Why Fear is a Friend in Disguise

How anxiety and panic are messengers of healing

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View from seaplane

There’s a common concept in our culture – one that I’ve adopted myself at times – that fear is our enemy. When we’re caught in fear’s offspring of anxiety and panic, it certainly feels like we’re been taken into enemy territory and are being held hostage. It feels like someone wraps a gloved hand around our throat and is sitting on our chest with a fifty pound bag of bricks. Anxiety in any form around any storyline – relationships, health, impending loss/death – is an unmanageable state that feels like torture.

I’ve learned so much over the many decades that I’ve become intimately acquainted with fear’s many faces in my own psyche, the mind’s of my kids, and the inner worlds of my clients, and one of the lessons that stands out the most is that fear is not, in fact, our enemy. Just like one of the main tenets of conscious dreamwork poses that all dreams – even nightmares and what we refer to as “bad” dreams – come in the service of health and wholeness, so all symptoms of waking psyche, including anxiety, panic, intrusive thoughts, recurring somatic issues, and insomnia – arrive like emissaries from our personal underworld to deliver opportunities to strengthen our sense of Self. In other words, without fear as the challenger, we wouldn’t have many opportunities to grow.

A few years ago we were on  a family vacation and, as a result of encouraging the passion of my aviator son, my claustrophobic tendencies were pushed to the limit. Over the course of three days, we walked through a quarter-mile long tunnel, were packed into a freight elevator with 50 other people, and shot up the side of a 600 foot building in a glass elevator. The next day took the cake as we gifted him with a seaplane ride for his birthday. While he was more ecstatic than I had ever seen him, I felt terror take hold the minute we took off. In my early years of struggling with anxiety in my 20s, this kind of experience would have surely sent me into a panic attack. 

But that day I relied on the many tools that I’ve developed over the years to walk myself through fear: prayer to connect to the still-point of unwavering strength, breath to anchor, focusing on the beauty and majesty of nature to allow the bigger field to edge fear out of the way, and love (which is always stronger than fear). About halfway through the flight, I was able to let go and appreciate the view. And by the time we touched down into the water, I was smiling. I can’t say that I would choose to go up in a seaplane again any time soon, but if I want to share in my son’s passion and inevitable path as a pilot, I’m going to need to work with this fear over and over again, on many levels.

Each time I face a fear, I work through a layer of a block between me and my highest self. Fear, in this sense, is not an enemy at all, but is truly a friend in disguise. For there is a certain and undeniable sense of elation that comes when we face fear head on and rise to our next level of strength. While my son’s joy after the ride stemmed from his pure and unadulterated passion for flight, my joy came from facing and then releasing one gripped, gloved finger of fear that squeezed my heart. Depth psychology posits that our greatest wounds carry the seed for our greatest gifts. This is why anxiety and fear, when worked with consciously, always lead to gratitude for the struggle.

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