Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Emotion of Fear

I remember once as a child reading that the four primary human emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. Happiness, sadness, and anger, yes. I immediately agreed that those are very basic core emotions -- but fear? Back then, I thought that fear was misplaced in the group. "I hardly ever feel afraid of things," I mused, thinking of spiders, bears, monsters, heights, and cowboy movies. I thought that the psychology researchers must have made a mistake.

I guess I had a charmed childhood, and had not experienced very many ugly situations that would have engendered the emotion of fear. Also, I grew up in a houseful of boys, and perhaps absorbed the lesson taught to little boys: thou shalt not express fear. Or perhaps I was a particularly brave (or foolhardy) child; I shudder now when I look back at the kinds of risks I took before I reached adolescence. I climbed cliffs. I skied fast. I spoke to strangers. I went down into old mine shafts exploring. I spied on a hobo camp near the train tracks.

It turns out that the psychologists were right, and I was wrong. When I reached adolescence and junior high school, I discovered that I did feel fear. In fact it became a pretty common emotion. As a younger child, I was confident and sure of myself. But as a teen, I did not fit in socially very well, and came to doubt myself and fear social situations. I was afraid to join groups of girls in the hallway at lunch, afraid of being left out when teams were chosen, and afraid of dressing the wrong way or saying the wrong thing. These fears became deeply woven into my behaviours and approach to life.

I have spent my entire adult life trying to overcome a fear of social groups and my fear of being judged negatively by others. The fear also spills over into lack of confidence about my performance/fear that I will fail. For example, about a year ago, I started a new job. It is a more senior position than my previous job, in a new place, and involving new challenges. It is not surprising that any person would feel some degree of anxiety starting a challenging new job. But I did not feel just a little anxiety; I was really scared, every single day. Every new expectation, every time I had to lead a meeting or speak up in a team discussion, every time I had to make a decision, I worried and dreaded the situation.

Gradually over this year, I have gained confidence. Things that terrified me at first, like standing up front of all of the staff in the the organization and leading a meeting, I now can do comfortably and with hardly any preparation. In fact, things that used to frighten me so much that I could hardly think straight now seem interesting, rewarding, and even "fun." It is kind of strange to describe work as fun, but it is amazingly exhilarating and gratifying to face a situation that is intellectually or socially challenging and work through it to a positive resolution. I guess that is why I like to set challenges for myself, like taking up a new job that really makes me stretch and that is scary to me. It feels good to learn and grow.

Similarly, I have recently taken up painting again after not having painted for about ten years. I used to love painting. But every time I thought about starting to paint again, I would procrastinate, make excuses, and and avoid it. It was fear. For some reason, I feared that I would not be able to remember how to paint. I was so afraid that I could not even start.

In my new city, I signed up for an evening painting class. The first few sessions, I was really gruff, tense, and antisocial. Fear. I was afraid of the room full of strangers, afraid of trying to paint, and afraid of failing at painting. The first picture I painted was fairly rough. But I was feeling so much joy actually making art again that I cut myself lots of slack and gave myself permission to do an imperfect painting. Now the fear has subsided and I am enjoying every hour in my painting class. I am working on my fifth painting since October. And I am loving it!

I guess I know from experience that it is important to experience new situations and to challenge myself, even though I feel afraid. But even with intellectual understanding, the feelings of fear are present at first, and fear doesn't feel good. But maybe the accomplishment wouldn't feel as good if I didn't have to work through fear to get there.

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