Аnna Vinkovskienė (Lithuania) Positive potential of fear in therapeutic practice
Fear is an inseparable part of our life, it accompanies us from birth to death in various shapes and disguises. The nature of fear is interesting and complicated, and containing quite a few strange moments. On one hand, there is a vast number of theories and methods helping to get rid of fear. On the other hand, people flock in huge crowds to watch horror movies and are ready to pay for a possibility to experience indescribable fear and horror.
Fear is, firstly, a signal indicating danger or threat, thus it is a means of survival. It is an uncontrollable reaction of our brain emerging automatically in certain situations.
Associations elicited by people (even colleagues psychologists and therapists) in response to the word “fear” make a rather negatively tinged list. Top ones usually are: terror, darkness, despair, tension, cold, death. This is natural, since experience of fear causes helplessness, feelings of vulnerability or anger. According to Längle, a person in fear experiences himself in his own weakness. Fear is a heavy, constraining feeling often accompanied by unpleasant bodily perceptions, therefore people to get rid of fear as soon as they can. Naturally, fear is a quite common reason to seek help of a specialist. At this point, it is important how a person tends to relate to his fear – accepting it or fighting, trying to understand and admit or quietly succumbing, oftentimes into a disease.
The word positive in the context of this article is used to denote the meaning of “carrying possible benefit”, “with a favourable outcome”, but not of “bringing pleasure”. “Potential” is a possibility, an inner reserve behind the feeling of fear.
In existential therapy, the feeling of fear is seen through the lenses of existential philosophy. Fear turns and directs our attention to places “that are empty in our life, that lack fundamental conditions for real meaningful Being” (Sylvia Längle). An existential therapist helps a client to explore his fear, to take a closer look into its core and to find power or potential of present experience.
What is the relation between fear and anxiety? They seem to represent two sides of a whole. Often fear is born out of anxiety, this process might be long and painful. Feeling inexplicable anxiety, a person strives to find an explanation, as if searching for a cause, and it is not uncommon to conseal anxiety under a mask of some specific fear. This is understandable, since „anxiety strives to become fear“ (Paul Tillich).
Fear is an expression of anxiety, its „material“ manifestation. There is always anxiety behind any fear which feeds it. “Fear and anxiety are distinctly different, but inseparable” (Paul Tillich). Therefore, talking about fear, it is impossible not to consider anxiety.
Working with clients having various fears, a therapist helps them to see their fear in a wider perspective, to look beyond it, to understand what is underneath it and maybe to notice its potential. While exploring fear from a positive potential viewpoint, the goal is to discern those possibilities that are provided by understanding fear and those inner resources that open at a closer contact with fear and the energy generated by it.
Not every fear has in itself a potential for growth. Such forms as phobias or panic attacks are essentially disorders and are not considered here.
Presence of fear in some theme of a person’s life indicates importance of that theme and a need to work it through. It is, however, not always so obvious.Often, fear is a cover for a whole world of deep feelings to tackle which a client is not always ready. Therefore for a therapist working with fears of a client, it is important to proceed without haste and efforts to help a client to immediately get rid of those depressive feelings. The goal of therapy is to understand what the message of one’s fear is, what can be done with that message, to explore whether it may useful.
Regarding the positive potential of fears, the first issue is a possibility to learn: to stay constructively in the situation of fear, to control physiological and psychological reactions that accompany fear – all these are useful skills increasing one‘s powers.
Fear may become a powerful source of movement that forces to try harder to achieve own goals.
Fear may be a way to know oneself, since in fear a person may learn about his own possibilities and limitations.
Fear tends to turn a person back to his basis, to those truths which are usually left without consideration. That is why people having survived by some miracle in critical situation often change their attitude to life which is given to them.
No doubt, fear is a feeling causing physical and psychological discomfort, so it is natural to wish to get away with it as soon as possible. But if this is performed too fast, then the opportunity to gain some of potential brought about by fear is lost. Fear is not only a message about imminent danger, but a certain stimulus to act, a chance to understand something, to change and to correct.