Fear, a battle to be won

In this serie of articles we have been deepening in fears and their influence on personality, with one specific fear per article. The foundational model we have used is called Enneagram, which covers five other fears (separation, pain, corruption, etc.) and establishes a series of relationships between all nine.

As we said at the first article, it is not our intention to disseminate the model. Our goal is simply to call attention to how a certain fear, instilled many times in childhood, can end up greatly influencing our cognitive interpretation and the type of conduct with which we respond to reality, to what happens to us.

The immediate effect of a deep-seated fear is a particular belief system, which sometimes we are not even aware of: the world is hostile, my worth is measured by my achievements, I am loved because I make myself necessary to others… And, based on that system of beliefs, we build a better or worse interaction with the world. The problem is when that response is dysfunctional, and we try to change it… without understanding why we reached that point. In other words, we can look at our life and say “something is wrong,” strive to change some aspect of our behavior, and despair when we realize it is not that easy. Why? Because we are focusing on an effect and ignoring the root cause. It’s like treating an infection with aspirin.

For example: a person can understand that they need to change the way they behave at work. More than one coworker has pointed out their continuous need to be at the center of everything, and that bothers others because it makes them feel alienated. It would be one thing for the person to decide not to seek so much limelight, and something entirely different if they decided to get to the bottom of that “need” to be involved in everything. Because the problem at hand is not a rampant ego: it is an effect rather than a cause. The problem is, why does the person depend so heavily on how much or how little they stand out at work? And that requires digging much deeper, and identifying the root cause.

The good news is that, if we honestly look at the cause of the fear, then it is much easier to overcome its dysfunctional effects. The key to achieve high levels of self-control, for example, is not so much the effort of discipline (which, although necessary, is not enough) as it is the degree of self-awareness. It’s pretty much the same thing when it comes to fears: changing a behavior requires more than just making a resolution: we need something more. We need to get to the bottom of the belief system that we have built around the particular fear and its inseparable shadow: the contrary desire.

Once we see that some of these beliefs don’t hold up, or are utterly and entirely false, change is simple, natural. Although the trend will remain, we are more aware of why we react like we do… and, ultimately, decide whether we want to act that way. Because, in the end, that’s what it’s all about: deciding, and knowing what to decide and why. We are freer to the extent that we better understand our reality, and the decisions we make. The main conditioning factor that causes fear is that, by way of reaction, we seek — or desire — the opposite at all costs. So, someone who flees from the unexpected is ultimately seeking a controllable environment, one with no changes. Someone who flees rejection or marginalization desperately seeks success… and the human heart is not satisfied, so they end up being substitutes for the person’s deepest desires: to grow and excel, contribute to society. Our fear carves out path, direction (for escape). Recognizing and confronting this is the first step toward changing that path and bringing it back in line with the heartfelt desires of people.

Another aspect reflected in this series of articles is the importance of fears when dealing with relationships. And not just the ones at work. In the previous article, we saw how the desire for success of an entire generation led to confusing children’s education by instilling a mislabeled self-esteem, so that they would grow up with the idea that they could achieve anything, because they were valuable and could do whatever they set their mind to. Behind all of this, in many cases, were parents who, albeit unconsciously, ended up viewing their children as part of their social projection. Underneath their desire to see them succeed (in sports, school, relationships) could lay a more selfish motivation such as their own social recognition or the chance to live vicariously through their children, as they do what they themselves were not able to.

This is explained very well (and very honestly) by the author of one of the best-selling books of all time: Stephen Covey. In the first chapter of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he is completely forthright about the mistakes they initially made in educating one of their sons. This one turned out to be more restless, less focused on studies, completely uncoordinated athletically, awkward in relationships, etc. So, his concerned parents began to apply some of the ideas that Covey himself taught and researched. Techniques reminiscent of the ones we saw in the previous article: building up his self-esteem, constantly repeating, “you can do it,” reinforcing a positive mental attitude, emphasizing the importance of being popular, and so on.

None of this worked, to the despair of his parents. So Covey began researching the difference between the prevailing concept of success from the past few centuries (essentially linked to the idea of making it in life, creating a method for staying focused) and the one that was developed after World War II, more oriented toward projecting an image to society, and informed by the passing techniques involving influence, power strategies, etc. He called these the character ethic and the personality ethic. Covey and his wife realized that the problem was not their son, but how they saw him. That unconscious image of themselves that they were projecting onto their son was overwhelming to him, and he perceived this demand to live up to his parents’ expectations and the “disconnect” with it. The outcome of this story is best told by Covey himself, as an example of overcoming a personal fear and its influence on the dysfunctional relationship with his son:

“Through deep thought and the exercise of faith and prayer, we started to see our son in terms of his own happiness. We saw within him layers and layers of potential that would be realized at his own pace and speed. We decided to relax and get out of his way and let his own personality emerge. We saw our natural role as being to affirm, enjoy and value him. We also conscientiously worked on our motives and cultivated internal sources of security so that our own feelings of worth were not dependent on our children’s ‘acceptable’ behavior.

As we loosened up our old perception of our son and developed value-based motives, new feelings began to emerge. We found ourselves enjoying him instead of comparing or judging him. We stopped trying to clone him in our own image or measure him against social expectations. We stopped trying to kindly, positively manipulate him into an acceptable social mold. Because we saw him as fundamentally adequate and able to cope with life, we stopped protecting him against the ridicule of others.” (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, page 20. Stephen Covey)

The results were immediate, explains Covey, filled with a healthy pride about how their son was maturing and discovering his own uniqueness. He makes it clear that no decision is more important than those concerning how we look at reality.

At the end of the day, what can we learn from our fears? Ultimately, we have to understand the dynamics existing between five variables: key events in our lives (especially in childhood), fears, desires, beliefs which we view reality and behaviors. To turn a dysfunctional behavior into a functional one that allows us to live to the fullest, the recipe is seemingly simple: identify the greatest desire that we have and that will lead us to discover the greatest fear (exactly the opposite). Many times it will derive from an event (or several) that impacted our childhood. And once we locate the fear, understand the framework of beliefs that we have built to escape from that fear and open the door to the opposite desire. Lastly, challenge these beliefs: replace the “false” beliefs with others that are more in tune with reality and make it possible to choose more intelligent behaviors.