Updated: Feb 11
Human psychology is so complex that trained professionals sometimes cannot determine after months of working with clients what drives them to think or feel the way they do. In light of this, wouldn’t it be nice to have powerful inside information to help unravel our emotional confusion?
Truth is almost always less exciting and easier to understand and communicate than error. Yet, truth is often considered naïve and is rejected because it doesn’t encompass our "rich differences and varying backgrounds and upbringings."
Regardless, the following truth gives us great insight:
All human emotion stems from either love or fear.
To help you believe this, review the following list of emotions. Which of them do you think can exist in the absence of fear?
Fear is a learned reaction
People who annoy, bother, or frighten you do so because you have conditioned yourself to be annoyed, bothered, or frightened by them. This is easily provable by asking a friend who’s never met the offending person to interact with the person. You'll see that your friend is not annoyed, bothered, or frightened by the person—at first.
Is fear always bad?
Fear isn't always bad or inappropriate. It is good to feel queasy when standing on the edge of a tall cliff. When your family is attacked by an intruder, an immediate swelling of aggression is probably a good thing.
Instead, what I’m referring to are on-going, habitual negative feelings that direct your life on a regular basis. Fostering such emotions will negatively affect your behavior and attitude, which will ultimately damage your character. Conversely, if you free yourself from fear, you will be happier and your character will become healthier.
Psychologists today believe that babies are born being afraid of only two things: falling and sudden, loud noises. Newborn babies are not afraid of the dark, spiders, or snakes. You can prove this by placing spiders onto your newborn in the dark. You'll quickly discover that it is you who is uncomfortable with the idea, not your baby.
Your baby’s fear of sudden, loud noises comes from a reaction from his or her involuntary physiological startle response, which occurs in the presence of sudden stimuli. Human beings, including babies, don't like changes that occur faster than they can process them.
Hand over your infant to a stranger slowly and your infant will usually be undisturbed. Make the switch too quickly, and he or she cries. The stranger is not the issue, but the sudden change.
But, I do dispute the notion that newborns have an “innate fear of falling.” In 1960, a famous study was conducted where babies were put on one of two ledges. Between the two ledges was clear plexiglass. Babies crawled around on the ledge but they would not crawl across the invisible gap to the other ledge.
Psychologists concluded that babies have an “innate fear of falling.” However, another explanation is the babies did not want to fall. There is a difference! For example, just because I don’t want to stab myself with a knife doesn’t mean I’m afraid of knives. Having the ability to observe infant behavior isn't the same as knowing what they're feeling.
But regardless, we are not infants, and we’re not talking about falling or sudden noises.
When you’re treated badly
When someone tries to belittle you, put you down, or inappropriately control you, that person is operating under conditions of fear. That person is afraid. Therefore, when someone treats you badly, say to yourself, “This person is afraid.” Believing the aggressor is afraid helps you formulate a better response.
Consider these examples:
A person who routinely bullies you addresses you disrespectfully. Instead of getting angry or bitter about it, respond by saying to the person—and this is important—with a sincerely caring tone, “Did you forget to take your happy pill this morning?” Such a response often disarms the person because it shows you’re not afraid of the aggression and are willing and capable of returning a mild but sufficiently assertive response.
A co-worker (or family member at home) habitually berates you in front of others. Your response: “Thank you for the information.” The response expresses a level of reasonableness on your part, but also demonstrates that you’re unwilling to put up with such mistreatment. If the person (at your work) continues the tirade, say, “Please return to your office/cubicle so I can work on this material.”
A supervisor berates you in front of everyone. This is unacceptable behavior on the supervisor’s part. You must “take it” as it's dished out without a retaliatory response, whether the attack is justified or not. Later, speak privately with that supervisor if you feel safe enough to do so. If you don’t, then consider speaking with someone from your company’s Human Resource department. You must understand that “not responding” to an attack from a supervisor is a demonstration of emotional strength.
Bullies, abusers, jerks, and loudmouths are all examples of people who are afraid. This may be hard for you to believe, but this is why you must not react emotionally to them.
Waiting until the next morning to respond, if a response is even necessary, is almost always a wise choice. By the next morning, you’ll have a much better chance at perceiving what is causing your antagonist to be a jerk. You will then be more capable of responding appropriately.
We are not taught responsibility
I believe the biggest reason people are unaware of the ill-effects of fear is because modern societies teach us that what we feel is dictated by events outside ourselves. A world that teaches that what happens to us is someone else’s fault is a world disposed to wallow in fear. There are few things more fearful than believing that other people get to decide how we feel.
“But, I don’t let other people (or things) decide how I feel,” you say.
Really? I offer you two common examples that say otherwise.
Two examples of common negative behaviors
Here are two common behaviors that most people don’t realize are emotionally destructive:
Complaining about something, such as other drivers on the road, low salary, or lack of friends is destructive because it is a manifestation of “refusal to accept what is.” Complaining teaches that, at the moment the complaint is spoken or thought, the situation is hopeless. Hopelessness promotes fear. Complaining also teaches that the complainer is a victim. Is teaching victimhood a healthy notion? I’m not referring to criticisms given as constructive feedback to a supervisor, friend, or relative in an appropriate setting.
Swearing is an emotionally destructive behavior because when you say, “Damn it!” to the hammer that just hit your thumb, what you’re really doing is blaming the hammer for your action. Do you really believe it is proper adult behavior to blame something else for what you did?
Five categories of fear
For me, it is helpful to break down large problems into smaller ones I can address each part one at a time. Luckily for us, psychologists have grouped the myriad of human fears into five types. Rather than addressing all your fears at once, address one type at a time until you have achieved some success before progressing to another.
Shame and Embarrassment: Fostered by thoughts of being judged by self or others. If you’re afraid of being shamed, you’ll will keep shame in the forefront of your mind.
Sadness: Fostered by harboring self-critical or pessimistic thoughts of loss or failure.
Anxiety: Fostered by worrying about consequences of real or potential past, present, or future “what-if” failures, threats, or losses.
Anger: Fostered by thoughts of having been harmed or treated unfairly.
Guilt: Fostered by thoughts of having harmed someone or something, including self, or having done something wrong.
Notice the word “fostered” applies to all five fear types. Such fears cannot continue in your mind if you stop entertaining them.
How do we overcome fear?
The problem with this question is the answer is so succinct that readers generally won’t believe it. People rationalize their inaction by believing the solution to their problem is hopelessly insurmountable and complex. It can’t be their fault if the solution is unattainable.
Thus, you may have trouble believing the following:
Our thoughts come from
what we tell ourselves.
This principle has been true since the beginning of time. Recall the Biblical phrase, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) Overcoming fear is difficult because we are not taught how to do it. Nearly all local, national, and international political leaders promote blame rather than personal responsibility.
How to get started?
I’ve listed below four suggestions to help reduce fear in your life. You can begin these steps immediately. By “immediately,” I do not mean today. I mean right now.
These suggestions are more powerful than you might think upon first reading. I advise you not to dismiss them:
Act as if you aren’t afraid, including adjusting your posture, breathing, speech, and feeling. Ask yourself, “How would I act and look right now if I weren’t fearful?” Then, act that way. You may feel silly doing it because acting this way is foreign to you. But as you continue to do so over a period of time, your mind will begin to believe it. Your brain cannot emotionally tell the difference between real and pretend. Actors and police officers around the world who study and practice facial expressions know that if one smiles more often, one will feel happier. Our minds can’t help it. What is a mannerism you express when you feel victorious? Is it a fist pump, a referee’s touchdown signal, or a happy dance? Whatever it is, do it several times a day when you are by yourself, such as in a restroom or an empty conference room at work. Please believe that this is not self-help-pablum I’m dishing out.
Take one small bite at a time, and in the order of increasing difficulty. Do not run faster than you’re able. Start with something easy, like when you go out to get your mail, pretend you’re not afraid of anything and act that way. At the grocery store or any other venue where there is minimal human interaction, act and feel unafraid.
Do something about it. If you are in a destructive relationship and don’t know how to get out of it, then consider seeking professional help. If your supervisor is destructive, then seek help from your company’s Human Resources department or consider getting a transfer. If your parents or adult children are destructive, then consider creating more distance or stronger boundaries between you and them. Whatever the problem is, start to do something about it. People in destructive relationships often think that they are the problem. This may be true because an abusive partner needs someone to abuse.
Without dwelling on them, try to understand the source of your fears. There is an old adage which I disagree with that says, “Money is power.” Instead, what I believe to be true is, “Knowledge is power.” Oftentimes it helps to know what it is we’re afraid of. Is it failure or success? Is it popularity or rejection? It takes most people years to understand what is going on inside their minds. Years ago, I had a supervisor who was emotionally destructive to me. What helped me greatly was when I learned that he was this way to everyone. Most people not only don’t know what they’re afraid of, they’re often unaware they afraid at all! They just go about their day being shy, anxious, controlling, belligerent, overly passive, or resentful.
Don’t entertain negative thoughts
Feelings of shame, sadness, anxiety, anger, and guilt are caused by unhealthy thoughts we have about situations and events. Discontinuing to foster negative thoughts will starve our negative emotions until they wither away and die.
Just as we become sad and afraid over time based on what we tell ourselves, we can become secure and confident in the same way by telling ourselves the reverse. You must understand that you didn’t get the way you were overnight. It will take time to undo it.
Genetics or environment?
It is rare (perhaps impossible) for genetics to be the sole cause of human emotion. However, it is true that we are emotionally stronger or weaker than each other in the same way that some people are taller or shorter or have bigger hands or smaller feet. Introvertism, for example, is considered highly hereditary (see this article). But, just because a person may be genetically prone to being schizophrenic, bi-polar, or histrionic, does not mean that person will experience the condition.
Personality disorders are, for the most part, intense, overwhelming habits that are extremely difficult to overcome.
Unlike trying to overcome smoking, where the future ex-smoker can see on the table the packet of cigarettes he’s trying to get away from, people trying to overcome personality disorders cannot see them. They are inside the person’s mind. Statistically, most people do not overcome personality disorders.
We are prone to look and feel in many ways. But, this does not excuse behavior. While some people have it easier than others, the ultimate choice for our thoughts, emotions, and actions is still ours.
If you have a formally recognized personality disorder, then you must seek professional help. If the counselor you’re seeing does not seem to be helping, get a new counselor. Keep doing this until you find one who works more effectively with you. We do this with clothing and eyeglasses and furniture. It is no different with psychologists.