Fear is an automated response to signal us a danger or a threat. It releases chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as the fight-or-flight response. It provokes huge energy expenditure to increase our chance for survival. This is an appropriate response when we are running away from a predator but it is unadapted to the perceived threats of our modern life that typically requires clear thinking and awareness. We become consumed with stress when fear takes unnecessary control of our life. Fear is the most primitive defense mechanism and originates in our reptilian brain which allowed our race to survive for millions of years. Fear of heights, snakes or spiders was programmed into our genetics because these situations represented a potential danger. Becoming conscious means trying to understand what lies behind each fear.
- Me first
This is a very common coping mechanism for most of us. When we are under pressure, we become more selfish and focus on our own needs to the detriment of other people’s needs. This is driven by the fear of lack and the illusion of separateness. You will see most children acting this way. In a large family, if someone brings some chocolate or candies, there will be always some children taking more than others and some of them will inevitably cry, complaining that they did not get their share. While this behavior is understandable with children, it is unfortunately well too common with adults. In the USA, on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, people could push each other to get the best sale items. In survival situations, this behavior is amplified. For example, a kapo or prisoner functionary was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp who was assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor. The kapo would often be even more brutal than their SS supervisors towards other prisoners in exchange of better food, better clothing, absence of physical abuse or a private room. This was the way for the Nazis to turn victims against victims, and it was sadly effective. This is also the reason why people lose their mind when money is involved. Salespeople fight over good territories. Business partners embezzle money and end up sinking their own business. Money feels to them a scarce resource and they act unethically to get more of it. At a higher level of consciousness, we are one, so taking from someone is like taking from oneself. A more mature behavior is to allow the most vulnerable population to have priority access. We can witness this behavior when someone gives his seat to the elderly in a bus, with handicap parking spaces, or giving priority to children and women in rescue situation. Intimate relationships that are based on consumerism, basically focused on what we can get instead of what we can give never work. This is why it is so important to only get involved with a partner we truly love where both will be focused on each other’s happiness.
- Leaving first out of abandonment fear
Many of us carry abandonment traumas from childhood. It seems counterintuitive that people who are so afraid of loneliness would leave the relationship first. However, someone with an extreme fear of abandonment knows that they will not be able to survive being dumped so they will take the first step as soon as the relationship feels shaky. They will start demonizing their partner so as to detach emotionally, and then leave first. While this course of action still feels very difficult, the person leaving knows that they can survive it because they have done it before. However being discarded feels worse than death to them. This is why the borderline is well known to oscillate between « I hate you » and « don’t leave me ». Their whole mindset is driven by the fear of abandonment. For years, I had a wife who threatened me for divorce. One day, I agreed with her and we separated. Then, she turned it against me that I had abandoned the family and she punished me by using our own children as weapons of war against me. A mature person is able to share authentically his/her relationship concerns and work on it consciously with the other partner. If they cannot come to a meeting of minds, they find a way to split with decency. Along the same lines, a person may feel not good enough for their intimate partner. We have an ego defense mechanism that prevents us from confronting our insecurities as we see ourselves as “less than” our partner. This may mean that our partner is likely to leave us because we are not good enough so we will start criticizing them and bringing them down to a level that we perceive as ours. This quickly feels like an abusive relationship as we want our partner to make us feel better and not worse. For this reason, it is important for intimate partners to have a similar self-esteem.
- Fantasy, magical and wishful thinking
Magical thinking is the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s inner, personal experience and the external physical world. While our thoughts do impact our reality, the New Age community is taking it to an extreme and holds the naive belief that thoughts are enough in themselves for physical manifestation while forgetting that congruent actions, persistance, willpower, discipline and a conducive environment are even more important. It is another form of denial that originates in the fear of taking action, the fear of taking responsibility and our resistance of getting uncomfortable. A friend of mine has 15 children and needed some financial help to secure accommodation for her family. While some of her siblings have a very successful business and could have easily helped, they responded instead that they would pray for her and her children! I have another friend who is new to spirituality but heard from his New Age mentor that he needed to get uncomfortable to become successful and ensure that he has no backup plan. He quit his job, started going to trips and enjoying many wonderful adventures. He maxed out his credit cards and overdrew his bank account. He then thought to himself that his financial struggle came to him because he was not open to receiving so he started a GoFundme campaign asking for people to take care of his debts. It made a lot of his facebook friends angry, in particular the single mums who have to count every penny to ensure a roof over their head and food for their family.
- The Rose-colored glasses syndrome
Optimism and self-confidence are great assets but too much of it can lead us to making fatal mistakes, ignoring or minimizing important obstacles standing on our way. While positive thinking and focusing on the good aspects of people have many benefits, it can become another form of denial when pushed to the extreme. My ex-partner who has a controversial successful career has been working with an associate with this syndrome. He would often communicate with her worst detractors with the naive hope that he could convert them to like her, giving out inadvertently compromising information that may put her in danger. People with this syndrome are trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings of insecurity by turning potentially dangerous situations into a safe fantasy. The paradox is that they are making people around them far more unsafe as a result. They only focus on the best outcome and refuse to consider the worst case situation. They can only see the light but refuse to see the shadow in themselves and others. They failed to understand that all of us are light and shadow, and that shadow with awareness is relatively safe. It is when there is no consciousness of the shadow that it becomes problematic. A person who is unaware of their shadow is unsafe. It takes courage to see reality for what it is, and even more to attempt changing what we were afraid to see.
- Panic attack
A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes some of the following symptoms: pounding heart, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, confusion, fear of death, powerlessness, and obstruction of rational thinking. A panic attack is an uncontrolled fear that we feel incapable of regulating. Phobia often includes a panic attack. In order to combat a panic attack, we first need to acknowledge the fear and validate it. When I was a teenager, I would get panic attacks before math exams because I associated not having the perfect grade with being unlovable. More recently, I had a panic attack climbing the top peak of Europe as I felt sick and incapable of going down on a very technical path. I was afraid of dying. We have defense mechanisms for a reason. The key is to make them conscious. Here is my personal technique to handle panic attacks:
- Recognizing we have a panic attack and accept the body’s reaction to it so that it does not trigger more fears (ex. fear that our heart will stop because it is racing too fast)
- Acknowledging the underlying fear (what am I really afraid of?)
- Seeing the part of us that is having the panic attack (ex. hurt child in us)
- Become conscious and slow down the breath. Connect to a higher aspect of the self
- Bringing unconditional love & presence to this traumatized part of ourselves from that higher perspective
- Self-talk of reassurance and helpful thoughts until we go back to a normal state
People who procrastinate are using avoidance to cope with emotions, and many of them are non-conscious emotions. We all have a six-year-old running the ship. And the six-year-old is saying, ‘I don’t want to! I don’t feel like it!’ When we resist an action, we need to ask the question what we are really afraid of. The most common resistance is our dislike of discomfort. This is easy to see with any physical exercise routine. With repetition, we can rewire our brain towards the benefits of performing the action instead of the discomfort while we perform the action. This is one of the great benefits of the Wim Hof method. It rewires the brain to associate discomfort with the elevated sense of feeling alive. Self-discipline is a very important part of personal development. Procrastination may come from the fear to fail but that will surely make us fail! It may come from our resistance to authority which is common if we have enmeshment traumas. When we procrastinate, we need to become conscious of the emotions we are trying to avoid and start an internal dialog with them. I like to make deals within my internal parts. Let’s say I want to finish a project but some aspects of me are resisting some of the efforts. I will tell them that once I complete the activity, I will let them have a reward such as watching a movie. As we learned at school, putting work first, and pleasure next is a good life habit. Another covert form of procrastination is to be become very busy doing things we do not need to do in order to avoid anything we are actually supposed to do! Not all procrastination is bad as it may be an indicator that you are resisting an action that you have some very good reasons to perform! You may have a toxic job and it may be time to change it. You may procrastinate seeing someone because this person is abusive to you.
- Looking for a savior
This coping mechanism is deeply ingrained since childhood. As we enter this world completely powerless, we need to rely on our primary caregivers to take care of us. This creates the belief that there is someone all powerful out there to ensure our survival. It is terrifying to take responsibility for our life so we always need to idealize an external person or spirit to feel safer. The passage to adulthood requires cutting the umbilical cord with our parents but many people are unable to do it. And when we do, after realizing the limitations of our parents, we often substitute them for another savior. We can discover who we have projected as our savior by asking ourselves who we are reaching out first when we feel desperate and in the midst of fear. It can be a parent, a spouse, a family member, a friend, a doctor, or a therapist. If we have been disappointed with people, we often turn to a spiritual teacher (alive or dead), a deity or our idea of God. While this is healthy to reach out for help in difficult situations, we can observe our own powerlessness in our desperate need for a savior. The truth is that our life is the perfect reflection of who we are, in positive and negative. This is what is so difficult for us to accept, especially if we started out from a difficult family environment. I believe in people’s ability to tap into their own resources and other people’s resources to improve their lives. This is why I am a coach and not a spiritual teacher. I do not want people to idealize me and disempower themselves in the process. I want them to feel that they can overcome obstacles just like I did because I am just like them. I can learn from them just like they can learn from me. Nonhierarchical relationships have so much more potential for growth. My goal as a coach is to make myself eventually unnecessary and ensure that my client has all the tools to heal and create a life that feels good on their own. When I climbed Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, I got very sick close to the summit. I experienced a panic attack as I felt incapable of going back down through the same technical path I had been through. I was able to observe the little boy in me who wanted to be rescued by a helicopter. However, they only send helicopters in France if you have a broken bone and are unable to walk, not in case of sickness. At the end, I had to accept that no one was going to save me. I had to use the strength I had left and the diligent support of my guide to get back down. The walk down the mountain with a 104 degree fever was excruciating but I finally made it, and it reinforced the belief in myself. This is hard to accept but no one is obligated to give us support even when we desperately need it. When we look for help, we need to learn to ask for it without entitlement so that people would like to do something for us from their good heart instead of guilt. This way, it feels good on both ends.
- Intellectualization and rationalization
Intellectualization is a defense mechanism by which reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress – where thinking is used to avoid feeling. It involves removing one’s self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualization may accompany, but is different from, rationalization, the pseudo-rational justification of irrational acts. The person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. The situation is treated as an interesting problem that engages the person on a rational basis, whilst the emotional aspects are completely ignored as being irrelevant. I got involved in a bad car accident during the summer 2015. When I was making a left turn on highway 50 in Lake Tahoe, a drunken driver going 80 mph on a 35 mph zone with no visibility hit us on the side. My daughter fainted during the impact and I had the fear of my life when I saw her unconscious body in the back of the minivan. At the end, we all had some bruises, some PTSD for my daughter but no serious injury. I completely shut off my emotions at this point. I just went to get a car rental, drove my friends back to the AirBnB, drove to the Reno hospital where my daughter had been sent by helicopter, and then picked up my ex-wife at the Reno airport. When I called my girlfriend that same evening to let her know what happened, I appeared to her as a sociopath as there was no emotion when I was relating the accident. She got scared of me but I was incapable to show any emotions at that time. It was only the following day when I called the insurance company, and started describing the accident that I crashed on the phone with tears in my eyes. Many people in cults use intellectualization and rationalization to explain and justify abuse from the leadership with absolutely no emotions. Intellectualization and rationalization are more common in men than women because men are more head-centered and women more heart-centered in general. During the group healing workshops that I facilitate, I would have workshop attendees sometimes describe the most horrific abuse (i.e. rape or beating) with no emotion and even sometimes giggling! One woman who was victim of incest even said that no one has ever loved her as much as her dad did. In this case, I put them through a process to reconnect consciously with the raw negative emotions that they have buried to avoid the pain. In this case, negative emotions are our friends as they are the bridge that calls the body to start the process of healing the traumatic experience. People not experiencing them feel scary to us as they seem they lost their humanity.