The stories we tell ourselves: fear

I’ve never experienced war. I was not targeted by political repression or terror, although I’ve seen it happening around me. I did sufficiently well not to worry about my livelihood. I had a job continuously since I finished university. In fact, for most of this time I’ve had two jobs at the same time. Still, I feel like I’ve been living large parts of my life in fear.

Fear of what? What could have possibly been so scary?

Seven Samurai – Akira Kurosawa (1954). Mastery of fear was part of the Bushidō code.

I guess you could call it fear of myself. Of not performing well enough, not being sufficiently successful or sufficiently liked, not being up to the expectations. Fear of being rejected. Fear of losing someone’s affection. Fear of writing a text like this and putting it out. Fear of exposing oneself.

I remember myself in school. The teacher was asking questions on the current or the previous lessons. And I was pretty sure I had the right answer but I just couldn’t bring myself to raise my hand and talk. What if I screw up in front of my colleagues? In fact, even when I was completely sure my answer was right I still had a hard time speaking up. I’d rather keep silent than expose myself.

In those situations there was a fear of speaking up. But fear does not need to have a definite object. After a while, fear becomes its own object. You don’t say exactly what you mean, you don’t do exactly what feels right to you, you don’t react when something unacceptable happens, you don’t say no when you feel like saying no. It’s like being caught in a web of fear and you don’t even know anymore what you are fearful of. Fear and avoidance becomes part of how you see the world.

The problem with this is that it becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism. The more you live in fear, the more likely you are to continue living the same way. Not saying what you mean becomes second nature. Not being able to say no becomes an invitation to be taken advantage of.

Fear also changes the kind of stories you tell yourself. Living in fear means giving up agency, seeing yourself as a passive spectator, a patient or a victim. It means seeing yourself as being controlled by circumstances, the actions of others or your own emotions. And once the story you tell yourself becomes the story of a victim, you will be more and more likely to think and behave like a victim.

Because self-narratives are part of what makes up our identity. We become what we came to believe about ourselves, whether or not it was true to begin with. Ideas of self-worth, competence and ability and embedded in our narratives. Getting rid of a toxic idea means dealing with the story it is part of.

As pretty much anything else, fear can be tackled one step at a time. There are ways to re-learn to say what you mean and to do what you feel is right. The good news here is that self-reinforcement works both ways. Once you’ve practiced a bit and proven to yourself that it works (and that it’s less dificult than you thought), it gets easier to continue doing it.

In cognitive-behavioral therapy, you are encouraged to identify your cognitive scripts (the self-narratives) and question them, put them to the test, play with them and find alternative scripts. All this is meant to create some distance between yourself and the story you tell yourself. Once there is enough detachment, you recognize the story as a story. Something powerful but man-made. Something that was made – not a necessity of nature – and that can be unmade.

Fear is only as strong as the attachment to our own stories about ourselves.

You may also want to read the first part of the “stories we tell ourselves” series, which talks about shame.

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The stories we tell ourselves: shame

We live within stories. 

Often we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, movies, video games. But there are also national myths, collective stories of greatness, and mental scripts we keep telling ourselves. And they can greatly influence how we behave, think and feel.

“I am not worthy of love”, “I am defective”, “we need to defend the purity of our race”, “our civilisation is under threat”, “my political opponents are brainwashed idiots” – all these are not isolated statements. They are part of a wider web of beliefs, values, and practices that define who we are. They are part of a narrative that has real-life consequences. Believing in your essential defectiveness can lead to personal tragedy. Believing in a looming threat to the purity of the race can lead to war and genocide.

When I was 8 or 9, I was caught with a semi-nude photo of an actress in my pocket. Judging by the standards of today, and in fact by any standards, the photo was mildly provocative. A black and white photo of a woman exposing her legs up to the thighs and smiling at the camera. But being exposed like that made me feel incredibly ashamed. It felt as if a dirty secret had been revealed to the whole world and now I have to live with it. And I never really shook off that shame. I am not talking about that episode – it was just a funny little moment of my childhood – but about the shame itself. By the time that moment arrived, the shame was already there. Fed by known and unknown traumas of childhood. It was already part of the story I was telling myself about who I am and what I am capable of. I’ve struggled for a long time to undermine and reframe this story.

Because that’s what some stories do. They become part of us.

In Steve Mc Queen’s movie “Shame”, the main character lives and struggles through his sex dependence, spiraling out of control. The sudden appearance of his sister, who has fallen on tough times and asks to live in his apartment for a while, disturbs his habits and enrages him. At the same time, this new situation strikes a cord of fragility and affection that were hardly visible before. Just as myself in a different context, he struggles with shame. And it’s not just the shame of his sex dependence, it’s the shame of what he has become, of the type of person he is.

Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)

Toxic stories are persistent. Part of the reason is that it takes time and effort to realize their toxicity when you’ve been living with them long enough. It takes a shift of perspective, a degree of critical detachment, to start seeing them for what they are. But even then, realizing their toxicity will not be enough to get rid of them. No matter how harmful, we may choose to hang on to the story because giving it up feels like giving up part of ourselves. It feels as if we don’t have anything else to hang on to.

Toxic stories are powerful but they are not invincible. They can be undermined by learning to tell a better story. A kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts or experiences but frames them differently. Bad stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Getting out of your little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy and a sense of shared experience.