It’s everywhere I turn—on the news, on my social-media feed, and in my daily conversations. It’s in the questions that keep me up at night, tossing and turning in an ocean of paranoid what-ifs. It’s in the words and labels we use when we’re sizing up ideas and people who might be a little different from us, who take us to that uncomfortable place just outside of our comfort zone. It’s also that nagging voice that continues to convince us that, as individuals and communities and nations, we are always going to be separate from one another. It’s that insidious belief that we are powerless to change any of this, so we may as well lock our doors, our minds, and our hearts.
I’m talking about fear.
We live in a fear-based culture. It’s in our daily lives. It’s in our political sphere. Hell, it may as well be in our drinking water. And we’re constantly making the choice to drink it.
Fear is a trickster, so it’s not always easy to recognize. It’s really good at camouflaging itself: as information, power, discernment, superiority, righteousness, or the voice of reason.
In order for us to truly recognize fear, to see it for what it is, we have to get incredibly honest with ourselves. And often, we need to be taken out of our usual environment to really grasp the hold that fear has over us.
A recent trip to an impoverished Peruvian village high in the Andes is what offered me this revelation. There was a stark contrast between the slice of paradise I experienced—where people didn’t collar their dogs, "helicopter parent" their kids, obsess over the toxins in their environment, or wring their hands over how dangerous and violent the world is—and the reality I am steeped in as an American—where everyone seems to be drinking the Kool-Aid of fear.
I'm not saying that in the developed world, we have simply made up all these complications, nor am I suggesting that tragic devastation doesn’t occur in other parts of the world. Obviously, it does. However, our tendency to fixate on apocalyptic horror and to sweat the small stuff can make everything feel overwhelming and impossible to take any action around, when it absolutely does not have to be this way.
Philosophers, politicians, and world travelers have all marveled at the fact that people who seem to have very little by Western standards have an indomitable capacity to be happy in ways that most of us cannot even fathom. Why is this?
I strongly believe that our obvious lack of joy, despite all the "stuff" we have in comparison to those poor villagers in Peru, is a result of the poison of fear.
Fear is the thing that makes us feel like we aren't enough.
We tend to project our basic internal fear onto the world in various ways. And, at the same time, fear is shoved onto us by our culture from a very early age. Played out on a larger stage, this dance between the fear we carry both within and without can look like everything from nasty internet trolls who cut into our deepest insecurities to self-help gurus who capitalize on our inherent sense of inadequacy. It can take the form of marketing folks who tell us that we need to keep buying stuff in order to feel and be better and politicians who convince us that the world is on fire.
When our sense of self is so fragile, everything around us can be perceived as a potential threat. And I’m talking about every single thing.
But, let’s face it, this perception is our own doing. Few of us understand that we are largely responsible for the "threats" that seem to surround us on all sides. Instead, we are shocked by media monstrosities and we point our fingers in blame and anger—at everyone but ourselves.
When we succumb over and over again to fear-based narratives, when we keep perpetuating the story that some unspeakable evil is out to get us, we actually contribute to creating a climate of fear.
When we are spoon-fed fear and trauma from infancy, other possibilities don’t seem to be within our grasp. But they are! It is totally within our power to step outside the matrix of fear.
It begins with simple awareness.
Even when we don’t think fear has a hold on us, it seeps into the way we perceive the world around us. For example, many women I know who are on a "personal development path" have been led to it because of trauma they’ve previously experienced. While I respect their desire for transformation, many of them fixate on their wounds until their pain has become their identity.
I know so many people who wear their battle scars with pride. But what if we honored ourselves in a different way?
Now, I absolutely understand the value of diving into our stories and experiences to discover who we are and to gain valuable insight, as well as strength. There is great power in acknowledging struggles that we have overcome and in celebrating our personal healing. However, what if we also acknowledged the ways that fear has affected the way we look at these experiences?
To me, fear is the thing that makes our most awful and painful moments stand out. When we define ourselves primarily on the basis of our wounds—even when we are recognizing the gifts we received as a result of those experiences—we are limiting ourselves. Often, we are acting from our unconscious fear of the same thing happening again. Many times we are still blaming the people and circumstances that led to our suffering. We are reliving the trauma in some way. We are continuing to get caught up in our own victimhood and giving credence to that big, bad monster of fear.
Most importantly, let’s remember that we are truly worth so much more than our wounds and self-imposed labels.
Focus on the here and now.
When we decide to peel ourselves from the bodysuit of fear that has strangled our possibilities, we make the powerful choice to see our reality for what it is—not for the stories that others have told us or the things we decided to believe about life at some distant point in the past. We start building the muscle to discern what is true and what is not, based on attention to the here and now—and a willingness to be with it, no matter what is happening.
When I was thousands of miles up in the mountains of Peru, I was struck by moments of severe panic in which I could barely breathe due to the high altitude. While I might have defaulted to getting immediate medical attention back home, I didn’t have that option here. "Relax, it’s going to be OK," people said. "You try relaxing!" I wanted to yell. I was pissed that nobody seemed to be taking my panic and fear as seriously as I was.
But eventually, I realized this attitude was actually a good thing.
Because nobody was reacting to my breathing troubles with the same panic as I was, it actually made me see that what I was experiencing—while not at all comfortable—was normal. I really was going to be fine.
I had this great a-ha moment. I realized that when fear arises, we automatically believe the stories it tells us are true. Our reptilian brain—hard-wired by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution to detect danger—still picks up the warning signals that we send it when we’re afraid, whether we are in imminent danger or not.
But fear makes no sense unless we are responding to imminent danger. It serves no purpose.
Now, many of us think that chronic worrying—about our kids, the environment, and the state of the world—means that we care. And some of us even subconsciously believe that if we do it enough, our world will change and our fear will dissipate. But buying into the climate of fear and adding fuel to its fire shouldn’t be mistaken for an effective way of "dealing: with it. It paralyzes our ability to take mindful action. It contributes to the very thing that robs us of true joy and the capacity to be present.
We can choose a different way. We can consciously apply our awareness, our knowledge, and our power of choice—in the moment when we can actually experience our power: now.
Choose to let go of fear.
We all have the power to rise beyond our learned helplessness. All it takes is the realization that we are fully accountable for our experience of life. We may not choose all the circumstances, but we can certainly choose how we react.
We are constantly defining our reality by virtue of past experiences and everything other people, especially authority figures, have told us.
So, with this realization, we have the choice to take a good, long look at our fear and to decide whether or not it serves us. This doesn’t require putting on rose-colored glasses or denying that we are scared. It just means that we don’t have to let fear-based thoughts determine our destiny.
Our fear doesn’t make us more powerful. It doesn’t make us more well-informed or more capable of instigating change. You can choose to be the kind of person who focuses on the latest act of random violence and laments how terrible things are. Or you can choose not to fall prey to fear-based information that keeps people stuck in a fight-or-flight response. You can take it a step further and choose to direct your energy into more meaningful pursuits that help make you, your community, and the world a better place.
I don’t care if you’re a certified hypochondriac. You are not your fear. Repeat after me: "I am not my fear."
Fear is not some absolute truth that you have to build your life around; it is merely the lens through which you have chosen to see your reality. And you have the choice to try on a different lens, to let your perception shift and your quality of life increase. You, too, can experience the same unadulterated joy that my friends in the Andes, who helped move me from severe panic into a state of serenity simply by modeling it to me, already know is well within our reach.
Fear takes so much out of us. Who could we be, what could we experience if we learned to let go of needless fear? What undreamed-of possibilities could we create in our lives? What seemingly insurmountable obstacles could we overcome? If we freed up our energy so that we could express our deepest core truths, what kind of beautiful world could we create together?
Want more insights on how to level up your life? Check out your July horoscope, then find out why holding on to past relationships is the worst thing you can do for yourself.