Most of us are neither encouraged to identify our fears nor are we encouraged to ask for help in working with them. Typically, we may think we don’t “need” to talk about our fears (the stoic, “I’m fine” usually shuts up those people who want to help us) and many people think that talking about fear indicates weakness.
On the farm where I grew up, talking about any of my fears meant that I was a “sissy”, less than a real boy. So, I learned to keep my fears to myself, including my fears that I was gay. I think this is one reason why I didn’t come out until my thirties: I learned, at an early age, not to call fear by its name, but to pretend that everything was fine.
As children, it’s common to receive negative responses when we express our fear: “That’s nothing.” “Grow up!” “Don’t be a wimp.” It’s rare that a child is asked, “What are you afraid of?” in a non-judgmental way that lets her/him actually express that fear.
When I was little, I was scared that there was a monster under my bed. I thought that if I let my hand hang over the edge of the bed while I slept. the monster would grab it and pull me under into his “scary place”. I hesitated to tell my parents what I was afraid of. Sure enough, when I did, my Mom looked under the bed – in broad daylight, of course – and said, “Look, there’s nothing under there to be afraid of.” I gave up trying to explain to her that she’d have to come at night and surprise “him” if she wanted to catch him.
She never did.
Pema Chodron, in her book, The Places That Scare You, talks about how to work with our fears:
“So we ask ourselves, ‘What do I do when I feel I can’t handle what’s going on? Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust?’ Flexibility and openness bring strength; running from groundlessness weakens us and brings pain. But do we understand that becoming familiar with the running away is the key? Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well.”
As LGBT people, our fears may be somewhat unique. We may feel like we’re “not enough”, “flawed” or “less than”. We may pretend to be happier than we really are. In my psychotherapy practice, I see far too many LGBT men and women whose affect doesn’t match the content of what they’re saying: e.g., they have a fake smile plastered on their face as they tell me, “I feel so lonely” or “I’m so angry”.
Many of us are afraid to show our true emotions, so we hide our fears. We may feel that we have to be the “best little boy or girl in the world” to compensate for our sexual orientation. To survive in a heteronormative world, we make our happy face a mask to hide the fear inside.
Asking for help with our fears isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s quite the opposite, according to Robert Maurer, PhD, Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at UCLA. According to Dr. Maurer, highly successful people know that asking for and receiving support (in dealing with fear) is a strength. He also encourages his clients to “call fear by its name” and tells them not to call it stress, anxiety or nerves. Call your fear by its name and take away its power.
The next time you’re afraid of something or someone, don’t say, “I’m so stressed out” or “I feel anxious”. Instead, go deeper and identify your fear. Name it and you’ll be less tempted to run away and try to avoid it.
Fear is a part of life. Own it. Name it and be happier.