11: Terrorizing Ourself

Few things undermine us more easily than fear. Pervasive fear of unknown dangers can paralyze our thinking and crush our belief that we can do something to rescue ourself. Little fears that seem insignificant can serve as seeds for larger fears until they become substantial. A feeling of dread can magnetize us to real and imaginary threats. Anticipation of disaster can cripple our ability to avoid it. When trapped in this way by our own fears, they can then be used to terrorize us.

There is always some legitimate risk lurking about. Most are trivial, such as the threat we might forget some task or be late for an appointment. But there are larger dangers, too. Horrible weather, earthquakes, and assorted man-made disasters are distant but real possibilities. Most of us learn to live with these possibilities and do little or nothing to prepare for them. We accept these things as being beyond our control.

There are many other threats, however, that we can magnify in our creative imagination until they overwhelm us. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s mythic monster, we can conjure up all manner of horrors or take ordinary worries and magnify them until we have created a monster of our own—one who roams our consciousness, terrorizing our every moment. This monster, unlike Mary Shelley’s fictional character, does not literally stomp or roar in our ear. Instead, it spreads an invisible fog that makes it difficult to clearly see any options other than what is near and convenient. Our long-range possibilities as well as the consequences of what we are doing will remain obscure. This emotional fog also confounds our ability to work creatively. This is how fear can easily undermine our thinking and courage to be and do what is appropriate and constructive.

Fear often acts like an infection that first invades one tiny part of the body. Some event scratches our confidence or dents our courage. Ordinarily, we easily take care of it and move on. However, as new scratches and dents occur, we may dredge up existing fears to aggravate them into more serious bruises and deeper wounds to our ego. If we act with skill and courage to stop this process, we can regain our confidence and move on. If, however, we become introverted in continual self-examination and brooding on what has gone wrong, we can magnify our distress several fold while doing nothing to reverse the decline. We slowly slip into ever greater anxiety until it becomes the “new normal” for us.

Many people have a temperament that is prone to fear. They continually react to events as if they threaten their ego or confidence. Almost every challenge is interpreted as some sort of danger to their well-being. While others see only a task to do or an obstruction to overcome, they perceive menace in everything and react in fear. Eventually, this dread becomes so frequent that they set their psychic radar to search only for threats. Naturally, all kinds of threat—large or small, realistic or improbable—are discovered (or invented). In this way, danger is exaggerated until they seem to be surrounded by it on all fronts.

Since fear is magnetic, it will attract even more fear to us as well as the dire situations and possibilities we associate with fear. The result is that we terrorize ourself by the way we view and digest our life experiences. Many people who live with significant anxiety every day fail to recognize it as unhealthy—or how much it is affecting their hopes, creativity, success, and their physical and psychological health. Because they assume most of their fears are legitimate, they fail to understand how excessive fear becomes a curse rather than a “normal” response to life.

It can be very difficult to understand that most of our fears are not legitimate. The bodyguards of chronic fear are very skillful in preserving our sense of being in danger and arousing our defenses to cope with it. Yet these subconscious bodyguards are just the voice of a Frankenstein monster we have created through years of panic and anxiety. It will try to tell us the threats to our well-being are very real and dangerous. It will remind us of past disasters and embarrassments and how we must not risk any repetition of them. The monster will regale us with warnings about how fragile we are and how unprepared we are to indulge any risks that might shatter our ability to hold ourself together. If none of this impresses us, the monster will take us on a quick trip into our memories to review and relive highlights of past dangers and how frightened we felt during those times.

Of course, all of these tactics are guaranteed to increase our general anxiety and draw more fear into our heart and mind. This is how we can easily terror- ize ourself and make fear a cornerstone of our character and the dominant mood for our existence.

All of the dark moods—fear, anger, sadness, guilt, jealousy, and lust for power—will distort our view of life and ourself. They reset our psychic radar to search for the worst in our environment and, by default, ignore the worthwhile and helpful elements of life. All of these dark moods can corrupt our judgment so we make too much of problem areas such as losses, illness, criticism, and failures.

We leave the realm of confidence and poise the moment we internalize fear and begin to believe that our life situation is truly threatening. We are dan- gerously weak and unable to take care of ourself. To “protect” ourself, we downgrade our beliefs in who we are and what we can accomplish. We likewise debase our capacity to cope with any kind of fear. This is a life-altering event that is based on a conviction that our life situation and environment are dangerous if not impossible. Fear becomes the dominant driving force in our life. Thereafter, we will practice avoid- ance and denial as the primary ways we cope with stressful situations and possibilities. We will avoid people and events that might upset us. Unfortunately, this also means we will miss many opportunities to be successful and achieve. Once more, the walls we build because of our fear prevent both good and bad opportunities from reaching us.

This is how we terrorize ourself. We are not just anxious; we continually upset ourself by being obsessed with all manner of threats, magnifying them with expectations of disaster, overreacting to any hint of problems, and constantly remembering how wounded and weak we are.

Fortunately, these are all choices—bad choices— we have made. But being choices, we can unmake them and substitute better ones. We can set our psychic radar to search for healthy and appropriate aspects of life. Likewise, we can remind ourself of our strengths, skills, and achievements. We must stop reliving past disasters and begin reminding our- self of our successes and strengths.

Finally, we can tell our inner Frankenstein mon- ster to retire to Antarctica, as we no longer have any use for him.

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