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Anxiety vs. Fear

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I finally finished The Gift of Fear. I know I’ve already written a post about it, but I feel so strongly that every woman should read this book that I thought I would write another one. It has changed the way I think about fear.

You would think that after reading a book that talks about stalkers, serial killers, abusive partners, and mass shootings that I would feel more anxious than I already do. But that is not the case. If anything, I feel more confident now that I know that some part of me will alert me to danger if I listen to it.

According to De Becker, anxiety and fear are not the same thing. Anxiety derives from a root that means “to choke.” It is a state that we create in which we perceive danger that may or may not be present. Chronic anxiety actually prevents us from detecting fear because we are constantly on high alert.

De Becker goes so far as to say that we choose anxiety, but I think that’s a little extreme. If I could choose not to be anxious I would, obviously. But it’s true that I am often anxious even when I am not facing imminent danger. Like when I think about the plane rides that I will have to endure in order to get to California and Germany and possibly the Philippines this summer. I know that flying is safer than driving, but my anxiety is not convinced.

Fear, on the other hand, is a brief signal that sounds only in the presence of danger. While anxiety can be paralyzing, fear is energizing. It makes us do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. Like fight a shark when it’s trying to eat us. (By sticking your finger in its eye, in case you ever find yourself in this predicament.) We can certainly dismiss this signal by denying that we’re in danger–which we so often do–but we can also learn to honor our intuition and pay attention to fear.

I saw a client last year who left me feeling physically sick. Like I had been poisoned. In all the years I’ve been seeing clients, I have never felt the way I did after meeting him. But after a few weeks passed, I told myself I was overreacting. He probably isn’t that bad.

But now I know he is. He’s not here any more, and I hope I never have to see him again. Something I would have never said before I read this book.

Although the book is about learning how to protect ourselves from violence, De Becker’s final message is actually a hopeful one. The world may be a dangerous place, but it is also a safe place. Most of the time there is nothing to fear. And if we learn to pay attention to fear when it is present, we can “see hazard only in those storm clouds when it exists and live life more fully in the clear skies between them.”

I will be sure to remind myself of this before I board that plane. But I’ll still take an Ativan, if necessary.

Learning to Listen to My Inner Bodyguard

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Did you know that the word intuition means to guard or protect? I just learned that in The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. Thanks to De Becker, I can no longer be in denial about my disregard for personal safety.

De Becker says that intuition is always in response to something. That doesn’t mean that we will always make the correct prediction, but we owe it to ourselves to explore what that something is rather than trying to explain away or dismiss our fear.

I’m trying to pay closer attention whenever I get anxious. I’m trying to honor my fear. But I’m having trouble figuring out what my anxiety means because I am never sure what is intuition-based fear and what is pathologically-based fear, since I have an anxiety disorder.

In my relationships, not hearing from the guy felt like life or death. I always thought it meant I was just really insecure. And sometimes that’s what it was. But sometimes it was because that’s how the guy felt about me. And because of the whole hyperempath thing, I couldn’t tell the difference between his fear of separation and my own.

Or sometimes it meant they were up to no good. But there’s always that doubt. Maybe I’m just being paranoid. And it’s not the kind of thing that is easy to confirm. It’s not like they’re going to admit that they’re doing something that would piss me off when they’re not around. But in retrospect, they usually were.

I also have a hard time saying no to any request. De Becker says that you should be wary of the stranger who ignores the word no. A guy who isn’t trying to hurt you would totally understand why you would not let a complete stranger into your house to use your phone.

And yet, back when I was in grad school and the UPS guy asked me if he could use my phone, I said yes. I wanted to say no, but it seemed rude. Maybe he would be offended. Luckily, nothing bad happened. But it’s still hard to forgive myself for putting myself at risk like that. And it’s hard to imagine how I will be able to overcome this deeply ingrained impulse to give people what they want.

It’s hard to trust my instincts because I want to believe that other people are trustworthy. I don’t want to live in a world where I have to be worrying all the time that people may be trying to hurt me. Although De Becker provides some pretty convincing stats for why I should be worried.

In another blog post, I talked about how I am trying to say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t want. Maybe I need to do the same thing with trust. If I have to choose between trusting my instincts and trusting another person, I need to choose me.

I need to let my intuition do its job.