The last six months have been… interesting, in the Chinese curse meaning of the word. Life has been peppered with events that have given me the opportunity to taste fear.
I am a fearful person. I often get told I’m not. People who don’t know me have a tendency to think I’m brave, or at least to say that they do. I state that I’m not brave clearly, loudly, and often, but it generally gets ignored. I have a tendency to move towards what scares me, but it isn’t out of bravery. It’s normally one of three reasons:
- I’m too fucking chickenshit to let it be. I cannot live with monsters in my closet, so I will pick up a poker and a flashlight and go seek them out.
- I know from the onset that I will probably lose and probably get fucked up, so there’s no point in worrying about that. But I’ll be fucking damned if I don’t make it expensive for the bastards. If I’m going to go, I’m going to cause as much damage as I can on the way out, because fuck them.
- I care less about me than I care about something else. Standing up for something or somebody may get me trounced, but I care about that something or somebody more than I do about myself, so I charge forth. (Note: having nothing to lose is liberating, but when that “nothing” is yourself, your well-being, your survival… not healthy.)
In the last few months, I’ve not had a chance to do anything about the events that have summoned my fears; they have been outside of my control, things that happened to or around me regardless of any steps I could take. I was too small a cog to affect the machinery. I couldn’t do anything about the events, so I found myself charging towards something else instead: the source of my fear. It is an accepted dogma in modern pop psychology that anger isn’t a primary emotion: it’s what you feel when you don’t want to feel what you really feel. I find that that idea gets misused and crowbarred into a variety of inappropriate situations, which is an issue. My other issue with it is that I have no idea why we don’t try and do the same with other emotions, and fear in particular.
I think very few fears are inherently there, inevitably ours. The fear of falling, some weird phobias we seem to be born with, those may be there, in our bones, installed as factory standards. Much of the rest of our fears, though, seems to me to be the result of a combination of experiences and thoughts or expectations. I raise a fist towards my puppy, and he isn’t frightened: he has never been punched, so he hasn’t learnt to associate a raised fist with pain, so he feels no fear. On the contrary, he thinks we’re going to play. I raise a fist towards other dogs, who have been hit, and their reaction is completely different. The way they respond will depend on the strategy they have developed to avoid that pain. Will they attack or cower?
I am one of those dogs. It just so happens that the way my fear manifests in the world makes me looks a lot like freakin’ Despereaux going off to be a knight, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the fear on my mental landscape. So, in my fear-induced quest to vanquish my fears, I have tried to find their source. It’s a work in progress. The results have been interesting.*
Why am I afraid? The most obvious answer is “past experiences”: you get hit, you get hurt, you learn that getting hit hurts, so you’re afraid of getting hit again. That is a simplification, though, and it ignores a variety of other factors. You could get hit and block or evade. What do you learn then? Your interpretation of your experience will inform that lesson, probably more than the events do. At one extreme, you could learn that you are capable of avoiding a hit, that you can deal, which could lessen your fear of future hits, including those you can’t possibly block. At another extreme, you could learn that people are dangerous and should be avoided just in case. What your experience teaches you will depend on how your head is already wired, on what you believe about yourself, on how you have learnt to tell your own story.
No experience I’ve coped with has taught me that I can cope. Not a single one of them. I have never overcome something and felt victorious, or even capable. It’s always been a toss-up between calling myself lucky, stupid, or both. The events outside of my control that came at me didn’t kill me, but they didn’t make me stronger: they made me realise how weak I am, how perilous the world is, how easily things could have gone another way. The mistakes I made in the past and gotten over taught me that I am a person who makes mistakes, hence a person whose decision-making abilities can’t be trusted; not a person who gets over things. I have never looked at a future challenge and shrugged it off because I’ve already overcome far greater ones. I think of myself as incapable of not only of coping, but of learning to cope or to avoid situations in which I have to cope.
I am scared of what has already happened, because if it happened once then it can happen again. I am scared of what nearly happened, because I know how lucky I was to have escaped it the first time. I am scared of what might happen, because I don’t trust myself to be able to deal with it. I am scared all the time, regardless of how I prove myself to myself, of how much I grow, of how much I learn. And, if I carry on thinking of myself as I do now, I will live with fear forever.
I don’t want to. It’s not the choice I’d make for anyone else, so I won’t make it for myself. Now the issue is: how do I go about unfucking all this?
I could try and reverse-engineer those thoughts to their origin, to travel back to the “source of my trauma” (sorry, but my life just hasn’t been epic enough for me to be able to use those words without inverted commas). At first glance, the most obvious answer is “I grew up in a state of emergency, surrounded by adults who couldn’t cope and wouldn’t help me cope.”
Another strategy, the strategy I’m currently preferring because I’m hoping that it will offer me a shortcut, is to address my beliefs about myself directly. They are not rational and they are not visible, so I’m trying to spot them by looking at the stories I tell myself about my own life, then changing the main character. Would I tell the story the same way if instead of me going through X it was anyone else? If I interpret my own life in a radically different manner, that’s a thing I need to be aware of. The awareness, in and of itself, may do something.
*Aside: the last fiction I published was about Alya. She is a bundle of managed fears, a collection of scars, and the most autobiographical character I’ve ever written. She is more than just an aspect of me: she’s basically me. And I can’t stand her. Finding that out was also very interesting.