A recent report on NPR told the story of red deer who still refuse to cross the Czech-German border even though the electrified fences that once stood there have been deactivated. Researchers explained that fawns follow their mothers for the first year and, because the mothers avoided the fences, so did their offspring. The mothers taught their fawns to fear that area even when there was nothing left to fear.
It got me thinking about fear and how we humans experience it. Why are some folks fearless while others seem scared of their own shadows? Like anything else, fear (and fearlessness) may be hardwired. And, like the Czech fawns, there's always the nurture factor -- and what we absorb from our caregivers about fear -- that is surely in the mix.
Perhaps I'm using the term 'fearless' glibly here. Those we may perceive as fearless -- and idolize for their talent -- struggle with their own fears. Barbra Streisand, Adele and Rod Stewart battle stage fright. It's been said Judy Garland violently retched before live performances. Was Robin Williams fearful the noise in his brain would never abate? Sadly, we won't ever know.
Fear is the great paralyzer. And perhaps it serves an evolutionary purpose in anesthetizing society at large. Can we even imagine a world in which we were all fearless powerhouses? Would everyone be a Cory Booker or a Neil Armstrong? Would there be a dog-eat-dog fight to the top of every profession? It's a moot point because, although we may dream, we're loathe to challenge ourselves far beyond our fear threshold.
Because I study relationships, I'm also interested in how fear affects them. Do we enter into iffy relationships because we fear loneliness? Do we stay in dead relationships because we're afraid of the inevitable changes if we leave? How many victims of abuse live in fear of their partners? And it's not always in the romantic relationship where we find fear. In a recent article that garnered over a million "likes" on Huffington Post, British nanny Emma Jenner wrote about parents fearing their children as a crisis of modern day childrearing.
Scant few of us include a fear-filled relationship on our vision boards, but many find ourselves in one. Healthy fear, conversely, may keep us on our best behaviors in relationships; we value them and, hence, toe the line. But here are five ways to determine if unhealthy fear features prominently in your interpersonal relationships:
1. You feel fear. Simple as it sounds, fear is a visceral response to something we perceive as dangerous. Fear is marked by angst and anxiety, a pit in our guts. Not sure if you're fearful in your relationship? Check in with yourself when you know you're going to have contact with the other person. Do you regularly feel light and happy? Or heavy and trepidatious? There's your answer.
2. You follow the rules. Okay, yes, every relationship has some. Where would we be without them? But what about rules put into place by another person? Has it been established that you'll talk, dress or behave in ways that don't trigger another's anger or disappointment? Do you comply to avoid his/her negative responses? Just as an FYI, people in fearless relationships don't live that way.
3. There's only dread and distrust. You see his/her name pop up on your cell phone and you feel what can only be described as ugh. Perhaps you steer clear of certain topics because they're ongoing hot potatoes. When did you last feel safe to share your experiences, hopes and dreams without fear of judgment? Maybe it's pie-in-the-sky to think you can tell this person anything, but you should be able to share most of your innermost thoughts without retribution.
4. You think about your escape. Do you spend countless hours fantasizing about leaving the relationship but can't act on it? Are you able to share your misgivings about the relationship? If not, you can chalk it up to fear. As difficult as it may be, you are free to leave any relationship. If you feel you can't, you're afraid of the repercussions.
5. Fear keeps you quiet. Because of that, your inner life doesn't match your outer life. Folks on the periphery of your world may have no idea how unhappy your relationship has become. You don't want to expose the other person in ways he/she may experience as unflattering so you keep it all under wraps.
Fear has no place in a healthy, interpersonal relationship. If you're fearful in your relationship, ask yourself why. Like the Czech deer, you may find your fears are based on old, worthless beliefs that are now worth a second look. And whether you're afraid emotionally or physically or both, you must find a way to love yourself enough back to safety and peace.
Follow Abby Rodman, LICSW on Twitter: www.twitter.com/abbyrodman