02/14/2013 03:41 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

Walking Away From Fear

As I write this on Ash Wednesday, Catholics of the world begin their celebration of Lent. During this 40-day period, people strive to become more aligned with divinity by giving up habits that distract them from pursuing their higher spiritual goals. As a child, the practice of giving up things I liked never made any sense to me, but as I grew and begin to understand the season more fully, it seemed like this was something we should do every day, all year long.

What if we devoted ourselves to a higher purpose, and what if we were to let go of things that were destructive in our lives? Wouldn't that practice be a large positive for us all?

It finally made sense to me. So I examined my life deeply and thoughtfully with the intention of becoming a better person. After a few weeks, it appeared to me that my largest area of fault involved anger. As a peaceful person, if I became angry, then I was more likely to say things that were untrue and hurtful. As an angry person, I could use my intelligence to attack or harm others instead of assisting them more fully. I identified anger as something I wanted to reduce or give up as my first exercise.

I failed. I got angry about something on the news within minutes. I tried breathing and releasing my anger, but the fact of the news report fueled my anger. I tried turning off the news, and that helped, but then I fell behind on current events and felt that was an imperfect solution for a citizen of a free society.

I gave up after several attempts until a year passed and Lent arrived once more. Once again, I affirmed my resolution to give up anger and quickly failed. I was devastated. As I considered my failure and descended into the pit of self despair and personal invalidation, I realized the importance of what I was trying to do. If I could not accomplish my desired intention, there must be something wrong with what I was doing. But what was that?

As I ran over and over the events, I realized something really important. It opened my eyes and made me excited. In my prior observations, I had noted that problems in my life came after I became angry and made bad judgments. But, I'd failed to observe something more fundamental. It was in every picture of every memory I could find that lead me to become angry. I had discovered an apparent commonality in these angry moments. I'd discovered something that occurred just before I experienced anger. I could now name my issue, and it was not anger. It was fear.

Laughter sprung from my mouth spontaneously as my mind saw the truth of this discovery. There was a repeating pattern. I became fearful of something. I became upset and angry. Then I acted inappropriately and made errors. My nemesis was not anger, it was fear. And upon realizing this, I immediately vowed to give up fear as an excess emotion. There obviously are legitimate reasons to experience fear in this world, but being overly fearful lead me to do destructive and harmful things in my life out of a false sense of self-protection.

This decision propelled me down an interesting path. I'm a happy person. I like my job and love my family, but being an integrative veterinarian certainly has fearful moments. Before I realized how fear interacted so complexly with my mind and spirit, I had no idea just how many things engendered fearful responses. Each day something that was my worst fear would arise, and as I calmly banished the fear, looked at the components of the situation and then addressed them, amazing "solutions" would arise that enriched my life rather than harming it. I discovered several personal things about fear:

  1. Fear made me less intelligent. When I was afraid, I saw things differently. Often they were colored by earlier circumstances that ended poorly. And my mind would work so hard to prevent that from happening again. When in fear I was more prone to accept things that we not fully true. When I realized that fear was at the root, I could abandon the fear and stay focused on solving the issue, and often it would resolve in seconds.
  2. Fear made me generalize issues. When afraid, I would group people into more stereotyped categories. Instead of thinking, "Let's look and see what is happening," I would escalate into anger and think, "Here we go again. Those ____ are always trying to _____." Fear caused me to separate out of some weird sense of self-preservation, and that lead me to misunderstand the people involved in the situation. Banishing fear and seeing those people as divinely inspired beings brought respect and dialogue. Things definitely got better.
  3. Fear was associated with disconnection. When I was afraid, I was not fully present. My mind was not calm and listening. If I wasn't sure or confident, then I entered a bit of "space" into the relationship. The other person could feel that withdrawal, and it negatively affected our interaction. I was afraid of rejection, but by withdrawing I was creating that in my life. I opened my heart, loved more and watched amazing things occur.
  4. Fear stopped me from reaching. When a new solution arose, fear would keep me from embracing it and so it became easy to hold on to old solutions and thereby propagate the problems associated with those fixed ideas.

The solution to fear came to me as I examined this. Love others deeply. Find that love which is based on truth and beauty, and share it widely. Realize the divine nature of all life and respect it. Approach things with a sense of awe and humility and realize that no one person is perfect in this world. Forgive errors and realize that all of us suffer from the effects of fear and it is only through dedicated effort that can we rise to a level of trust and respectful dialogue. And that effort is civilizing and health giving.

We celebrated Valentine's Day recently. If we banish fear and empower people with loving understanding, we can change the circumstances of our lives. It all starts with observation, decision, persistence and personal understanding based in love. We don't need a holiday for that. It should be something we celebrate every moment of our lives.

For more by Dr. Richard Palmquist, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.