Conventional psychological wisdom says that we avoid the things we fear. That avoidance is, in fact, one of the primary indications that fear is present. But what about those cases in which our fears actually push us into the arms of their objects? What about the boyfriend who is so afraid his girlfriend will leave him for someone else that his controlling, paranoid behavior causes her to do just that? What about the writer who is so afraid her writing will never be worthy of publication that she can never bring herself to sit down at her desk, and so guarantees that her fear will come true?
In a way, this phenomenon resembles the “Law of Attraction” popularized by the movie (and subsequent book) The Secret. According to this so-called “law,” whatever preoccupies your thoughts, whether good or bad, is what you end up attracting to yourself in time and space. This sort of predictable, one-to-one causal relationship between one’s thoughts and one’s circumstances seems highly implausible to me, even morally repugnant. I don’t see anything to be gained–and a great deal to be lost–by insisting that anyone beset by misfortune brought it upon themselves through negative thinking. However, I do think that there are certain cases in which our fears–especially ones that are related to emotional needs–can have this attractive effect.
Sometimes the attractive effect is inadvertent: for instance, the boyfriend may really believe he’ll be able to keep his girlfriend faithful if he monitors all her comings and goings, while his actions nonetheless do the opposite. On the other hand, I think there are many cases in which we purposely behave so as to actualize our fears. It’s not a motivation we frequently articulate–in fact, it may appear to us incomprehensible as a motivation–but if I honestly examine my own life, I can come up with more than one example of an action I took with some level of awareness that the result would be something I feared. In these cases, it felt almost as though the object of my fear was drawing me in, fascinating me to such a degree that I felt compelled to view it from close range. A mundane example is the fear I have of upsetting people. I’m a pretty dyed-in-the-wool people pleaser, but there are nevertheless moments in my life when I can feel I’m very close to provoking someone to anger and I take that extra step knowing full well that I’m bringing on myself one of the things I hate most in the world.
Behaving in this way may seem perverse. Like a self-directed form of Schadenfreude. And yet, the more I think about the nature of fear, the more I think that this movement toward the objects of our fear is healthy. That in fact it’s a sign of our desire for growth.
Often, facing our fears is the only way to overcome them. Only by heading straight for the mouth of the lion can we test the veracity of our fears, test whether the thing we fear is really as bad as we think, or our ability to deal with it really so meager. There are two times in my life in which I can remember feeling absolutely fearless, as if there was nothing life could throw at me that I wouldn’t be able to handle. Both of those times, I had just been confronted with my biggest fear of all: abandonment. In the wake of being left by someone I loved, I hurt, certainly, but I also realized that I was much more capable of dealing with that loss than I had imagined. That realization gave me a striking feeling of invincibility. It didn’t last, of course. Not in that acute form. But I do keep with me the deep, emotional knowledge that I am actually quite strong. Quite capable of dealing with emotional losses, as painful as they may be. And that’s something I never would have known had I never experienced the thing I feared.
Recently, I was rereading Paulo Coelho’s novel Brida. In the opening chapters, a young woman who desires to learn magic is given her first lesson: staying all night alone in a forest. At first, she’s assailed by visions of snakes and scorpions. She cries out for help. But in the end, she stays where she is and finds an inner strength that finally allows her to fall asleep in peace.
I’m reminded, too, of the initiation rites recounted by Malidoma Patrice Somé in Of Water and the Spirit, his memoir of growing up among the Dagara in Burkina Faso. His elders put him through some grueling experiences, experiences that could have cost him his life but that in actuality took him through a door to an entirely new world, one with vast potential for healing. Confronting one’s deepest, most existential fears seems to be a common element in the journey to a fuller, more powerful life.
In the end, I think there are two sides to fear. On the one hand, fear can be incredibly debilitating. It can prevent us from doing all sorts of rewarding things: traveling, making art, trying a new job or career, developing or repairing an important relationship. But fear can also contain its own remedy, if our fixation on the things we fear eventually leads us to confront them and realize they’re not so frightful after all.