness, for in forfeiting our past we often leave behind something of ourselves.  Memory may help us revisit, but the reality is we can’t go home again.  Transitory creatures in an ephemeral world, we wish for permanence of life’s good things: experiences that gave joy and provided purpose and vitality; family and friendships that made for laughter and sharing and assured our acceptance; eagerness with each dawn to make good on the new day’s promise.

Though, understandably, we like to structure our security, we often find our best made dikes prove puny against time’s flow.  But change also has its recompense:  a fresh start and a maturity that refines our goals, separating the wheat from the chaff; a way of atoning for past shortcomings; a means to resolving festering resentments with new found forgiveness nourished by time’s insights.

Change teaches us to cherish now what we must ultimately let go.  Although change demands adaptation, it also makes room for new possibilities trekking unexplored roads and discovering fresh vistas that soften our losses.  The poet Tennyson had it right, “Ring out the old.  Ring in the new.”

Be well.  Do well!


How fear erodes love

Like many of you, I follow the news, only to come away frequently dismayed. For all our pretense to rationality, people often seem governed more by passion than reason.  History strikes me as repeated scenarios of human excess, or what Freud astutely called manifestations of the Id, or pleasure principle. I like to think of this inchoate anomaly as the Child within.

There are pretty much seven salient emotions that define and undergird human behavior:  love, hate, hurt, anger, joy, sadness and, last but not least, fear.  The latter generally takes several primary forms: the fear of abandonment, of ineffectualness, of future events, and of mortality.

We’re all afraid in different ways to different degrees, but often don’t realize it, since it’s deeply imbedded within the Unconscious, tracing back to the loss of our hammocked security within our mother’s womb.  We carry no memory of those halcyon days of dependency, but the psyche remembers its glory and the anguish of its loss; so much so that we spend a good deal of our lives seeking commensurate bliss.

I’ve always relished the Edenic garden myth of Genesis with its several resonances of Man’s true estate.  In that story we learn that God made a woman to be a companion for the man he had made, for it wasn’t good for him to dwell alone.  In essence, we’re social creatures and need others to complete ourselves. But I wonder if there’s more going on here, say the underlying, primordial fear in whoever wrote this story of loneliness. Was the writer reflecting his own wrestlings with abandonment?

Such fear may lie behind the quest of so many for validation, whether through achievement, wealth, or power.  We want badly  to be esteemed. We want to draw the crowd.

This fear of abandonment doubtless explains a good deal of romantic love–a quest to find the parental surrogate with us “till death do us part.” Unfortunately, it may also fuel the often failure of this kind of love, since ultimately our happiness derives from within.  Sadly, it perpetuates relationships that frequently denigrate Self.  For a few, death is even preferable to rejection or desertion.

Our world is filled with children who never experienced kinship with an ideal mother in the first place, intensifying their adult quest and making them doubly vulnerable to masquerades of affection.  It may also explain, though inexcusable, much of the misogyny that still abounds expressed in myriad ways, sometimes brutally, by men who project their mother-loss on all women.

Fear of abandonment may lead to a need to control others, as if by putting them on a leash you can prevent their straying.

It also feeds jealousy, that brooding insecurity that suspicions a consort may be enamored away by someone more attractive.

It may likewise accentuate the need for young people to seek the crowded weekend bar, for what’s more hell for a single than a Saturday night alone?

Certainly, it factors into misbehavior and criminality, the need to gain attention or be confined and thus taken care of.

In the public realm, our insecurity renders politics manipulative, with appeals to our fears rather than the public good.  Government becomes a public parent, taking care of all, increasing our dependency, minimizing our self-sufficiency.  We now face an unprecedented federal debt that may do us all in.

Finding our way past this fear is problematic, since we tend to conflate all our fears with thoughts, and thus resort to rationalizations for what we do.  Fears like those of abandonment give rise to a sordid array of  compulsions and resultant follies

But back to where I began.  Properly motivated, love’s the grandest gig in town when conducted rationally in loving another for their individuality and not as some kind of throw pillow. Similarly, finding good friends enhances our lives, not because they cushion our loneliness, but because it makes good sense to bind with those with whom you share commonalty of interest.

Ultimately, our deliverance from anxiety over abandonment comes from diminishing the dominion of feelings; it begins with identifying them and uprooting them as our motivators: What am I really seeking in this relationship? Why am I not seeing the red flags?  Why this person?  Love must be built on more than a therapy for loneliness.  Love is marvelous.  For the right reasons!

What if: Reducing chronic worry

We worry about a great many things:  How will my interview go? What will people think of me?  Will I pass the test?  How will I pay this bill?  Will I get the loan?  Do I have cancer?  When worry becomes chronic, it can be debilitating, souring our relationships, triggering illness, and fostering pessimism.

Worrying is always an exercise in control.  It prospers because it temporally gives us a fix, falsely giving us a sense we’re in charge, only to reach an inevitably higher threshold to keep our anxieties in check.

One lasting memory I have of my father was his spending long hours in his favorite chair looking out the window, deep in thought, most of it worry.  In doing so he lost a great deal of life’s joy.  It’s what worry does in overdrive. If he had been paid for every worry he’d have been very rich.

Worry is a bully you need to standup to, not indulge, to make it go away.

It’s also a habit and in this case, needs undoing, and like all bad habits, can be unlearned.

The good news is that its remedy may be less difficult than you may have expected, or a matter of getting a handle on it by changing the way you think about life’s inevitable stresses.

The vast majority of our worries fall into three categories, each with its own remedy:

1.    The unimportant:  So much of what we worry about turns out to be trivial if you apply the test of time.  You’re having trouble with a neighbor. That can be unpleasant. Or what about the deadline for getting that assignment done at work?  Or that you may not get that job or promotion you had your heart set on?  Or that Nancy or Bill may not return your affection?  For perspective, ask yourself what would something like this matter a hundred years from now?  

 2.   The unsolvable:   Common sense should tell us the futility of worrying about fixed verities like death and taxes that can’t be changed no matter how we try.  I know such things can be scary, but we lessen our anxiety when we accept life’s randomness and adopt coping strategies to keep ourselves reasonably safe, and pile-up while we can, the nows of life around us as in fostering good relationships, doing what we enjoy, and thinking positively.

3.   The uncertain:  This category may include what we worry about most.  Will I still have a job?  How can I pay my bills?  Is it cancer?  If we could predict the future, we’d invest wisely and profit immensely in the best stocks, bonds and real estate. But even here, the experts at this sort of thing often predict wrongly and fail miserably. The consolation is that most of the uncertainties we worry about never happen or that we”ve simply squeezed out alternative possibilities with one scenario conclusions, making ourselves miserable.  As Montaigne in his inveterate wisdom once put it, “My life has been full of miserable misfortunes, most of which never happened.”  The trick is to accept uncertainty by not reaching conclusions you’ve no way of knowing are inevitable. It’s always a good thing to question your assumptions and consider alternative outcomes.

Summary:  Worry has a positive role when it alerts us to take action as a preventative. It’s why we save for retirement, buy life and health insurance, limit our indebtedness, change our diet, etc.  It becomes a weight when we wake to it, carry it throughout the day, and take it to bed with us at night.  It can harm relationships and affect our physical and mental health.  Remembering the three primary worry types and putting their coping strategies into daily practice can help you retrieve the happiness you mislaid.

Be well,


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