Fear as fact

We often relate to fears and other experiences as factual.  If you find yourself uneasy in response to, for example, the prospect of climbing a ladder, you might say “I’m afraid of heights.”  You don’t say “I’m not comfortable going up there,” or “Wow – I still seem to prefer staying on the ground.”  You might say these things out loud when explaining why you won’t go up the ladder, but you’re likely to make the sweeping fear of heights declaration to yourself. And what you say to yourself about it is what determines how you experience it.

The problem with this kind of declaration is that it can lead to stuckness. And stuckness can get in the way of, among other things, vitality, satisfaction, and desired accomplishment.  If you live your life as though you just are afraid of heights, you don’t give yourself the chance to be afraid of heights sometimes, or to be somewhat afraid of heights, or to be afraid of heights for now.  (There’s also the possibility that what you’re calling fear isn’t even that as much as an advisable caution that many who would say they’re not afraid of heights might benefit from, as they scale rock walls and lean precariously out over the railings of roof decks and such!)  You’re off the hook in some ways if you just plain are afraid, because there’s nothing to examine or manage or challenge about your fear – you can just be that way, and that’s that.

Kids pick right up on this way we talk about fear and other ways of being as static.  If they find themselves even a little bit uneasy in any situation they know to be commonly feared, they can choose to join the ranks – “I’m afraid of heights.  I don’t want to do go up there.”  It’s a declaration of recognition of a particular condition.  Some parents will push their kids to get past a given fear.  (I’ll write about that another time.)  Others will get behind their child when it comes to the fear and gear up for protecting her from situations in which it might show up.

Where it gets a little tricky is that fears can shift, and it can be helpful for kids to know that.  (And it doesn’t have to mean that they become reckless when it comes to areas in which caution may be called for.) Fear needs flexible language in order to shift, and if you continue to assault it with the strong language of fact it won’t be able to.  “She’s afraid of heights” keeps the condition in place.   If you say things like “Seems as though you’re uneasy about this” or “Seems like you’re not up for this today; we can try it again some other time if you like” or “Has anything changed about how you’re feeling about getting up in the treehouse?” then the fear doesn’t have to hold steady.  Your child may never have any interest in or get comfortable with being up high. But what you offer her – by treating her experience as though it’s not stuck where and how it is – is the opportunity to relate to it and other experiences as though they’re changeable.  They can subside, alter in nature, loosen their grip.

Here are some other ones to be on the lookout for (in your kids and/or yourself):

I’m scared of the dark.

I can’t do math.

I don’t like math.

I have stagefright.

I’m disorganized.

I like art, not science.

That’s dangerous.

I can’t figure out how to do this.

I’m scared of dogs.

I hate reading.

I’m afraid of flying.

I can’t keep a plant alive.