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7 Fears, 7 Treasures, 7 Shadows, 7 Others

by Michael Dewan-Herrick

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Note: This piece of writing is a chapter in an unpublished book titled: Integral Care. It is addressed to providers of any form of care. However, you don’t have to be a care provider to benefit from some reflection on the nature of fear. We all experience it.

This chapter is offered in homage to Ed Podvoll, who wrote of courage under the basic attendance skill of recognizing in his book Recovering Sanity.  (We will explore recognizing in the next chapter.)  According to Podvoll, courage is the last landmark on the path of recovery from psychiatric disturbance.

“He has courage.  He has faced loss and desolation in the past, and even now, daily, he is confronted with fear and punishment within the thought-world.  If his courage and his sense of humor are not supported by others, he will lose his confidence and abandon himself to psychosis.”

If the kind of care we provide is about bandages or ladles of soup, we may experience it as very straightforward and gratifying.  People need something, we provide it, they feel better, we feel good about ourselves, and everybody is happy.  But care is not always that simple.  Sometimes it’s not clear what people need.  What can be even more confusing is when it is clear to us what someone needs, but they don’t seem to want it.  We can care for a person right up to a threshold where they appear to lose resolve and refuse to take the next step.  Or else they ruin our hopes for them altogether.   This can be frustrating and perplexing.  We may wonder why in the world some people seem to not want liberation from their suffering.  What is holding them back?  Most of the time, in a word, it is fear; and we should not be so surprised.  We may not have the same fears in the same ways, but we all know fear.  We have all held ourselves back from some greater possibility in one way or another at some point in our lives.

Fear is not academic.  We feel it.  When we are gripped by fear our heart pounds, our breath becomes rapid or ceases, our guts knot up, our palms sweat, our muscles become tense preparing to fight or flee, and our minds race and fill with terrible images or they freeze up altogether.  Fear is generally an unpleasant experience that we usually try to avoid.

Naming fears can be a form of diagnosis; it can identify the root of a problem.  What follows is not a detailed taxonomy of particular fears, but a general orientation to the fundamental kinds of fears that most of us come up against sooner or later.  This may afford us more understanding and empathy when we encounter those who have “resistance”, try to “manipulate” us, or “sabotage” all of our wonderful efforts to care for them. These are all common conceptions in the mental health field.  They may even be true descriptions of what people actually do, but they don’t address why they do it.

When we think of things that typically cause us fear we might imagine physical dangers, like being attacked by a lion, falling off of a cliff, or getting in a car accident.  We might also imagine spiders, snakes, darkness, or getting lost in the woods.  Our ideas about what causes fear are usually tied to what is obviously dangerous or hurtful.  It is also common to believe that being happy and well involves keeping ourselves safe from all of the things that provoke our fear.  It does not usually occur to us that we are afraid of wellness or even happiness itself, or that many of the things we do to avoid our fears wind up causing us problems, which in psychological language are labeled as symptoms.

Whether we are in need of care ourselves, or providing it for someone else, there can be the implicit assumption that the aim is to move away from troubles and toward wellness. Yet making the personal changes in thinking and behavior that would express such a movement is often mysteriously difficult.  There is resistance.  It sometimes seems as if we don’t really want to be well.  For therapists and clients, for instance, there is often the belief that wellness is a desirable state of general ease and happiness in life.  On the surface it seems obviously desirable to be well, and equally obvious that we would be better off without our symptoms.  So when positive changes seem possible, yet the will to carry them out seems lacking, there can be a sense of puzzlement.  What is going on here?

It has been long theorized, but often forgotten, that our symptoms are our defenses against experiencing that which we fear.  Such fears are most commonly thought to stem from unfortunate or traumatic earlier experiences.  Perhaps we were abused or neglected by our parents, other caretakers, or someone else; and so we developed defensive coping strategies that served us well at the time, but then persisted beyond their usefulness.  A psychoanalytic or psychodynamic approach might attempt to help us remember the early genesis of our symptoms and their value and purpose at the time.  Then it might assist us in recognizing that our circumstances have changed, our symptoms are no longer useful, and so we are free to let them go, embrace new ways of being, and so enjoy psychological wellness.

But what is psychological wellness really?  And more particularly, are there reasons why we might fear it?  Is our fear not just due to clearly dangerous things, or a product of past unfortunate experiences, but also a current reaction to what being well actually requires of us today?  Is there something about wellness that scares us so much that we would rather flee and hide behind various symptoms, whether we are in psychotherapy or not.  The following sections will explore just this question.

Please visit The Seven Fears section

Podvoll, E. Recovering Sanity, Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2003.


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