How I Overcame My Childhood Fears
Multiple emotions co-exist in the place inside me I label “fear.” There is the fear of loss, of discovering the truth about something, of never finding something or of being found out. I’m not sure if these fears already existed in my own mind or evolved as a reaction to the world around me. Maybe both.
Many times, while growing up, I found myself paralyzed — afraid to take a chance, afraid to venture out into the unknown world. This emotional paralysis was based on the assumption that what I didn’t know would surely harm me. So, I created a world for myself that was familiar and repeatable. I’m not sure I ever discovered what this unknown dark fear was or is.
But, I suspect I was afraid of other people; of being made fun of; of getting lost; of failing; and of not being worthy of love.
A lot of fear for such a small boy. But, perhaps not a surprise considering the neglect and abuse I experienced as a child.
Sleep time was something I dreaded. During the day, I could keep the fear at bay by staying busy. But eventually I became too tired to play or read and had to go to bed. Out of necessity, I developed an anti-fear ritual. I checked under my bed for alien pods and all the upper corners of the room for deadly spiders. Then I rocked myself to sleep because it seemed to keep the monsters from invading my thoughts — electric monsters, the kind I saw in the science fiction horror movie, the Forbidden Planet.
One re-occurring nightmare was so powerful that it caused me to wake up sweating in the middle of the night. But I was too afraid to talk to anyone about it. Too afraid I would be laughed at. Fear too often prolongs fear.
My childhood comfort zone was so small that sometimes I barely got enough oxygen to breathe.
Even in my twenties, an overnight camping trip with my wife was a frightening experience — for both of us. For me, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night and, for her, because she wanted so much to have a normal life with a functional husband.
As I grew older, my fears took on a less tangible form. They still had power, but I found effective ways to tiptoe around them. What started as ways to avoid them eventually gave way to compulsive behavior. Fortunately, I also became compulsive about my Buddhist practice. Now I realize it was my way of bringing order into a chaotic unpredictable life. Back then, it was the only way I knew to beat back the demons.
I dealt with my fear of rejection by making light of everything. I reacted to the fear of failing by never quite extending myself. And I avoided “being uncovered as a fraud” by lacing my comments with self-deprecating humor. All in all, I became an expert at fear management. It wasn’t until later that I developed the confidence and faith in myself to actually confront my fears.
My daily Buddhist practice and a few wonderful therapists helped me to embrace my fears. This has been a gradual process as opposed to a blinding flash of inspiration — like peeling back one layer of onionskin at a time. I became aware of how often my mind fabricates “pretend” futures. For instance, worrying about whether one of our daughters was okay. Or, whether I would win new business. Or, whether my wife would have another MS relapse. I suppose we all have the ability to create extra drama in our lives.
Worrying or being afraid of what might happen is very habit forming. I had spent my entire adolescence perfecting this ability. A useful protective device in my childhood, it was no longer necessary or productive.
So, I decided to stop worrying about what “might happen,” and concentrate on what “was happening.”
What a magical moment of Buddhist insight! I freed up an enviable amount of energy. Just imagine, I told myself, what I could do with all that time I spent worrying? After all, the terrible events I fretted about almost never happened. And when they did, I discovered I could chant and overcome them while becoming stronger and more fulfilled in the process.
Buddhism explains that my life and the environment are interrelated. The self or subjective inner world needs the insentient environment or objective world to exist. This suggests that my karma appears in both my subjective and objective realities. While two seemingly independent phenomena, they are fundamentally both part of my life.
When I first began to grasp this concept, it was tempting to merely blame myself for everything that was wrong with my circumstances, saying it was a reflection of my bad karma. But, the liberating aspect of this concept is that since I shaped my environment, I also have the power to change it for the better. It isn’t intended to make me feel guilty for all that is wrong but to make me feel empowered to improve it. For the first time, I began to truly look inside myself for the solution to my problems.
I suppose at some level, all my fears sprang from a fear of dying.
Tolstoy said, “Death is more certain than the morrow, than night following day, than winter following summer. Why is it then that we prepare for the night and for the wintertime but do not prepare for death? We must prepare for death. But there is only one way to prepare for death — and that is to live well.”
This quote summarizes a lot of my frustration growing up. I desperately wanted someone to tell me how to “live well.” It seemed to me that everyone else had figured it out. It was a “got it” club that, for some unknown reason, I wasn’t invited to join. Members of this group could take chances, travel to new places, be popular, go on sleepovers, and excel at sports. They got to live and sleep without fear. Because there was no one around to tell me otherwise, I grew up with the mistaken impression that most human beings, including my friends and family, operated without worry. That it was only me who was screwed up.
When I look back at my life, I can see that every single meaningful experience was a direct result of some action I took. And these actions usually involved some degree of risk. Whether it was running away with my wife in 1969 when we were just 18 and 17, moving from California to Virginia with our family in 1984 and then Bainbridge Island in 2004, or starting my own consulting business in 1999, it seems that whenever I ventured out of my comfort zone, I began to “live better.”
Every single time I get up in the morning and chant, I take concrete steps to overcome the internal fears that used to paralyze me. I find tremendous hope in this.