Living with Fear
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear — HP Lovecraft
My earliest memories are of being afraid. Hiding behind my father’s legs as strangers tried to say hello. Being scared to put my hand up in class. Worrying that my parents would yell at me. Sometimes it felt like they yelled a lot.
It’s not even that my childhood was particularly bad, but I was sensitive. It’s a cliche, but I vaguely remember being more pure as a child. I remember once seeing a little girl lost in the shopping mall, and I remember crying and crying for her. I empathized effortlessly. To my 5 year old brain, that was the worst feeling there was. Being lost.
But of course, by then I was stuck with my brain.
Over time I developed ways to cope with my fear and my sensitivity. I detached. High school was a blur of staying up too late and sleepwalking through hallways. In university I moved away from home and slowly found some confidence, some control of my life. But of course, by then I was stuck with my brain.
A few years ago I heard Chuck Klosterman doing a radio interview. He was a successful author by then and the interviewer wanted to know how he could think so hard about seemingly mundane topics. How he could be so cerebral. I’m paraphrasing here, but Klosterman said something that resonated with me. “It’s easy to be intellectual. After all most of my feelings are bad”. The interviewer was taken aback. “More than 50% of your feelings are bad!?”.
I got it immediately. Most of my feelings are bad too.
In psychology this characteristic is sometimes referred to as “neuroticism”. Some people don’t like the term, but I find it oddly comforting. I associate it with nebbish, New York comedians and when I do, I’m reminded of my own Jewish ancestry. Of course my feelings are negative, life used to be pretty negative for a Jew !
I read a famous study that suggested that trauma can be epigenetically inherited from one’s ancestors. I don’t know about the genetic part, but it’s clear that the hardships of my parents and their parents and theirs before them have shaped me. They all did their best, so I can’t be mad about it. I just have to accept who I am and who they were.
One of the saving graces of being a human is that our lives are long. I wasn’t stuck being a helpless child or a detached teenager or even a naive 20-something. I had time to grow. And I’ve finally used some of that time to figure out what to do with my feelings, even when they don’t seem helpful. I can say this much for sure. They’re actually essential. The years I spent ignoring my feelings led to enough disasters to fill novels. Feelings, even the bad ones all have something to tell us. So I learned the first step to dealing with negative emotions — just listen to them. You don’t have to do anything.
I learned the first step to dealing with negative emotions — just listen to them. You don’t have to do anything.
After college, I moved to California. The warm weather, the hippie culture and the techno optimism were a needed change. I learned to be aware of my feelings, but was that enough? I mean, I could manage pretty well. I had years of emotional shielding built up inside of me. I could distance myself from my worst fears and conquer them. I could even hear them speak sometimes and not get overwhelmed. I learned that maybe I just need to sleep more when I’m sad or nervous. Sure, I still had a hard time knowing what I wanted. I couldn’t even decide what to order at restaurants, but I felt ok. At the time it felt like enough.
Of course a few bad relationships and other tragedies taught me that it was far from sufficient. I went into therapy. I thought more about my family and my life. More importantly I tried to feel my feelings. I didn’t run away from them. It’s still a struggle. Nowadays I try to see what I can do to push myself. I think of it as going to the emotional gym. I force myself into situations I’m afraid of. I ask for things even if I’m afraid to. I practice being optimistic even if it’s the opposite of my instinct.
I think of it as going to the emotional gym
I’m far from fixed and far from an expert on emotion. To be honest, I probably don’t know much more than the average person. But I know a lot more than I used to. And I hope that it helps others to know that we all feel fear.
For instance, my friend recently told me about her own fears and her own therapy sessions (it’s a California thing). She said that she too had an inner 5 year old who gets nervous and cries during hard meetings at work. She said it’s embarrassing and overwhelming. It felt good to tell her that I understood. I told her that she was actually doing really great. I told her that I bet her 5 year old self would be really proud of her. I know mine would be.