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Finding A Way To Deal With Fear

Anxiety and fear. They're emotions we all feel regularly, but a lot of us don't know how to recognize the signs.

According to a new book, once you can identify these feelings and learn to cope with them, everything else in your life can seem a lot easier. Noted psychologist Harriet Lerner is the author of "Fear And Other Uninvited Guests - Tackling The Anxiety, Fear And Shame That Keeps Us From Optimal Living And Loving."

Having experienced fear of public speaking herself, Lerner tells The Early Show she got through it by just practicing. "I kept showing up. Even though the worst things happened, I kept showing up."

The problem with public speaking, she says, is the shame that can be involved with it. She explains, "The fear that we will be seen as inadequate and flawed and inferior and in some way defective. People carry shame with them all the time, but they're only aware of it for a brief moment. So when you do public speaking, in terms of the opportunity to totally humiliate yourself, I was actually cured when the very worst things happened. The most shameful things actually did happen."

So if you want to overcome fear and anxiety and shame, Lerner offers the following tips:

Calm down – Whether you're afraid of public speaking or of an act of terrorism, the first thing you need to do is calm down.

Avoid Avoidance - None of us can ever actually rid ourselves of fear, but we can learn how to act even when we're afraid. We may want to get rid of fear as much as possible, but avoidance makes fear grow.

Lerner explains, "People think that it's fear that keeps their life narrow, habitual and small. It's not fear that stops us. It's that we want to be comfortable. So we avoid doing the things that would invoke fear. So we don't get on the plane. We don't leave the job or try for the new job. We don't sign up for the new class. So it's the fear of fear, because we know that avoidance will make you more comfortable in the short run. It will never make you less afraid."

Don't Over-focus - Don't let your anxiety land with a giant thud on any one issue. Don't over-focus on one thing, whether it's terrorism, aging or your child's future. Because we all have a lot of anxiety-producing issues to focus on, when we're over-focusing on one thing, we're under-focusing on another.

Know That Fear Will Always Exist - Accept the fact that fear and suffering and uncontrollable forces have always been with us, and the challenge is how we cope with them.

Lerner says, "The reason I wrote the book is not that you can escape fear but you can have courage and clarity and move forward despite of fear."

Read an excerpt from Chapter One:

Why Can't a Person
Be More Like a Cat?

"Fear stops me from doing so many things," a neighbor confided when I mentioned the subject of this book. Then, without further ado, she launched into a description of her coworker Carmen, a woman who exuded such a deep sense of calm, joy, and peacefulness that everyone wanted to be around her. "Carmen never feels fear or other negative emotions. She's always in the flow of the present moment. She really lives each day to the fullest." My neighbor paused to catch her breath, then exclaimed: "I would do anything to be like Carmen!"

She spoke so earnestly, her voice ringing with italics, that I restrained myself from suggesting that maybe Carmen had multiple personalities and that one of her alters might be sitting mute in some corner having wall-to-wall panic attacks. But I did tell her this: The only being I have ever known who was entirely free of fear and always "in the flow" was my cat, Felix. When Felix was alive, I aspired to be like him, much as my neighbor aspired to be like Carmen. I could relate.

Felix, My Role Model

Felix was my little Buddhist, my role model for mindful living. He demonstrated a healthy fight-or-flight response when threatened, but he only felt fear when fear was due. He became anxious and agitated when forced into a carrying cage, because he knew very well it meant a car ride to the vet. But he didn't let fear, worry, and rumination spoil an otherwise perfectly good day.

By contrast, I recall my own human experience anticipating my first allergy shot as a child. For a good week before the actual appointment, I freaked myself out with fearful imaginings, all of them having to do with long needles and terrible pain. My mother, who had certain Key Phrases to Live By, informed me that "a coward dies a thousand deaths; a brave man dies but once." She learned this aphorism from her younger brother when he went off to fight in World War II.

I personally found no comfort in her words. What sense did they make to a nine-year-old? I wasn't brave, I wasn't a man, and why was my mother bringing death into the conversation? When I was older and had developed the capacity for abstract thinking, I understood the lesson she was trying to convey. In essence, my mother was encouraging me to be more like Felix.

Felix lived in the moment. When he played, he played. When he ate, he ate. When he had sex, he had sex, utterly unencumbered by fear, shame, or guilt. Once "fixed" (the downside of being a pet), he settled immediately into a perfect acceptance of his situation. "Wherever you go, there you are," was the motto I believe he lived by.

This capacity to inhabit the moment granted Felix a kind of profound self-acceptance. When he licked his fur, he didn't worry about whether he was doing the job well enough, or whether he was taking too long to lick down all his hair, or whether certain of his body parts weren't all that attractive and perhaps shouldn't be displayed to my dinner guests. Nor did he dissipate his energy with anxious thoughts such as: "What's wrong with me that I don't make more fruitful and creative use of my time?"

Because Felix didn't live a fear-driven life, he was able to operate from his essential Felixness. When he wanted connection, he would jump on my lap without stopping to wonder whether I might find him too needy and dependent (especially for a cat). With equal aplomb, he would jump off my lap and saunter out of the room when he felt like it, never worrying that I might take his departure personally and feel really hurt. I could go on, but you get the picture.

A sociobiologist friend tells me that I have an idealized notion of Felix's inner emotional and spiritual life, but I disagree. I'm not saying that all cats are like Felix. I've seen my share of traumatized felines who cower or scratch when strangers approach. But I observed Felix almost daily for more than ten years before he keeled over dead one afternoon on our back porch. I'm convinced that it simply wasn't in his nature to get bogged down in fear and shame.

Face It, You're Human

Of course, Felix didn't have it all. If he missed out on the miseries of being human, he also missed out on some uniquely human pleasures, from reading a riveting novel to falling in love. One might debate whether it is preferable to be a cat or a person, but why get into it? If you are reading this now, you are not a cat and never will be. So along with the good days, you're going to experience the entire range of painful emotions that make us human.

This means that you'll wake up at three in the morning searching your breasts for lumps. You'll worry that your daughter has dropped out of her drug treatment program (again), that your partner is getting bored with you, that you'll end up a bag lady if you leave your job, that your memory is getting more porous with each passing day, and that possibly you're going crazy.

You can make your own list. No one is immune to the grip of anxiety, fear, and shame -- the "big three" that muck up our lives. These are the uninvited guests. When tragedy or hardship hits, they may become our constant companions.

SIX EASY STEPS TO CONQUERING
FEAR AND ACHIEVING BLISS?

I bristle at feverishly inspirational books that make large and silly promises. Break free from fear and you'll soar like an eagle, reverse the aging process, and attract a bevy of wildly sexy and appreciative lovers. I recently eyeballed a new self-help guide that states: "Bliss is available to anyone at any time, no matter how difficult life may be." When I read such statements, I am prone to entertaining mean-spirited thoughts, such as hoping that the author is dealt some unfathomable loss that will serve as a test case of his or her bliss theory. Since I am really a very nice person, these are but passing uncharitable fantasies. Still, I believe it is arrogant and deeply dishonest to tell people that they can transform their own reality, no matter how dreadful their circumstances, with the acquisition of a few new skills and a brighter attitude ...

Excerpted from "Fear And Other Uninvited Guests." Copyright © 2004 by Harriet Lerner. Harpercollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

About the Author:
Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a world-renowned expert on the psychology of women and family relationships, served as a staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic for more than two decades. The best-selling author of "The Dance of Anger" and other books, she is a distinguished lecturer, consultant and workshop leader. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children's book writer. She and her husband are therapists in Lawrence, Kan., and have two sons.

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