Can You Recognize Fear When You See it?

On Tuesday, I went out for my afternoon run. I was still warming up, only about 100 feet from my house, when a neighborhood dog began running in my direction. The dog’s owner yelled for the dog to come back, to no avail.

I stopped in my tracks. Within seconds, the dog was right in front of me barking, growling and snapping all at the same time. My feet back pedaled as fast as they could, but the dog came on. Before I knew it, my feet lost the battle and I teetered backwards and hit the pavement.

I was sure the dog would jump me. But it didn’t. The owner’s shouts finally caught its attention. The dog turned and ran back home. Splayed out defenseless on my back, I guess I wasn’t as appealing as before.

Stunned from the attack, I took my time getting up.

Another neighbor came out to ask if I was okay.

Not really. . .

I’d landed on my tailbone and it really hurt. I limped back home, feeling defeated and shaken, not the usual way I feel after a run 🙁

When I got back to my house, a friend who was there working on some window replacements for me listened to my story and then asked, “Were you scared or mad?”

Without a doubt, I was terrified – something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Fear triggers our fight or flight response and a surge of adrenaline that is unmistakable and powerful.

It can be easy for people to confuse fear with anger. But whenever we feel angry, we are actually processing fear as well. Anger masks the vulnerabilities we experience when we are afraid. Very few people are willing to show fear, especially when it’s attached to an emotional need. Fear often feels like weakness. We don’t want people to know, so we cover up with anger.

There are different kinds of fear – the kind that shows up in response to a real physical threat like a dog attack. And another type of fear that shows up in response to a perceived emotional threat, i.e., when we think our needs or freedoms are being threatened. When our actions are driven by this type of fear, we’re not always aware that we’re in the grip of fear’s power.

Like me, . . . I’m afraid of rejection, I’m afraid of losing my autonomy, I’m afraid of losing my personal power. I’m afraid of being wrong or failing (something that might lead to rejection). I’m afraid of other people’s anger and confrontations (i.e. perceived threats to my autonomy/personal power). In many of these cases, when I feel fear coming on, I turn to anger to cover up the fact that I’m afraid. When we’re afraid, we feel out of control. We try to gain back control through blaming, manipulation or actual threats. These tactics are fear in action. It’s easy to feel incensed or pissed off at someone else’s actions, if they trigger one of our fear buttons. It’s harder to say, I’m just afraid.

The interesting thing about fear is that it grows when fueled by another’s fear. When fear is met with fear, it expands. Things can get out of control really fast. The point is that a lot of angry arguments are based on the common fears that motivate two or more people into action. If even one person can recognize fear when they see it, peaceful resolution has a chance.

I guess I could have been angry at the dog, but what good would that do? It’s just a dog.

I could have been angry at myself for getting in that situation – for not arming myself with pepper spray or a stick. But anger won’t change the fact that, lying on the ground; I was afraid and vulnerable. Although I might like to, I can’t protect myself from everything. I will always be vulnerable to unusual circumstances, and I need to accept that. I wonder how it would be different if we didn’t see our vulnerabilities as a weakness? Not only our physical vulnerability, but also our emotional tender spots too?

If we can recognize and honor fear in ourselves and others, it might change drastically how we respond to situations fueled by fear. We might bring more compassion when we know how powerful fear is. We might better be able to resist the urge to meet fear with more fear. We might learn how to diffuse fear with patience, a little kindness and understanding.

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