My mom was absolutely terrified of snakes, even the tiny and harmless ones. If she saw one, she would shriek and run. For those working to change harmful behavior, understanding the source of our actions helps us find the solution. It might not be obvious at first, but many discover fear as a cause of domestic violence or abuse.
My mother’s terror of those tiny snakes was excessive, irrational, and unnecessary. Similarly, when we behave in a hurtful way, it’s often because we’re unnecessarily reacting to something. To understand why, we have to look past the reaction and ask ourselves: “Is there something under this that I’m afraid of?”
What are we (really) afraid of?
The tough-guy part of me wants to say there is nothing that I’m afraid of. Outwardly, people that know me would say that’s true. I don’t have phobias, I don’t back down from challenging projects, and I’m not afraid of public speaking.
Fear plays a huge role in how I behave and make decisions, and it probably does for you, too.
The reality is, fear plays a huge role in how I behave and make decisions, and it probably does for you, too. My focus here is not on rational fears that make us act prudently, or phobias like my mom’s fear of snakes. I’m talking about the fears that are deep down—the ones we might not even know we have—and that don’t serve us well. Here are some examples of those kinds of fears:
- Failure. Many of us are frightened of failing, whether in a project, our career, parenting, or by failing to fit in with what society defines as “successful.” Relatedly, we are often scared of becoming successful and then failing to live up to the standard we’ve set for ourselves.
- Loss. We are programmed to feel loss acutely and try to avoid it at all costs, whether it’s losing our relationship, health, money, status, or identity.
- Missing out. We’ve all wondered if the grass may, indeed, be greener on the other side. We may be afraid of missing out on a job, the last item on the shelf, or something else we feel we deserve and that others are getting instead.
- Looking bad. This is a fear that comes naturally to us as social animals that evolved to live in groups. Being judged as weak, incompetent, stupid, or awkward feels, deep down, like we’re going to be cast out of the tribe.
- Being left out. Relatedly, most of us are afraid of not fitting in, or being rejected in some way, whether by a group or an individual. Again, we are probably wired in this way – to be afraid of facing the outside world alone.
- Not being liked or loved. This is another deep-seated fear that relates to the fear of being alone. It also threatens our sense of self-worth: if nobody likes or loves us, we fear it must mean we are not worthy of love.
- Being powerless. When we are in control, we generally feel safe. But when we don’t have control or are under someone else’s control, anything could happen to us—or so we fear. This can make us scared of not getting our way, not having a say in decisions, or not being respected by our partner.
- Change and the unknown. We have a tendency to resist change, often because we’re scared that one of the above things will happen when our world shifts.
- Death. Some people are scared of suffering as they approach death. Others fear the unknown part that comes after. For those who think that this life is all there is, the fear that there is nothing afterward can be crippling.
Underneath all of our fears is one big fear: that we are not enough.
These fears often affect us in overlapping ways. For example, people who are scared of failure are often also scared of looking bad and the loss and rejection that might result. Underneath all of our fears is one big fear: that we are not enough.
Fear as a cause of domestic violence
Digging deeper into our angry reactions and worst behavior, we often find that one or more of these fears is behind them. Our fears usually have their roots in events from our past – especially our childhood – that were painful, scary, or out of our control. Because we didn’t yet have the emotional skills navigate them, we developed behaviors that helped us cope at the time. However, these responses don’t serve us well as adults. For example:
- If we got caught in the middle of a messy divorce, we might have become very “clingy.” This is because deep down, we may have been afraid of losing our family and ending up alone.
- Parents who rarely showed affection or approval may have driven us to become perfectionists in order to try to gain their love.
- A turbulent childhood with constant change might have “taught” us that getting our way was the one thing that made us feel safe.
These upsetting and scary events have the effect of wiring our brains for a certain reaction as a coping method. Over time these become habits and end up feeling “normal.” Unfortunately, these patterns can come out in damaging ways later in life when we no longer need to protect ourselves.
The clingy child might resort to jealous or controlling behavior as an adult to avoid their fear of loss and loneliness. A kid who never got approval from their parents might struggle to receive criticism from their spouse, lashing out to stop from feeling unlovable. The child who needed to get their way to feel safe might not back down from an argument – even if that means using force.
Eliminating unnecessary fear
These behaviors don’t come from a healthy place, and they certainly don’t get us to one. They create anxiety and inner turmoil that hold us back from getting the good things in life. And they cause conflict that damages our relationships and hurts our loved ones.
So what can we do to address the fears that lie beneath our bad reactions? The good news is even our most deeply-ingrained fears can be eliminated, or at least reduced to a more manageable size. The following thought processes and techniques can help us break through our fears and stop them from holding us back.
Name your fear
It’s impossible to address something without first knowing what it is – and our innermost fears are no different. Identify what your fears are and bring them out into the open by writing about them in a journal. Better yet, talk through them with somebody you trust and feel safe with, like a counselor, pastor, or mentor.
By exposing our fears, we immediately take away some of their power.
By exposing our fears like this, we immediately take away some of their power and start on the path to overcoming them. Otherwise, they stay hidden and continue to plague us.
Challenge the thought that creates the fear
Like my mother’s fear of snakes, a lot of our fears are, in fact, irrational. Once you have identified your fears, ask yourself: do they make sense? Are they really true?
Many of our fears – even the powerful ones behind our bad behavior – are products of distorted thinking that is not rational. One example of distorted thinking is believing that we have to be right all the time. Another is thinking that the worst is always going to happen. Still another is seeing things as black and white—all good or all bad.
By challenging the truth of these thoughts, we can overcome some of our deepest fears. If our thinking is false, then there is no need to hold onto the fear. “My partner is about to make a bad decision and I have to stop him/her or it will be awful” is a distorted thought. After challenging, our thought may become, “Looks foolish, but I could be wrong and it won’t be the end of the world either way.” Challenging and changing our thought removes a lot of pressure we feel to correct our significant other.
Face the fear
One method of reducing or eliminating a fear is prolonged exposure therapy. Essentially, this is when we force ourselves to be exposed to whatever we are afraid of. Putting ourselves in a room with spiders or volunteering to speak at a conference can help us get over a fear of spiders or speaking.
I was afraid of being alone, so I forced myself to not date anyone for a period of time when I was single. If rejection scares you, try seeking out new social opportunities, or put yourself in situations where you’re likely to be rejected like this guy did. It’s unlikely that the worst-case outcome will come true, and pretty likely that you’ll make new friends.
Even if our fear does have some truth in it, we can often reduce its impact simply by learning to care less. A lot of the things we’re afraid of are never as important as we think they are.
Let’s say you’re scared of being judged by your partner’s coworkers. You’re worried that they think you’re dorky, and that your partner could do better. Even if they do think that, does it really matter?
What others think shouldn’t affect the relationship you have with your partner. You and your loved one are the only ones who get to decide whether you’re right for one another. Embrace your nerdy side, or whatever flaw you think you have, and know that we are all unique in some way–which is good!
Accept your fear
Sometimes, our fears are real and they do come true. But we can still accept and live with them without letting them overwhelm us. Here are three examples of acceptance that help us feel much less stressed and to act in ways that will improve our life.
Victory in failure
Many of us fear failure and what it says about us when we don’t live up to expectations. But failure is a part of life—everybody fails sometimes. Instead of beating yourself up over past failures, accept what happened, forgive yourself, and move on. Denying ourselves the opportunity to fail in the future means we deny ourselves the chance to learn and grow.
Out of control
What about fear of losing control? It’s normal for us to want to be in the driver’s seat. But the truth is, control is an illusion. There is very little in life that we can control, and attempting to do so often lands us in trouble.
Accepting that we’re not going to be able to fully control our surroundings is empowering.
Just as we can’t do anything about how others around us drive, we can’t do much about how other people feel, speak, or act. All we can do is decide how we respond to the circumstances and people around us. Accepting that we’re not going to be able to fully control our surroundings is actually empowering!
Lastly, we can work on accepting change. Change, like failure and things happening beyond our control, is inevitable. And despite our fear and resistance, humans are built to not just cope with change, but to thrive in it. Even if the change is bad, we have a tendency to underestimate our ability to heal, grow, and adapt to the new conditions.
Fear is an inevitable part of being human. But fear does not have to rule our lives or drive bad behavior. By naming, challenging, facing, caring less, or accepting it, we can reduce or eliminate its power.
One of the most frequent commands we hear in the Bible is “Fear not.” God knows that we are prone to being afraid, and that it holds us back from experiencing the full and abundant life he intended for us. He reminds us again and again that we do not need to be afraid.
More than just commanding us to not be afraid, He gives us solid reasons to set aside our fears. He is our provider and protector, and he is always looking out for us. While we may fear loss or the unknown, we can remember that God is always there to care for us.
God promises us eternal life after death. Trusting this promise frees us to think about death like graduating from school; we simply move onto the next, better stage of our existence in heaven. When we know there’s something after this life, it makes everything that scares us – including death itself – less frightening.
God provides us with our identity. He says we are His beloved sons and daughters, created on purpose, for a purpose. We don’t need to worry about what others think of us because we are working for an audience of one.
God says that we are enough.
Finally, God loves you and me unconditionally. He may not like everything that we do, but our being loved and lovable is never in question. God says that we are enough. If the creator of the universe accepts and loves you, who else’s approval do you need?
If you’d like to discover more about how trusting God can relieve fear, I highly recommend Max Lucado’s book Fearless. He addresses the whole spectrum of fear, from worrying about our kids, to the angst of not having (or being) enough, to the terror we can feel when we think about global calamities and worst-case scenarios of the big events in our lives, like divorce, debt, or down-sizing at work. The topic that resonated most with me was the internal fear of not mattering. The book shines a light on the better life we can enjoy when we put our faith in the one who is bigger than all of our fears.