We humans are animals. I think we often forget that because we spend so much time in our heads. I remember reading a stat that we have eighty-four percent identical DNA to a mouse. A mouse! It’s in the high nineties with orangutans. Even if you’ve read those stats and you accept them as fact, we often forget to look at our behaviors and our experiences through that lens. We forget, in our daily lives, that we are genetically wired for fear. Fear is our prominent survival tactic, and the fear instinct is so strong that we often make our decisions in reaction to it.
There’s more and more talk about humans’ wiring for fear, but it appears we are not also shedding our shame when we feel fear. Why is that? That our socialization as humans dictates that we must feel shame for an emotional experience that is instinctual and has kept us alive for what, six million years? Why, then, with this widely accepted truth that fear is natural, do we have so little practical knowledge about how to effectively manage it?
And why, as an American society, do we put so little value on learning about our emotions and learning tools to effectively manage our emotions as to increase our quality of life and our capacity to experience joy? After all, isn’t that what it’s supposed to be all about!? Perhaps it’s a philosophical question, although I think it’s basically because someone benefits from our collective ignorance – and, therefore, it’s more of a socio-political one (and there’s another book). What I have seen, clinically, is that most people who have not been taught to manage their emotions effectively do one of a handful of things:
They attempt to convince themselves their emotions are not really happening, and everything is “fine.”
They project their emotions out onto something, or usually someone else, most likely in the form of criticism. In the car: “That asshole cut me off on purpose!” You thought the car pulling in front of you might collide with you, which kicked in your fight or flight response to perceived imminent harm or death, you have not been taught the tools to manage fear effectively, so the fear get projected out as criticism – a narrative about how that person cut you off “on purpose,” which reflects that they are a “bad person.” Wow. All just a made-up story. Fear is, indeed, a liar.
They try to find a way to control their environment, including other people, in order to “predict” the future so they won’t be “caught off guard,” which is both driven by and causes more fear.
Find a way not to feel.
The tendency to make our world into “black or white,” “right or wrong,” “worthwhile or worthless” is rampant and is linked to high rates of anxiety and depression. So why do people do it, then? Well:
We’re hard-wired for fear.
We do not get taught tools to effectively name, accept, and manage fear.
When I work with participants (remember, I don’t say patients) of any age, I talk about the acceptance of living in the gray – and it’s all gray. I challenge people to accept that all reality is gray, and instead of clinging to a manufactured concept of “certainty,” perhaps it would be more effective to learn how to manage the anxiety that naturally comes from the “I don’t know.” That we’re all just bumbling around in life, making our best educated guess about everything...and that’s ok. Yeah, that takes time and a lot of hard work and conversation and listening to each other. And while we’re doing this existential-level work, we also need to accurately identify how we currently self-medicate our emotions until we have those tools to manage them head-on.
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