Fear: Control's Best Friend — excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity


Shutterstock image by Bianda Ahmad Hisham

(The following is the second excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity. Read the first excerpt.)

Flashback to November 2008. Breaking news: investor panic causes Bear Stearns to go belly-up in a few short days. Several weeks later Lehman Brothers goes under. The financial travails reported by the Wall Street Journal and CNN grow more alarming by the day. Huge IndyMac Bank is taken over by the Feds. Large European banks are on the verge of insolvency. Pundits use new and confusing financial vocabulary to describe some of the culprits: Derivatives. Credit default swaps. Mortgage-backed securities.

In short, we are in a full-blown credit crisis, the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. No one knows when it will end, how bad it will get, or what to do. Everyone blames everyone else, citing a litany of contradictory reasons. Confusion, uncertainty, distrust, and fear abound. Our money may no longer be safe at our own banks. The government is forced to step in to bail out banks and pass emergency legislation that few understand.

Pervasive fear had also entered the life of Reese, a home painting contractor who was finally living the American dream. Three years ago Reese purchased a three-bedroom home with a 5 percent down payment and easy subprime financing. He soon added a swimming pool and outdoor recreation room to the home. He had both an investment account and a retirement account at a large brokerage firm and a savings account at a local bank. His daughter, Kim, just finished her second year of college. Life was good for Reese and his family at the start of 2008.

In the ensuing months, however, Reese took a big hit. The mutual funds and stocks in his brokerage accounts had dropped 35 percent in value. His house decreased 30 percent in value since the beginning of the year. Like many homeowners, he owed more than the house was worth. Moreover, his painting contracts were down 25 percent in October 2008, and November was looking worse. What home-owner wants to continue paying for a house in which he has no equity and when he feels his job may be in jeopardy? Reese cut back on personal and business expenses but was still losing money each month. And how could he tell his daughter that he could not pay next year's college tuition?

Reese was scared — really scared, and depressed. His imagination ran wild. He could hardly sleep. He worried obsessively about all the "what ifs" and "what could happens." His appetite was replaced by intermittent stomach pains and headaches. Reese was literally frozen in his tracks by fear and anxiety. He compensated by becoming very domineering at home and at work. Minor miscues became major grievances. He complained about his wife's cooking, his children making too much noise, and their cats jumping on the furniture. At work, he insisted that everything be done "right now" and threatened to lay people off if they didn't work harder.

Any of this sound familiar? A better question is, What could Reese do about it?

The short answer is that Reese needs to separate facts from fiction so that he can effectively deal with his challenges. Fears are mostly fiction — highly creative fiction that runs rampant unless harnessed by the facts. To overcome his fears, Reese must be courageous. Courage and faith will overtake fear. He thus must face and embrace his fears, which means he must confront and process them. This can be painful (but not nearly as much as you might imagine), but it is the only way he can gain a proper perspective and devise a practical and constructive way to meet his challenges.

But first, it is important to examine the connection between fear and control.

Fear and Control

Most controllers are fear driven. They are afraid of uncertainty, the unknown, and of what the future holds. Afraid, too, of being harmed if they allow events to take their natural course or people to do their own thing. At their core, controllers fear for their very survival — and their death. To shield themselves from the flames of these demons, they grip life tightly in an attempt to build a fence around their home field.

This effort, however, is fruitless. When you mask your fears, they become even more powerful. They erode your self-confidence, subvert your intuition, and distort reality. As a consequence, normal life concerns appear and feel much worse and more pervasive than they really are or need to be. We feel trapped, and control becomes our escape route.

Moreover, as in Reese's case, fear stokes obsessive worrying and preoccupation with "what if," "what I should do," and "what could happen" rather than accepting and enjoying "what is." These anxieties, in turn, propel people to control even more. They become entrapped in their daily routines and thus are not open to fresh ideas and possible solutions to their problems.

The good news is that when you lose fear, you are able to lose control and find serenity. Being able to identify your fears is the first step in letting them go.

Identifying Your Fears

For many of us, detecting fear can be quite difficult because fear basks in our ignorance. We tend to attribute the anxiety and discomfort that fear generates to other things. After all, it is much easier and safer to look elsewhere than it is to look within ourselves. Fear is a master of disguise; it easily deceives us.

Unfortunately, by the time we unmask its presence, it may have already wreaked considerable havoc. The good news is that exposing fear immediately weakens its hold over us. Once we unmask our fears, we immediately feel less anxiety and begin to see our options more clearly.

I was unable to clearly identify my own fears following the breakup of my first marriage. I was stoic and expressed little emotion. My fears prevented me from getting in touch with my sadness, and my respite was to dive into work, where I could "control" things. It was not until I later identified the fear of being alone that I was able to release much of the heaviness within me.

Conducting a Fear Inquiry

One of the best ways to detect this most tricky of emotions is to do a fear inquiry. When you feel unsettled or anxious, take a moment and think about what you might be afraid of. At first you may conclude there is nothing. Push further. The answer might lie in the pit of your stomach or in a tightened chest or throat.

Recall the day's events as specifically as possible. The fear-invoking event will be lurking in there somewhere. More often than not, it will be something you totally blocked — and why not? It was too painful to deal with. The tendency is to move on to more pleasant things. Is it no wonder that by the end of the day, our fears are so deeply buried within us that we cannot identify them? I have had fear-invoking events that I blocked for weeks at a time until they eventually manifested themselves in strong physical symptoms.

In doing your inquiry, be aware of any anger or resentment you may be harboring. Anger is commonly an aggressive response to our fears, and it, too, invokes controlling actions. Still another sure sign of fear is when you procrastinate in addressing important tasks and challenges. During my financial crisis, it was extremely difficult for me to contact new bankers after my loans had been called. Many times I literally couldn't lift the phone to make the necessary calls. It was not until I could pinpoint and process my deep-rooted fear of financial collapse that I could move forward. Likewise, when you find yourself procrastinating over troubling issues, being able to identify your fears is the first step you need to take.

Confronting Your Fears

Once you have a clearer understanding of your fears, the next step is to confront them. Move "closer" to them. Embrace them. Listen to their concerns and apprehensions. Doing this takes true courage, for at this juncture the easiest thing for us is to deflect those fears. However, I can tell you with confidence that if you are able to so "honor" your fears, if only for a short while, their tentacles will begin to loosen their grip and you will experience immediate relief.

Confronting fears requires that you focus on what is truly causing them and then that you stay in the moment with whatever truths are revealed to you. Any method or format you choose to do this in is fine. You will find that the more you confront your fears, the less daunting they become. That is because you strip away the fantasies our minds are so adept at creating. Think of it as wearing a scary mask at Halloween. It is the mask that is frightening, not what is beneath it.

A Wise Sage

There is an often-told story of a wise sage and his followers who, during one of their daily walks, come across a pack of fierce dogs. The frightened followers quickly dash in the opposite direction, leaving the sage alone to face the dogs. Instead of running away himself, the sage charges at the dogs. The dogs are so startled that they, too, scamper away. The same dynamic occurs when we embrace our fears because they hate being confronted!

Feel the Fear

Fears have a strong physical presence. Note where they are located — chest, stomach, back, face, or somewhere else — and try to feel their presence. Feel them fully. Don't shy away. As you are focusing on them, take slow, deep breaths through your nose. Draw your breath down to below your navel and feel the physical sensations, then exhale slowly. Be kind to yourself; give yourself permission to feel the fear. You are not a weaker person because of it. Your fears cannot harm you. If you are able to do this, you will soon feel more grounded, and with that your fears will weaken substantially. Remember, fears hate being examined too closely; they know you will soon realize their bark is much worse than their bite.

Sharing Your Fears

Revealing your fears to another person is an excellent way to confront them. Share them with someone you trust. Don't hold back; tell them how frightened you are. The other person often can point out options that you have not seen and reassure you that you will be okay. Your fears will absolutely hate this–trust me. It's bad enough that you have identified them yourself. Exposing them to others is pure blasphemy!

Maintaining Proper Perspective

Edgar was a Los Angeles flooring contractor whose business had grown steadily over the years. But work started drying up for him in 2007 as a result of the severe economic downturn and decline in home values. Although very concerned and even anxious at times, Edgar didn't panic. He tightened his buckle, cut expenses where possible, and prepared to ride out the market as best he could.

When I asked him how he dealt with his fears, Edgar said, "Things are rough — really rough. I've had to let go of people who've been with me for years, and that was very difficult. But am I real fearful? Am I losing sleep over it? No. And that's because I know that I'm going to be okay. I've been through even rougher times before — both in business and personally — and I'm still here today. I survived then, and I will survive now."

As Edgar's story demonstrates, a highly effective way of defusing fears is to put them in their proper perspective. Think back to times in your life when you had a lot of fears. Were you able to overcome them? Probably more often than not. Did things turn out as badly as you thought they would? Not usually. One more thing is true: you are still around. You have not fallen off some precipice or into a deep pit. The bases of most fears are more illusory than real. If you constantly remind yourself of this, your fears will not undermine you.

Try this simple reassurance exercise (preferably in your own words): "I am afraid and I know the reason. I also know that my fear will pass like it always has in the past, and that I will survive. So, it is okay to feel anxious. That is normal. I will just grin and bear it and let it run its course. It has in the past and it will again. I have faith that I will be okay."

Worst-Case Scenario Exercises

An excellent perspective builder is to do a "worst-case scenario" exercise, which was taught to me during my financial crisis by psychologist William Duff. At the time, I had been having nightmares about unsavory people chasing me and finding myself in precarious situations with no way out. Here's how the session went:

Dr. Duff: What would be the worst thing that could happen to you if you are unable to repay your bank loans?

Me: My credit would be shot and the bank would sue me.

Dr. Duff: What would happen then?

Me: The bank would obtain a judgment against me and attach my assets.

Dr. Duff: What then?

Me: I would have to file for bankruptcy.

Dr. Duff: Then what?

Me: I would be broke and out of business.

Dr. Duff: And?

Me (smiling): I would have nothing to do but lie on the beach all day.

What a pleasant thing to do as a worst case. Far different from the foreboding images my imagination had conned me into believing. As I faced my deepest fear and gained proper perspective of my situation, the tension and anxiety immediately left. A month later I persuaded another bank to loan me enough money to pay off the first bank and then some, to boot. I had called fear's bluff, and that's exactly what it was — a bluff.

Fiction's Best Seller

I have discovered many times over that when I reveal and embrace my fears, they run their course and dissipate by themselves, much like a current of water running along the street curb does after it stops raining. My confidence returns, and I can respond intuitively and decisively to address the challenges at hand. Also, I gain a much clearer sense of myself through the experience.

During the banking crisis of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt movingly and aptly announced to the nation, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Once we are able to recognize this innate truth, we no longer are entrapped by the tentacles of our fears. And the awareness, effort, and considerable courage that you employ to make this happen will help send you on your way to being able to lose control and find serenity.

(The third and final excerpt from Losing Control, Finding Serenity will offer an alternative to "Tiger Mom" parenting.)