Here’s a phrase I loathe: “You shouldn’t feel that way.”
Go ahead and say that to me. I dare you.
You’ll be waving a red flag in front of a bull. I’m the bull.
What comes next will be a torrent of words, spoken at a faster clip and louder volume than my usual speech:
"I feel the way I feel and how I feel is valid. My feelings may be inconvenient to you, or otherwise make you uncomfortable. But they’re still my feelings. My feelings give me an indication of what’s going on inside me and are really important for me to understand if I want to be happier, healthier, and have a better life. So let me say it again – I feel the way I feel and how I feel is valid."
Even when I feel overwhelmed by fear.
Listen to a news report, read the headlines, watch your Twitter or Facebook feed. There are lots of fear-inducing things you can worry about. Fear is a worthwhile companion for short journeys, but a terrible companion for the long haul.
Fear can be a good thing, prompting you to take action. If there is action you can take, or need to take, do it. But after that, staying in a constant state of fear or anxiety is really bad for your physical and emotional health.
Telling someone they shouldn’t feel afraid is ineffective, whether the person is a child or an adult with lots of experience and power to interpret their world. They feel the way they feel and how they feel is valid. Even if you believe their fears are unfounded. The fear is real to them and can’t be swept away by logic or reasoning.
Fear tells a story of uncertainty, of not knowing what the future brings. And that is true. We don’t know what the future brings. There’s always an element of uncertainty. However, we usually can find anchors to steady us when we feel as if we’re being tossed about in an uncertain and scary world.
Find those anchors, even if it just for a moment. Tell Fear you need a little “alone time,” and send Fear to another room. Then take some time to think of things that anchor you. Find feelings that are the opposite of fear. Things that give you hope, or in which you have faith and trust. Gratitude is often the easiest feeling to find. Are you able to breathe? Feel your lungs fill up with air and be grateful to the miracle of your body. Can you see the stirrings of spring in the world outside your window? Be grateful for the miracle of nature. Connect to someone you love, indulge in a pastime that fills you with joy, or wonder at the miracle of a baby.
Sometimes it’s healthier to try to see the world a different way, looking through a lens of love or compassion. But when you are overwhelmed by fear, the fastest and best way to get out of overwhelm is to change your focus. Change what you’re focusing on, instead of trying to convince yourself not to be afraid. These positive emotions will flood your system with good chemicals, subduing the stress hormones created by fear. Even if just for a moment, your body has had a break from being bathed in fear.
So … Fear go sit in the kitchen. I’m going to watch the birds chirping outside my window.
By Joni Miller, Ph.D. © 2020