Fear has a very negative reputation – a reputation that is totally unjustified. Many of us spend our lives trying to rid ourselves of fear. We have demonised it so much that we are unable to see how unavoidable it is when living a full life. The truth is that it is totally impossible to live without fear. Fear, as a physical signal of danger, is essential to survive and thrive. As a parent you will recognize the eternal vigilance you have for your children. In allowing them to grow and develop their freedom (as distinct from wrapping them in cotton-wool all of their lives) your fear for them is unavoidable. “Be careful”, “Mind yourself”, “Take Care”, we all repeat endlessly to our children. The thing is, we cannot have freedom and safety at the same time. The price of freedom is to experience fear.
In seeing fear as negative we have taken a completely natural and essential human emotion and turned into something abhorrent. We have been taught from an early age that if we accept fear then bad things will happen to us. We are conditioned into believing that our fear is a reflection of our weakness, and that we should not like being afraid! We say things like: “Your not afraid, are you?” “Don’t be afraid.”. We therefore don’t like to admit that we are feeling fear! This kind of conditioning is what causes children to lie, for example. Fear is the only reason we lie. It is the only reason adults con children into thinking they should not experience fear. Life, however, is scary for children and adults. What we should be saying is “It’s all right to be afraid when something scares you”. “The bravest men in the world are also very afraid. That’s why they are heroes”. We need to teach children how to be positively afraid.
We are even naturally afraid of each other in intimate relationships. Fear of your partner is ultimately emerges as an essential problem in intimacy. This is why the term vulnerability has meaning. To be open and vulnerable, to share one’s deepest feelings, one has to befriend the natural fear we all have of being hurt or misunderstood. Many men sit in my office, arms crossed, ever defiant and self-sufficient, guarded up like a fortress and stating “I am not afraid!”. Why all the armour so, I ask? We build the armour to defend against fear and vulnerability.
However, it is in the acknowledgement of fear that the human heart opens to life. Love then becomes possible. Without fear, there is no love. For many men, to experience fear is to feel that there is something terribly wrong with them. So people need alcohol, affairs, aggression, domination, control, addictions, and status rather than admit to the fear that drives them.
Life is both scary and wonderful. To want to get rid of fear is to want to shirk away from life itself. To banish the unwelcome guest of fear from our hearts and minds is to miss the point of living. It may sound strange, but as much as fear brings dread it equally brings joy and exhileration. Fear is the basis of courage and heroism. As long as we run from fear we can never permit the full, and yes, joyful experience of life.
Joy, in fact emerges in the context of fear that is embraced and overcome. Many fun activities involve danger: Just visit an amusement park and watch the sheer delight on peoples faces on various rides and roller coasters. Small children on smaller rides – watching their faces grow through anxiety to delight. In fact excitement and thrill involves a form of delightful fear! One might say that all enjoyment involves the embracing of fear, and the relaxed surrender that follows. To fully experience joy means having come through an ordeal that has fully tested us and pushed us to the limit.
“The secret of life is in knowing how to be afraid.” To be alive, to experience life in its raw intensity, to acknowledge our vulnerability, is to know fear. In knowing how to be afraid we then open a window to exhilaration, joy, and the vulnerability of love. To watch your children play at the edge of a terrifying sea is to feel fear. Yet in knowing that fear, you also know what love is. Why so? You love your children because you know that life is brief and that loss awaits all of us. Love is animated by fear and loss, and experienced as joy and wonder. All is one.
When we open our hearts we can see that fear is a positive feeling of anxiety and agitation reflected in the human experiences of courage, respect, beauty, wonder, love, and joy.
After many years observing the effects of anger in family life I have come to the conclusion that it is largely an ineffective social emotion. While it is certainly a necessary and essential response to social injustice, abuse, or attack, it is a largely overrated emotion for problem-solving or relationship building.People who get angry at lot tend to justify it for one of three typical reasons:
Take the first reason: People who feel entitled to express anger at others usually say things like “I am just expressing how I feel. I am entitled to do that. How dare you suggest otherwise”. This notion of being entitled to express how we feel is used by a lot of abusive people to justify angry outbursts. The truth is that you are not entitled to express how you feel if the effects of that expression are distressing for another person. The indulgent person who gets angry or aggressive will just demand that others deal with and cope with their anger. “That’s just the way I am”, the abuser says, “I am just expressing how I feel”. Of course that is not what he/she is doing – he is seeking to upset or get another person to give-in or comply with them. That’s the real intent.
Also, the notion that you are entitled to express your anger and frustration at your spouse or children on a consistent basis is disrespectful and demeaning. If you are ever on the receiving end of a ‘verbal tongue-lashing’ you never respond with pleasure or appreciation. You usually feel patronised and diminished as a person because; deep down you know that you do not deserve it. The thing is it is only on rare occasion in family life that anyone does.
Therefore, the second reason, that people suggest that they are just venting their feelings is equally flawed. People will say things like “I am just getting this off my chest. This has all built up inside of me and I am juts letting off steam. What’s the big deal?” This is also a self-indulgent exercise where the effects on other people are not considered. For this reason, narcissistic people are very quick to anger when they do not get what they want or when they want to pressurise someone to give them what they want.
The third reason is that some people feel it is their role to put other people right. They will say things like “That guy just cut in front of me and changed lanes without indicating. I am going to let him know what’s for”. Or they might berate their children for simple mistakes like spilling a glass of coke or forgetting to do something. This is a righteous position where the angry person feels superior or better to the person who is in default and gets some perverse pleasure out of catching other people making mistakes.
This is an over-compensation that arises from the person’s own past experiences in life and a way to get back at the world. The father who hated being on the receiving end of his own father’s wrath finds himself berating his own children in the same way. The hyper-critical mother humiliates her child with her anger in the same way that her mother humiliated her.
The need to put other people right is justified on moral grounds but it really comes from a sometimes perverse righteousness. Domestic fundamentalism is an endemic problem in family life. The righteousness is often a way to ‘get back at’ the world and the child or spouse if often on the receiving end. So if a child makes a mistake or does something the righteous parent often gets angry because he or she feels betrayed and then punishes the child for this. The child has let them down in some way that is never known to the child. And for this reason the child grows through life with the scars and wounds inflicted by righteous anger.
Angry remarks, emotional venting, or patronising lectures are to emotional aggressiveness what spitting pr pinching is to physical aggressiveness. The thought of someone spitting at you or pinching you unnecessarily is offensive in the extreme. Yet we tolerate emotional, spitting where we degrade a partner or child with a put-down, and angry dismissive, or a verbal attack that leaves the other person feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or in tears.
It is very hard to deal with our own anger toward others who appear to be thwarting our goals and aims. It is especially hard for us to come to terms with the fact that other people are free individuals who are not obliged to meet our expectations in life – be it children spouses, or parents.
More often than not anger is ineffective because of the effects it has on others. It can feel good to you to vent but when you look into the other persons eyes you realise that there is much left to repair.
Dr. Colm O'Connor is a Cork Psychologist. You can find more articles by Dr. O'Connor in the Evening Echo every Wednesday.