Fear: A Path to Authenticity

Emotion Series

December 10, 2021
Most of the things that we do not understand, we fear. But what if the very path we fear also leads us to our most authentic selves? Approaching our fear allows us to go places and understand things that we wouldn't be able to otherwise. Join us in a conversation where we unpack what it means to use fear as a tool and an ally.

Episode intro:

Most of the things we don’t understand we fear. Approaching your fear allows us to go places and understand things we wouldn’t otherwise.

Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. I am Brett Kistler here today with my co-host, Joe Hudson.

Brett: All right, Joe. How are you doing today?

Joe: I am good. I just got off of a houseboat for Thanksgiving with my family for a week. We go to a place where there is nobody at all. There is no cell reception. It was just so nice to be reconnected as a family. It was really interesting to watch my girls. At the beginning, they have fear. I don’t want to get away from being out of connection as far as cellular connection or WIFI. There was definitely resistance. By the end of it, they were ready to have another week where they weren’t connected to anything, and we could just be together as a family. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it, but it was really nice to see that transition for them.

Brett: Tell me about the fear of losing connection to WIFI.

Joe: It seems like such a little thing. I don’t think it is. When kids are growing up, they are learning this whole social thing. To be out of connection of their friends without WIFI, anything can happen. Someone can start saying bad things about them online. There can be these dramas they don’t know about. They are not informed, and then all of these consequences can happen. My guess is that’s the real driving fear for my girls anyways about not being in connection, cellular connection, not the connection of the family. That cellular connection was really important to them because it keeps them up to date on the mercurial social nature of teenage girls.

Brett: I had an experience with fear myself. This past weekend I was in Moab, Utah in the canyons. I was trying highlining for the first time in a couple of years since the first time I tried it.

Joe: Highlining is where you go between two massive cliffs with a slackline. Is that what it is? Or a tightrope.

Brett: It is a one-inch slackline anchored between two cliffs 500 feet over the ground. You clip into it with a harness, and then slide out and stand up and walk the line. I’ve been doing a lot of slack lining over the past couple of years, particularly during the pandemic when I have been in one place. This is my first time trying to highline again. There is definitely a strong fear that comes up when you are hanging out on a line, and you are putting your feet on it and trying to stand. I definitely immediately fell and took a little whipper. The line caught me, and it was perfectly safe.

Joe: What’s a whipper?

Brett: A whipper is when you come off the line in a rather uncontrolled and extravagant way. You take a nice big swing around the line.

Joe: It feels like you are getting whipped around. I am imagining it.

Brett: The experience of getting whipped around and disoriented. In that moment, you are like how good are these anchors, how good is this equipment, did I double check my harness.

Joe: That’s another thing of fear. That’s interesting. It’s cool because that’s what we are meant to talk about today, which is fear. It is cool to think about those two different kinds of fear.

Brett: You have got the subtle fears guiding so many small decisions in our life and making us feel resistance to go out in nature and have a connective time from family because we are away from WIFI. Then we have the more extreme and present fears of physical annihilation even if it is not really present and even if you are actually protected, but the visceral feeling of it. I think that’s a really good analogy, something to bring into the way we feel fear all the time in our business, our life and the way we show up in the world.

Joe: It is fascinating when you think about it that way. What it brings is that question of what is fear essentially, and I think that’s an incredibly difficult question to answer. The typical answer to that question is if you feel in threat, if you feel your person, what you love and care about is threat. Some version of that is the typical idea of fear, but if you think of fear that way, then you could define anger that way. You could define sadness that way. As far as the body goes, if you define it as the body, it is a very different experience. The experience of anger and the anger of fear are very different.

After fear, you are going to shake. During fear, you are going to scream. Your facial expression is going to have big eyes and an open mouth. Anger is going to have a closed mouth and tight eyes. If you define it, intellectually, it makes it sound like fear is at the bottom of all the anger and all the sadness. I think there is an interesting truth to that perspective, but it is not a body truth of fear. There is a definite felt experience of fear in the body that is unique to all of the other big emotions we do.

Brett: It sounds like any of the fight, fight, freeze or feed or any of the fs people have come up to describe various responses linked to fear in the perspective that there’s only love and feel, which is useful and not necessarily entirely true, it sounds like fear can have a lot of different flavors and be identified as other emotions. It can also be its own distinct thing. It can be a thing that is underneath anger, and it can also be the thing anger is underneath.

Joe: That’s right. That’s exactly it. I don’t know the feed one. I’ve heard of fight, fight or freeze. I use that a lot. What’s the feed? What does that represent?

Brett: Let’s say I am procrastinating, and I just go to the fridge frequently. I might as well put some more calories in my body because maybe that will help with whatever this undetermined risk is.

Joe: That’s another thing that gets confused a lot. There is fear and then there’s anxiety. To me, those are very separate things. I don’t think we could talk about all of them in one podcast, but I think fear as anxiety. There is fear as in power struggles, and then there is the actual fear as an emotional experience that’s happening. I think we should do a different podcast on fear and how that creates power struggles. What some people call the drama triangle, I would call the fear triangle. Another discussion on anxiety and what that is, and how it is related but not related to fear.

For me, though, fear, the experience of fear when we are in the body is a shaky, screaming, a jittery sensation. That’s how we know fear to be there. When we are in fear in the head, what we know is that we start thinking about binary. We start binary thinking. You are either going to buy the red car or the blue car, but I don’t see there is a black car or a green car. I either marry her or I don’t marry her. That shows the mental.

Brett: I take the job, or I don’t take the job.

Joe: Often, fear creates this false end in the system where it is like oh my god, I am going to lose my job, but you are not thinking and then what. You lose your job, and then you find a new job. Then you get a two-month vacation while you look for a job. Then you go into credit card debt, and you repay your credit card debt. There is this false end nature to having fear in the system. It also presents when you think you have to make a decision. That’s another thing of how fear shows up in the head. I think fear in the body is that shaking, screaming whereas fear in the head is binary thinking, false end and thinking you have to make a decision.

Brett: Making a list of pros and cons to try to intellectually analyze it to the max and come up with a confirmed answer.

Joe: If you are doing that, it means there is unfelt fear. We all make a thousand decisions a day, easily a thousand decisions a day, and we don’t even think we are making them. We don’t even consider them. They just happen all the time. When we think we have to make a decision, it means we are scared of a consequence. We are scared we are going to do something wrong. The first thing to do in those moments is to address the fear, not try to figure it out. The brain doesn’t figure out fear. It can’t. It doesn’t do it very well at all. The next most obvious thing can be found so easily. I can’t make the total decision, but I can definitely know what the next most obvious thing is to do if all I do is just feel the fear and let it move through me.

Brett: What makes fear take hold and not just move through so cleanly as you just described?

Joe: Like all emotions, different societies have different ways of handling it. There are definitely societies I have been in or subcultures of our society where showing fear is not okay. If I show fear, then I am going to get harassed by the cops. If I show fear, then I am going to be at the bottom of the totem pole. To show fear is not an acceptable experience. If I show fear, dad will attack me, or mom will attack me. Like all of the emotions, letting that fear move through your system is going to create the potential of harm for you or some history of harm for you. Again, like all emotions, the mind then forgets we can actually express the fear, just not with anybody around or when it is safe, and we know we won’t be attacked for it.

That’s one of the reasons fear doesn’t move like incredibly quickly through us. When it doesn’t, that’s one of the reasons. The other is it is just sustained. When you have a situation where you are scared for a sustained period of time, the body just can’t handle it. You can deal with a certain amount of it, and act through that and feel that for a certain amount of time, but if you are doing something, I remember when my girls were young. Both of them had life threatening diseases at different times, and it was 10 days of sustained fear in a hospital. That took months for me to move through it because I actually had to compartmentalize some of that fear to make decisions. I had to operate. It is the same with war. If you are in the sustained trauma for an extended period of time, you have to go back and let your body move it after the fact. That’s another reason it is important.

Because fear was meant, historically, for most mammals, for a very short period of time. Run from the lion. It is not for a sustained thing, and also for most animals, the only thing they are really trying to protect is their and the physical welfare of their family so to speak, maybe the tribe or whatever the different words for different animals but the group of animals or the herd of animals. That’s really the only time when they are feeling the fear, whereas humans, their sense of self is far beyond just my physical form. It is what I stand for and my political nature, my sexual orientation, how good of a person I am, my reputation, how good I look, blah, blah, blah. Now that we have extended ourselves into all of these I would say illusionary things, then our fear can be more sustained over longer periods of time. It takes more to just have it move all the time, or you have to see through the idea of self. You have to see through what you are protecting, and then there is just a lot less fear in the system generally.

Brett: It sounds like what you just said there is our fear, we can have a gradient of fear all the way from the visceral level of walking a high line and being afraid for our personal wellbeing all the way to something so abstract as if I am away from cellular connection, somebody might invite me to a party that I miss. Then I won’t get the social connection I want, and I will have FOMO.

Joe: Or there are going to be a whole bunch of people who say shitty things about me, and I won’t be able to defend myself. When I come home, my social rank will have lowered and I will be the person who is bullied, which feels a little more real than I am going to miss a party. But yes, all of that is now part of fear. Anything that we project our identity into now has to be protected.

Brett: It is interesting here that it still all links back to the body. No matter how abstract the thing you are afraid of is, it connects straight to the body. If you are not aware of it and you are not letting it move, then you will find yourself in this binary thinking, being afraid of a false end, some consequence that seems like it is the end of the world. You have this big weighty decision to make, and these different streams of information that if you could only understand it fully, you would know what to do to keep yourself safe. If not, it is all lost.

Joe: The consequence piece is really important, too. I love that thought process. The way I see that is when I am coaching clients, what I see a lot of is they want to be their authentic self, but they are scared of the consequences of it. Then that’s when the fear really takes hold, when that ratio gets out of balance. What I also see is when people consistently show up and be themselves despite the consequences, then what happens is the part of the world that doesn’t like who they are falls away, maybe dramatically, maybe violently but it falls away. The part of the world that supports who they are actually, and their authenticity shows up. It is not magical thinking. This isn’t new age I wish it and therefore, it is so.

It’s just literally the same way that if there is something that’s feeding on insects, the creek is a good place to be to eat the insects because there are more insects near water than in dry spaces. You are going to get more insect eating animals near creeks. It is just as simple as that. It is just like we go to the places, and the things are attracted to us depending on what we are delivering. If we are a creek delivering insects, then we are going to get insect eaters around us so to speak.

Brett: Or if we are someone who is patterned into experiencing a lot of interpersonal drama, we will tend to find where there is drama and try to fix it because we are afraid of it and draw ourselves into it even more and create more of it.

Joe: Exactly, trying to fix it creates it. Perfect example. When it is so clear in your system that the consequence is so much less important than being yourself, then there is no fear that shows up. When you are worried that the consequence could stop you from being yourself, then the fear really hits. The ridiculous thing about it is then you are like I am so scared that if I don’t do that, that I can’t be myself, then I won’t be myself right now. Back to my daughters, I am so scared that I tell my friend that the way she is treating me really doesn’t work because then I might lose my social network and then I can’t be myself at school. You are sacrificing being yourself now for the fear of not being able to be yourself in the future.

It is the same thing. I am scared of losing all my money. You are going to not be yourself now because you might lose all your money. That way in the future I can be myself because I have the money. It’s a funny bargain that we make often.

Brett: If everyone around us loves a certain identity of us and we are afraid of losing that identity, if we can accept losing that identity, which will happen if we step into our authenticity rather than that image, then we do, and that self does die. If we are willing to go through the experience of finding who we are underneath it and finding our place in our environment and our world, then the fear falls away because then you can look forward to it. What is this journey I am about to be on?

Joe: I have this poem about this where I talk about it, which is fear is one of the most direct paths to freedom. It is because of exactly what you are saying. The fear tells you where you are scared that your identity is going to be taken away, your idea of self, whether that’s the physical self, or the friends or the wealth. There is this great quote that says, “If you want to find out who you are, offer yourself up to annihilation. The part of you that can’t be annihilated is who you actually are.” Fear is this incredible path. It is this incredibly quick way to get to freedom because you are just annihilating all the parts of yourself. It is directly like I am scared of that means I am scared of that level of annihilation. Then you can find what’s truly true about you, which is the part that can’t be annihilated.

Brett: On a visceral level, that reminds me of the [unclear] in base jumping and just how going into jumping off of a cliff and parachuting is something that brings up all these fears of visceral annihilation. Those being in constriction around those fears just makes your performance far more rigid and clunky and far more likely to lead to your annihilation than if you simmer in it, sit in it and let yourself feel all of that fear and let yourself feel the subsequent fears of if I die, my partner will have a bad day and my family will have a bad day. If you let yourself continue to constrict in those fears, then that’s going to be the thing that pops into your mind if someone goes a little bit off of the plan.

Joe: Also, the flow state I think so many people who do these kinds of states look for, let’s call that the freedom for a minute. That’s directly linked to allowing the fear. It’s directly linked to the embrace of the fear. If you are not embracing it, you are constricted. If you are embracing it, if you are like there it is, that’s the fear, I am going to fully allow this thing to be felt and move through me, then you are in flow state. It is the same thing in any of the other fears. That’s how fear is such a direct path.

Brett: This is something I’ve experienced a lot and I saw a lot that if you let your attachment to a certain identity cause you to suppress a certain range of fear, then the thing that that fear would keep you safe from becomes more likely to happen to you.

Joe: Yes, the things that we fear are the things we invite into our world often. The other thing that’s interesting is I remember hearing some monk at some point tell me. I can’t remember who it was. He said I don’t really feel fear anymore. That idea is so foreign to me. I don’t know exactly what they meant by fear, so I can see a way in which that may be true. What’s foreign to me is every time I embrace fear, I find there is a new level of fear that exists. There is a more subtle form of fear that exists. It is almost like if fear is the direct path, then to say that fear goes away would kind of say that the path goes away. What I notice is that in my own system there is just a deeper embrace of the fragility or the limitations of life.

Brett: I think that points to a common misconception around fear is that it is something to be overcome. Courage is overcoming the fear. One definition of courage is feeling the fear and doing the thing anyway. I think even in that there is still a little bit of pushing through. I think more like courage is feeling fear and then doing what’s authentic.

Joe: It might just be feeling the fear and the rest happens. Fear is such a great signal, and it tells us so much about our situation, what part of life we are not embracing, what things are not asking for that we need. There are so many aspects of fear and there are so many levels of it. It is beautiful. There is a way of also defining fear which creates the power struggles, fear as power struggles or fear as anxiety. It is kind of a unique situation because most of the time those things are happening people don’t know they are in fear. There is this level of fear that’s happening in the world that people can’t see. They can’t see they are in the fear when they are acting in those ways. The way I see it, anytime anybody is in a power struggle, they are scared. They are scared their identity is going to be destroyed.

Brett: How do we come into a practice of feeling and welcoming our fear and letting it move through us in a way that allows us to accept all of the consequences to our identity or to our physical self or to those that we love in order to engage with the world more fully and more authentically?

Joe: The first thing is to see that when you resist fear, it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t stop. It just leaks out sideways. It just doesn’t come out of the front of the toothpaste tube. It comes out the side. That’s one thing. Resistance doesn’t work. That which we resist persists is a common theme. That’s one way, keep on trying to resist it and see what happens, see how that works for you, see how big of a shield you have to put up between you and life to be able to resist fear.

Brett: I noticed what you just said there wasn’t don’t resist it because that’s another form of resistance, but feel it, feel what it is like to resist it, feel where it gets you, and then let your system update and experiment with new ways to relate to it.

Joe: Also, loving fear, finding out the wisdom of fear, learning how to listen to it and then seeing how much wisdom and brilliance it has, and then allowing yourself to feel it is a natural thing. Once you see how cool it is and how much it informs you. Oh my God, I am scared. That means my decision-making sucks right now. I can feel my fear and then my decision making can be great. Holy crap, what freedom! Oh my gosh, I am in fear right now. That tells me I have some needs that aren’t being met. Great, wow. Why would you not want to have that signal? That would be like saying fuck this speedometer on my dashboard, fuck that. I don’t want that speedometer there. It becomes completely nonsensical when you see it as that.

Then finally, when you embrace the fear deeply and you get that flow state or you get that freedom, not just in the long term but in the short term, then you are just like I can’t wait to find it. Then you do things like take a one-inch rope across a 500-foot cliff and go walking there. Then you are like great, I can’t wait. If you have that felt experience of that full embrace of the fear, then you feel the freedom of it. You are like this is wonderful. There is somebody somewhere right now who is saying if I embrace the fear, then I am inviting danger. I am not saying go create fear. I am not saying don’t listen to fear. I am saying listen to it. The more you feel it, the better you can react to it. The better the natural reaction will be to the fear.

Brett: That moment you are with a colleague, and you have a piece of difficult feedback, you feel that fear. You feel that constriction. Looking for where in my life I am feeling fear right now because those are the doorways to get out of whatever pattern I am and into some beyond that I have no idea where it is going to take me. If I feel like I want to expand in my life, then wherever I feel some subtle or deeper fear, those are exactly where I need to go.

Joe: That’s right. The places we don’t go are the places we are scared, or we don’t know exist. Most of the things that we don’t understand we fear. Approaching your fear allows us to go places and understand things we wouldn’t otherwise.

Brett: How do you relate this to helplessness? We have talked about helplessness before and it could be even sort of its own feeling, but it also seems it might be described as the state of allowing fear to move through.

Joe: One thing I want to say before that is the connection course we do the VIEW thing, which is vulnerability, impartiality, empathy and wonder, to some degree, that is also a really neat response to fear, meaning it is really hard. I have an experiment up on the website where we talk about how being in wonder is impossible if you are in fear, in any kind of deep sense of fear. It is really interesting to feel in one way that you could say what is fear, and I would say it is when you are not in VIEW. It’s another way to describe fear.

How to approach it? I would say approach fear in VIEW. How is this really making me feel? What am I really scared of? That would be the vulnerability. The impartiality is not trying to get out of it. How long does it want to be here? What does it want to tell me? Empathy is being with it, not trying to avoid it, and wonder is: What is this all about? To me, you can approach the internal states you resist just like difficult conversations in the world. You can approach them with VIEW in the same way. That’s another one.

As far as the question you had before on helplessness, I would say helplessness is maybe the deepest form of fear. That’s what I would say. It is when you feel like there is absolutely nothing that can be done. It is the thing that when we are doing trauma work with people, they go into this during rapes, during car accidents or with a parent who just wouldn’t love them no matter what they did. It is a feeling of helplessness. It is an incredibly freeing emotion to feel. It is incredibly freeing because just like all of the emotions, when we feel sad, we actually come out with more joy. If we feel helplessness, we come out feeling so much more potent, so much more viable, so much more empowered.

Feeling that helplessness is an amazing thing. It is usually the deepest of journeys. There is a weird little nuance that happens when people feel fear or helplessness. They are scared and therefore they conflate being scared to feel the feeling with the feeling itself. Oh my god, I am scared. I am feeling the feeling. Therefore, I must be scared of feeling the feeling. It is one of the more challenging things for people to experience is what I have seen, but it is one of the most useful experiences to really allow yourself to go into.

Brett: A lot of what we have just talked about is ways to intellectually recognize if you are feeling fear, and then to go into feeling it and recognize emotionally if you are sensing the fear and letting it move through. I am curious also if there is a purely somatic or a visceral way to let fear process. A pointer to this is there are practices they use with veterans with PTSD where you just lay down on a bed and you just start letting your limbs shake a little bit. That’s a way to burn off fear. What’s a visceral process of feeling and burning off fear? What are some tools that can help somebody get into that or they could further explore?

Joe: What’s really good is to have a place with a whole bunch of people who love you and can support you in the process. Part of fear often is I am alone in it. To see you are not alone in it is incredibly useful. Yes, shaking your body, just allowing your body to shake is an amazing thing or even putting your body into a position where it shakes can also be very useful. You can go into memories that created a lot of fear and relive the physical experience of it. There is certain breathwork that opens up fear that can be done. That’s another one, too hard to explain right now. There is some benefit to this as well, which is just literally allowing the fear in your body without reacting to it, just like observing the fear as long you don’t do that to create separation and you do it to create intimacy with the fear. It is another incredibly useful tool. All of those can be really useful.

I will lay down and shake, and during helplessness, I will make the sounds of helplessness, which is screaming or really tight emotions like that or not being able to say anything sometimes is helplessness. You feel stuck in it. All of that is really useful.

Brett: In case this sounds crazy to anybody listening, it is a natural reaction when you see an animal who goes into freeze because there is a predator around, before they get up and move again, they will get up and shake. That literally releases and burns off some of the chemicals, the energy that was stored in those muscles to keep them frozen or whichever form of flight or fright they might have been in.

Joe: It is so obvious even in dogs. If you just look at dogs, they shake all the time. We think there is a thing called fear, and now we have to shake. We are going to shake two times a week. You watch a dog. They shake like 20 times a day, 30 times a day easily not for a long period of time but they shake. Dogs that are more anxious shake more. They put out their legs and then they start with their head, then their whole body shakes. It releases their muscles. It’s amazing to watch it. All animals do this. The fear does compile like that every day.

Brett: It will just stack up until it moves. It will either show up in a deep subconscious way that makes you recreate the thing. Then you feel it all at once when the thing you are afraid of happens, or you can just let it through a little bit a day or in real time, as close to real time as you can get to. Something I want to touch on before we close, for anybody who is listening to this and wants to experiment with feeling their fear, what’s a good way to notice the difference between feeling fear and letting it move through and then getting into a story about it that just deepens it? I am imagining somebody who might be alone, feel alone in it, and then go off alone and start shaking and then reify the story that they are alone and that nobody loves them and find more truth in it than letting the fear just process. What advice do you have for that?

Joe: That would be a good episode on anxiety. I would like to do an episode on power. I would like to do an episode on anxiety because what you are describing is somebody who is not feeling the fear. Maybe they shake, but they are not actually allowing it. This is the part we talked about it. The one thing you process your fear, the other thing is your sense of self becomes so expansive or so the veil is seen through that there is nothing like the part of you that can be annihilated. I know I can’t be annihilated.

The part of me that’s actually me and all the other parts, they are not me, so what is there to protect? I ask this question to people all the time when they are defending themselves. What are you actually defending? Nobody can actually answer that question. It is this idea of self. To me, I think spending time there and the way you spend time there is to see what stories you are telling yourself. Nobody loves me is a story, and that’s your definition. Your definition is I am the kind of person that nobody loves. I am the kind of person who needs to be liked. I am the kind of person who has money. These stories of ourselves are the things we are defending. To some degree, that might be necessary to start the fear process but if you are in the story through the fear process, then it is not moving.

Brett: I think one of the ways to tell if you are moving through the fear is that your stories will be dissolved by it, and you might be in a new story, a larger story, a different story. This works for pretty much any information. If there is a story and an emotion moves through it, it will change the story if you are moving it.

Joe: That’s right. The story will change. There will be relief, and there eventually will be long term relief if you are moving it. If you are not moving it, if you are indulging it, if you are defining it. I don’t even like to use the word indulge. If you are defining yourself by that story and the emotion, and therefore, it is not moving, the story will remain the same. There won’t be a sense of short term and definitely no long-term relief, and you will still feel that stuck relationship with the feeling, meaning you won’t be like I can’t wait to feel fear again. You are like I am going to feel this fear to get rid of it. If you are feeling the fear to get rid of it, then it is not going to work. Those are the ways.

Brett: This has been an awesome episode. I really enjoyed it.

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