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Masks of Fear

by Rebecca Skeele, MA, MSS, LPCC

Posted Friday, 15 February 2008

The day is right on schedule, humming along and you are feeling in charge of life.

Suddenly, POW, a gut wrenching fear pinches your lungs, squeezing out all the air and a sinking feeling almost pulls you to your knees.

What triggered this visceral reaction?  Was it that casual condescending remark spoken under your colleague's breath about your presentation at work?

Did worry distract you for a split second causing you to narrowly miss a collision at a stoplight?

Was your mind replaying that disturbing news flash you saw on television this morning while dressing for work?

Fear, a normal human response to a perceived danger, is not always sanctioned by our culture. It is okay to scream in terror while watching a horror film but unacceptable to fear failure. The fear of failure is deemed a sign of weakness. It is fine to fear the dark, but taboo to fear being unloved. This fear is said to denote a character flaw. Also unsanctioned are fears of being alone, of loss, getting hurt, insolvency, rejection, betrayal, abandonment, aging, dying, and countless others. When we are in the grip of any fear considered inappropriate, our impulse is to save face by masking it.

The Urge to Conceal Fear

A few years ago while backpacking with friends, I agreed to tag along as far as I could to the top of a nearby peak. Holding back my fear of edges, I made it halfway up the slope, and then I spotted the rim and my legs turned to mush. Collapsing, I clung to a rock and froze in a fetal position until a friend, prying me loose, assisted me down the mountain. There I burst into tears, grateful to be safe at last.

Embarrassment followed, and I began reprimanding myself. This is irrational, I snarled. As I child I was fearless, but now I'm terrified of plummeting into canyons. When did I become such a wimp? Why couldn't I just enjoy the hike like everyone else?

For days I seethed with anger, berating myself for a crescendo of shortcomings: foolishness for having a fear of edges, weakness for letting it incapacitate me, incompetence for needing a friend to walk me down the slope. You're a first-class loser, my monkey mind proclaimed every so often, with increased intensity. I was concealing my fear with shame and blame.

The masks of fear come in a variety of shapes. Those most commonly used are anger, control, and obsessive behavior. But while such cover-ups may hide a fear from the outside world, they cannot diminish the fear, nor can they alleviate the judgments that were internalized along with it. When this self-condemnation becomes so painful that we do not feel safe enough inside to face our fears, we deny their existence.

Symptoms of Denial

Each new mask of fear further limits us, compounding our challenge to lead a sane, healthy life. Fortunately, outward symptoms of denial can alert us to impending damage. To find out whether you might be in denial about an underlying fear, explore these questions:

Do you rise quickly to anger over trivialities? Fanning the flames of anger is a clever diversion for anyone wishing to avert an encounter with fear. It warms the body, jangles the nerves, and keeps a steady stream of blood coursing palpably through the veins, drowning out deeper feelings.

Do you attempt to control outer events, unsightly behavior, the flow of conversation, and the time you spend with others? Imposing regulations on day-to-day routines evokes a temporary sense of power over fear. Redirecting social discourse, changing the subject, and avoiding awkward situations preserves a semblance of safety.

Have you noticed any obsessive behavior patterns? Overeating, overdrinking, overspending, and other excessive preoccupations temporarily quiet the nervous energy of anxiety. The mind, numbed, is less apt to drift off for a rendezvous with fear.

Disturbing world events can trigger a similar response, most often obsessive overextension. Does your stomach churn at the thought of diminished safety and security? Are you dragging yourself from task to task, bone tired but never settling down long enough to relax? Is your inner taskmaster telling you, Keep moving, or desperation is sure to creep steadily higher on the radar screen?

This on-the-go, can't-stop, don't-have-time pattern of behavior fools us into believing we can outrun fear until we collapse in bed at night oblivious to it. Sleep, however, rarely stops the merry-go-round for more than a few hours. Many people resort to medication to keep their heads from spinning, but end up even more distanced from their fears and questioning their sanity. The only way to reverse these debilitating effects of denial is to confront the fear itself.

Unmasking Fear

Prying off the masks of fear is sometimes scary yet always rewarding. For me, many baby steps were required to lift the anger covering my fear of edges. First, I had to unwind enough to consider returning to a mountain trail. This I did by separating the voice of condemnation from the fear. When the two were at last disentangled, I saw that the judgments, and not the fear, had kept me in the valley.

Next, I decided to tackle a trail while forming an inner zone of refuge and protection. Climbing the slope, I comforted the part of me that was mortified of edges, offering it kindness and compassion. I still felt fear, but I accepted its presence without wondering why it was my constant escort. I told it, We are all right. You're afraid, but that's okay too. With repeated excursions, I began to feel safer.

 During a recent edge experience, I managed to let go of fear for a few moments-just long enough to be swept up in a serenity that seemed to reflect the gently sloping piñon-studded vistas stretching clear to the horizon. I marveled at nature's beauty and harmony, and at the newfound peace permeating the core of my being. As fear returned, I embraced it along with this peace. Both were present, and equally accepted.

Now my day hikes along rims are free of both anger and its twin progeny-blame and shame. I've never figured out the reason for this fear of edges, but I have unlocked a greater truth: fear is my friend. Rather than condemn it, I treat it gently and lovingly. In return, it brings gifts of safety and trust. These I add to the awareness, strength, and empowerment it has already awakened within me.

Lest you think that loving an unmasked fear might only indulge it and reactivate it, I can assure you that quite the opposite is true. While loving your fear, you can walk with it; while judging it you cannot, for self-reproach only incapacitates us. Loving your fear and taking baby steps forward may even diminish it. As the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz demonstrates, when we embrace our fear, anything is possible. 

Rebecca Skeele, MA, MSS, author, counselor/coach and master facilitator offers her professional course, Becoming a Spiritual Scientist: A Course for CoCreators in Santa Fe, NM. For complete information about dates, place, times, and tuition visit www.spiritual-scientist.com For more information about Rebecca visit www.makeitheaven.com or email rebecca@makeitheaven.com

by Rebecca Skeele, MA, MSS, LPCC