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7 Fears, 7 Treasures, 7 Shadows, 7 Others

The 7 Fears

As suggested, we often imagine that psychological wellness generally means feeling happy and functioning well in the world.  This may be true enough, but what do the fundamental conditions and needs of human life require of us in order to attain such a state?  I will propose seven basic challenges that we face on the path to psychological wellness, challenges that often arouse our fear and require our courage in order to overcome. These challenges are not limited to those who have experienced unfortunate or traumatic circumstances in their lives, or those with a psychiatric diagnosis, but are basic to being human.  There are probably other fundamental fears that we experience, but I have chosen to explore just these seven.   My aim is to suggest that psychological wellness involves wholeness,as expressed through courageous responses to a variety of human challenges.  It may be that some of us possess great courage in the face of some of these challenges, but we then succumb to our fears around others.  We may even compensate by focusing our attention and taking pride in the areas where we feel confident, while avoiding those areas that cause us fear.

Implicit in this entire exploration will be the notion that we can be more or less well.  While this may be a common assumption for many, such a normative stance may be off-putting to those who take a more relativistic position, and eschew all judgments about how human beings ought to be.  From that point of view there are no symptoms, only personal choices that deserve to be honored and legitimized by others.  From this point of view there can be no credible assertions of any way of living that is more well than any other.  As soon as such an assertion is made, the relativist will bristle in preparation for some form of tyranny.  Addressing such objections is beyond the scope of what I hope to offer in this brief chapter.  I will merely say that I believe psychological wellness is about awakening and engaging our human potentials, relieving suffering, and emancipating ourselves from the constricting forces of fear.

I believe that anyone aspiring to care for others needs to understand the source of these fundamental fears, because they contribute profoundly to human suffering.  All of the things that we do to avoid them keep us bound up in symptoms and obstruct our way to true happiness.  Without some understanding of these fears our care for others will hit roadblocks and detours that will baffle and confuse us.  We should know that caring for others will call us to face our own fears and be strong enough to stand by others and en-courage them to do the same.

Now let’s explore each of the following 7 Fears of Wellness one at a time.

  1. Experience
  2. Solitude
  3. Intimacy
  4. Responsibility
  5. Identity Loss
  6. Excellence
  7. Impermanence

1.  Experience

“Few people even scratch the surface, much less exhaust the contemplation of their own experience.”  -Randolph Bourne

It seems that being well requires a certain openness and willingness to embrace variety and intensity in our experience.  It requires that we allow different energies and sensations to move through our bodies, and a willingness to feel all of our emotions.  Simply having a body and a mind and living in the world automatically puts us in the circumstance of encountering other people, things, and events.  We are built to have some sort of physical and emotional response to what happens.  Yet we often fear that a rush of adrenalin or the experiences of anger, fear, excitement, joy, or grief may take us outside of our comfort zone, beyond the realm of predictability where we feel safe.  We fear certain sensations and emotions because we imagine we will be overwhelmed and lose our narrow sense of control.  Physically and emotionally we become accustomed to certain constrictions, outside of which lies an uncertainty that terrifies us. 

This may be based on early treatment by caretakers in which our openness and willingness to embrace experience was punished.  We can carry this memory unconsciously into adulthood with the vague sense and belief that expressions of openness to experience will result in punishment and humiliation.  But even without a harsh and punitive early environment, we all fear some kinds of experience to some degree.  Perhaps our fear of experience underlies all of the rest of our fundamental fears, which are simply different forms of experience.  Because of this fear we avoid encountering many things and constrict ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

2. Solitude

“There are days when solitude, for someone my age, is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.” –Colette

We are afraid to be alone.  To sit alone in a room for an extended period of time, without television, radio, or even a book, can provoke anxiety for many.  The prospect of interrupting a continuous engagement with others arouses our fear of a direct, undistracted encounter with ourselves.  Yet being fully psychologically well requires the ability to enter solitude and have such a naked encounter.  When we are by ourselves we are more likely to contact the full range and depth of our interior world, including those parts of ourselves that we more typically suppress and would prefer to keep unconscious.  Being constantly among others allows us to maintain distractions that keep such personal material out of our awareness.  We are afraid to be alone because we are afraid of our own minds.  When we do not face this fear and overcome it, we are in a perpetual state of self-avoidance that creates a general tone to our being.  We may not be aware of it, but we will carry the feeling of always trying to stay one step ahead of ourselves.  We may even appear quite happy and sociable, but under the surface we are on the run.

3.  Intimacy

“When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone.  After all, human beings are like that.” –Gertrude Stein

Being human seems to involve the paradoxical challenge of being able to embrace both solitude and intimacy.  Even while we are terrified to be left alone, we can also be equally terrified to enter genuine and emotionally connected relationships. We fear that sharing our physical closeness, feelings, and thoughts will make us vulnerable to others, whose intentions are difficult to know.  We might be betrayed, abandoned, wounded, judged, burdened, dominated, constrained, or inconvenienced.  Opening ourselves to another also makes us vulnerable to their pain and suffering, perhaps burdening us with a responsibility to care.  Better not to risk it.  Yet being psychologically well does require the courage and ability to be intimately engaged with others. 

4.  Responsibility

“Liberty means responsibility.  That is why most men dread it.” –George Bernard Shaw

Psychological wellness requires us to take full responsibility for our behavior and its consequences.  It is much easier to take a victim’s role and blame our circumstances or other people for our difficulties and suffering.  Taking responsibility entails a stark recognition of how we have created our lives, and places the burden of change squarely on our own shoulders.  This is terrifying.  But if we want a good or better life, then we will have to decide what that would look like and take action in that direction.  It also demands that we recognize our impact on others and conduct ourselves in a way that, at least, does not cause them harm.

Along with responsibility comes some degree autonomy.  As infants and young children we are dependant on our parents and caretakers, but if development proceeds we also learn how to rely on ourselves. We learn how to meet our own needs, claim our own thoughts and feelings, and tolerate a sense of separateness from others.  Yet for many the idea of assuming responsibility can provoke anxiety or even terror.  Without the courage to assume responsibility for ourselves we will desperately attempt to maintain our dependencies.  Psychological wellness requires that we be willing to establish some degree of autonomy.   Without this we will cling to others and avoid any occasion for expressing ourselves that might cause us the discomfort of their disapproval and possible abandonment.  The fear of responsibility and autonomy are related to the fear of solitude, but the former has more to do with what happens in relationship to others, while the latter has more to do with our relationship to ourselves. 

5.  Loss of Identity

Attaining psychological wellness calls us to an unfolding developmental journey in which we must form, and then die to, a succession of different identities.  Our full wellness is accessible only when we are willing to surrender habitual self-definitions and identifications and tolerate not knowing who we are as we leave the old and reach for the new.  This is a terrifying transition, a vast chasm for most of us.  Our very existence, as we have come to know it, is at stake.  We fear a loss of identify as we fear death, because it is, in fact, a form of death.  We would prefer to cling to a painful and dysfunctional belief about who we are rather than let go into the terror of uncertainty.  We might imagine that attaining wellness will establish a clear, solid, persisting sense of self.  Then we will know exactly who we are and that will never change.  Ah, finally a place for the ego to call home forever.  While we may experience temporary periods of stable identity, being well ultimately requires continuing development, which, if we include transpersonal stages, means continual death and rebirth, until we transcend the notion of a separate, solid, personal identity altogether.

6.  Excellence

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?” – Marrianne Williamson

“The sad truth is that excellence makes people nervous.” –Shana Alexander

When we are psychologically well, I believe, we strive for personal excellence.  In other words, we try to discover our gifts, talents, and potentials, develop them, and offer them to the world.   But we often perceive two terrible risks in doing this- we might fail, or we might succeed.  If we fail we might be humiliated and shamed before others, as well as painfully encounter ourselves as finite and limited beings.  If we succeed we will unleash more expectations and raise the standards by which we live.  A commitment to excellence is not fulfilled by a one-shot accomplishment, but requires an ongoing effort.  This is scary.  Our fear tells us that it is better to stay shrunken down and avoid the pressure of those expectations for excellence that would require ongoing discipline and the foregoing of immediate pleasures and comforts.  A commitment to excellence puts us continually on our growing edge, which is guaranteed to cause some ongoing discomfort and frustration.  Who wants that?

7.  Impermanence
“Pale Death with impartial tread beats at the poor man’s cottage door and at the palaces of kings.” -Horace
Finally, we are afraid of psychological wellness because it demands that we live in an awareness of impermanence, change, and death.  To be alive at all involves the experience of loss.  No matter how well adjusted and adaptive we are, none of us escapes the ongoing flow of change that ultimately leads to death.  Wellness does not exempt us from impermanence, but requires our acceptance of a slew of ongoing, natural insults to our being, as well as our own eventual death.  It requires that we recognize and accept our vulnerabilities to impermanence and to all the things that we are powerless to change.  The fear of doing this can shake us to our core.  It is easier to hide behind defenses, denials, and grandiosities- the illusions that buffer us from all of the expressions of impermanence.  This fear is related to the fear of identity loss, but is more about the changing world around us, and our own bodies, than our inner changing sense of self.  All of us are vulnerable to losing jobs, money, possessions, homes, and loved ones.  We are also vulnerable to illness and injury.  Being psychologically well provides no exemption, but requires our full awareness, courage, and acceptance in the face of impermanence.  From a spiritual point of view, we might even say:  We need to be and feel safe enough to become calm, grounded, and centered, so that we may undistractedly contemplate the inevitability of our own death.

Our troubling symptoms are not merely unfortunate obstacles preventing us from reaching the desired goal of psychological wellness.  They are rather our unconscious means for defending against and avoiding our terror of what wellness requires.  The irony is that we would like to be relieved of our symptoms without having to encounter or overcome our fears of wellness. To add to the absurdity, caregivers sometimes proceed as if this is possible.  I do not mean to suggest that these fears are or ought to be easy to face and overcome.  If they were we would all experience and express wellness and wholeness all the time.  They are tough.  Really tough.

Rather than disparage ourselves, or others, for succumbing to these fears, an attitude of compassion is more helpful.  Surrendering our symptoms is truly heroic because our fears are truly deep and intense.  It is helpful to recognize the magnitude of the task so that we don’t become dis-couraged by our failures and think of ourselves, or of each other, as simply cowards.

Please visit The 7 Treasures

Just as there are more than 25 skills of care, there are more than 7 fears of wellness.  I have simply chosen the major fears that I have encountered in myself and those I have cared for.  You may know of others  that are also quite important.

Giddens, A.  Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford California: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Senge, P. The Fifth Discipline, New York: Currency and Doubleday, 1990.  Particular attention to the chapter: Personal Mastery, pgs. 139-173.


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