This Is Where Your Fear Comes From (and How to Get Rid of It)

Have you ever noticed how fear seems to creep up on you when you least expect it? Maybe you’re afraid of things you realize you shouldn’t be afraid of, things you should be able to reason your way around, and yet, every time you turn around, there’s the fear again, rearing its ugly head.

fear
Photo Credit: Elliot Brown, Creative Commons

Recently I was on an airplane, a few rows behind a mom and her young son, and watching the two of them interact helped me understand why this might happen.

The flight was rough from beginning to end.

Before we even left the ground, the pilot informed us of an electrical problem that would need to be dealt with before we could take off. The ground crew was working on it, he explained, and we waited for 45 minutes.

By the time we did take off, you could tell the everyone on board was a little tense. Probably most of it was just that we had been waiting, but I’m sure part of it was that we were wondering to ourselves: if there was an electrical problem with the plane, are you sure it’s safe to fly this thing…?

To add to all of this, the flight itself was turbulent. The pilot came over the intercom and told everyone to expect rough air the entire way, that he would leave the fasten seat belt sign on until we reached our destination.

Meanwhile, I watched the mom and young son in front of me.

She talked him through the entire process. When the pilot informed us of the electrical problem with the plane, she told her son, “don’t worry sweetie. There’s a problem with the plane, but the pilot is going to fix it.” When it was time to take off, she said, “here we go, sweetie. Don’t be scared, everything is going to be okay.”

She looked all darty-eyed and stressed. He looked out the window, wide-eyed and curious.

When the turbulence started to get bad after take-off, you could hear the tone of the mom’s voice change. Every word that came out of her mouth sounded squeaky. At one point, the plane sunk and we all felt our stomachs drop. The young boy yelled, “wheee!”

The mom replied, loudly (and still squeaky): “Oh no! Sweetie! Don’t be scared!!! We’re going to be okay!”

Suddenly the young boy’s face went from curious to concerned.

He nuzzled up into his mom’s armpit and furrowed his brow, clearly worried. The two of them cuddled together, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder who was comforting who, now.

I noticed something fascinating in that moment:

Fear is learned.

As I watched the young boy’s demeanor turn, I realized the fear he felt in that moment wasn’t really his own response to the circumstances. Sure, the flight we were experiencing was  a little bit rough, but the roughness didn’t bother him. In fact, his natural response had been: “wheee!”

Right?

And yet as soon as he realized his mom was panicking, he panicked too. She did her best to hide it, always using her words to focus on the positive, and yet he picked it up.

It was almost like fear was contagious. Isn’t that weird?

It made me think about how fear works in our lives.

I started thinking about the things I’m afraid of—running out of money, making a fool of myself, being a bad friend—and I realized that I’ve never actually had a situation that would warrant me being afraid of these things. I mean, sure, I’ve had a little bump in the road here and there, but nothing life-threatening. Nothing beyond fixing.

And yet, often fear dictates my reality. It makes me move prematurely from curiosity to concern (like the little boy on the plane). It causes me to blow things out of proportion (like the mom).

It takes an experience I would describe as “whee!” and changes it to one I would resist experiencing again.

But it helps me to know this is where fear comes from—

It helps me head fear off at the pass, before I take on fear that isn’t my own. It helps me see how I was born with an internal longing for risk (“whee!”) and keep myself from turning too quickly to concern.

I wonder if it might help you, too—to see where you’ve been convinced to be afraid, without really getting a decision.

I wonder if it might help you take that choice back.

I hope it will keep us from being the kind of people who feel fear unnecessarily, who spread fear to others, who miss what life has to offer because we’ve “caught” fear like one might catch the flu while flying on a plane…

{Note: I don’t want this to read like a parenting critique. I’m not a parent, and although I could be an excellent parent of purely hypothetical children, I have no place to critique this mom, or any mom for that matter. What I noticed here was more about the transfer of fear than anything else.}

7 comments on “This Is Where Your Fear Comes From (and How to Get Rid of It)

  1. This is so true! I know that I am afraid of things that I haven’t even experienced before. I am afraid of them because of the reactions of people around me, particularly my mother. I have no reason to be afraid of so many things to do with romantic relationships, but my mother’s over-reactiveness, defensiveness, making up worst-case scenarios, and jumping to conclusions ALL OUT OF FEAR have had a HUGE effect on me. Her over-use of these “protective” reactions (because really it’s not protecting you, it’s building up walls around you), have rubbed off on me, and I do the same things. But while I have these reactions, I always wonder to myself “why do I even feel this way? Why am I reacting this way?” THIS IS EXACTLY WHY! I will definitely be reminding myself when I have those reactions that it is not my own fear, but a learned fear, and hopefully remember how I actually feel.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Bravo!

      Courage can be learned just as easily as fear. Discernment can also be taught but with a bit more difficulty and with some errors along the way.

      One of my dad’s “famous” sayings was “Well, I think we learned something here and nobody was killed”. I think he learned it in Navy Air during WW2.

      Two of my mom’s “famous” sayings were “You’re gonna do what your gonna do!” whenever I was going to do something she considered risky. Also, “Why do you have to do things your own way?”

      It wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I began to appreciate that these statements came from the children of the Great Depression and WW2. They always had to be wary to try to avoid loss because loss could be truly devastating (not the way it is flippantly used today).

      Practice courage, be respectful of fearful people but ignore them. Practice discernment, be sure to learn from mistakes and not grow fearful from them.

      And love others…

  2. I love this! I’ve noticed this too, especially in little kids. Sometimes it’s the over-reassuring that seems to make them nervous: “If this is gonna be fun, why does everyone keep telling me I’m going to be okay?” and then they start worrying. Adults, too, take fear hints from children. If a child is genuinely afraid of something, I think it tends to start make us wary, too.
    I’m definitely going to be re-thinking my fears and see if I’ve ‘inherited’ any from my friends and family.

  3. I have also noticed this! Fear is rarely rational at its core, it’s usually a product of something else. I think fear can be healthy and keep us safe, but most of the time it does more damage than good…

  4. I’ve learned a little bit about fear in the past couple of years. By nature I’m not a fearful person nor is my wife. I mean I have some things that I fear – like change. Oh, I really hate change. But, I have a daughter who fears a lot of things. I used to get after her to go and brush her teeth even though she was extremely afraid to go in the bathroom by herself – even if I was sitting on the floor right at the door. It finally hit me that fear, especially in children, can’t just be turned off like a light switch just as other emotions can’t be. That realization has made me more compassionate towards her when she is feeling fearful (even though it still drives me crazy). I think you’re right that fear can be learned from others for sure but not sure where this has come from. And back to my own fears. If I’m truthful with myself it is my fear of change and the unknown that has kept me from trying to advance my career. I’ve settled in what is very comfortable and somewhat predictable. Food for thought.

  5. I read that we only fear two things at birth: falling and loud noises. All the others are learned—or, to your point, borrowed. Geesh. Who wants to borrow a fear! I’d rather borrow my friend’s loop scarf. Thanks for the reminder to be on watch for borrowed fear…

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