What is fear, and how can we determine which of those feelings are signals from the instinctive or intuitive aspects of our motivation of self-preservation versus those that stem from reinforced pattern based behaviors? How many kinds of fear are there that we mistake for another or use the word in such common mundane speech that the word itself conveys inaccurately the trueness behind its function? These are some of the issues I plan to explore and discuss.
Par for the course in any of my writing, this is not meant to be comprehensive or definitive, but rather sharing my reflections on the matter.
Through language, we attempt to connect and convey ideas through our use and understanding of words. When we speak or write, we impart the spirit and essence within a word – nuances of which containing emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and experiences. To some, a word is more than sound, but sound also conveys motion, color, shape and feel. Bearing this in mind, it is the Language of a people that defines not only culture, evolving philosophies, and behavior, but also the very spirit in which they perceive their Being. By spirit I mean their Acting Nature, the root common to the behavior of their segment versus the Nature as Prima or the common root of all peoples.
It is important to remember that the words we use will be heard and interpreted differently by each according to our experience, cultures, and personal affiliation with vocabulary which can alter our perceptions. There are, nonetheless, common threads and a foundation of responses to Fear as part of the human experience. This is not to say that no two reactions are alike; for were this so, the behavioral and psychological sciences would be rendered completely ineffective and consequently without any merit. Rather there is a common root of meaning as part of being human, colored by culture, and perceived and interpreted by our individual experiences and use of language.
Fear as it is commonly defined is an unpleasant, often strong, emotion caused by a perceived awareness or anticipation of danger. Of course what is a danger to one may not be to that of another. Instead of danger I like vulnerability, because it applies to a broader sense of what we often perceive as being dangerous to us – be that emotionally, physically, financially, spiritually, etc. Moreover, fear as some experience it may vary widely as dread, anxiety, panic, anger, excitement, and even glee!
For instance, John Locke closely uses the word Fear as would we in the metaphysical sense. That “Fear is an uneasiness of the mind…” where our awareness causes restlessness in emotion and psyche – be that threat or condition in the present or future, real or imagined. Fear then is ultimately an uncomfortable and sometimes painful emotion excited by the expectation of impending danger. It need not exist per se, but merely be present in our perception as a potential “… future evil likely to befall us.”
Therefore I suggest that the basic essence of Fear conveys a state of excitedness through a perceived threat or vulnerability. This excitedness may be experienced as an impending danger, apprehension of uncertainty, expectation of misfortune, potential threat, etc. Fear is that which causes, or which is the object of, apprehension or alarm; a source or occasion of terror; a sense of danger.
The intensity of that fear, and thus our reaction, is often determined by the perceived degree of severity or impact upon our state of being (i.e. Risk). For example, one may be positively excited if there is the belief that the potential harm is minimal but the outcome is fairly reliable. In such a case the internal Risk/Reward scale estimates the negative consequences are low, and thus a stimulating and positive experience (e.g. a roller coaster). On the other hand, one may feel dread if there is the belief that the potential harm is great, or if the ability to secure a positive outcome is unreliable. Then the internal Risk/Reward scale may estimate the potential negatives as too high, and thus something to avoid (e.g. having an apple shot off your head by a blinded archer that suffers from tremors).
There are two utilization’s of the word we will not directly delve into: (A) that of a Profound and Reverential Awe (e.g. “Leave them to God above; him serve and fear.” –Milton), and (B) that of Solicitude, fear in which one is anxious for another, which is an empathic dread whereby one feels the anxiousness within oneself for another’s condition or plight (e.g. “I fear for your children”).
In general, “to fear” is to react or be motivated by an active and present threat, or to concern oneself with a perceived future threat. This precipitates a physical response (not unlike the molecular excitedness of movement & heat) to supply the resources to take action against that which is feared. However, since an anticipatory fear has not yet solidified in the present, we are in an excited state without direction, outlet, or intent. This is the primer to the spark – activated energy tightly contained often explodes unless diffused within us.
Additionally, there is the suspect that we tend to Fear within a fear (i.e. meta-concerns). Our concern as a fear can migrate to a more threatening and substantive “Fear” were we to dwell or otherwise preoccupy ourselves with the conditions of our doubt. Fearing, that is to say to suspect or doubt, is the root action of insecurity. What often escapes many is that fear can be compounded several times over. Examples may include:
- “I hope there’s no lose dogs on this hike” (anticipatory fear = vulnerability)
- “how would I defend myself against a lose dog” (capability fear = anxiety)
- “I couldn’t live with knowing I hurt an animal, even if defending myself” (consequential fear = guilt/shame)
Fear expressed through actual threat, or that which hints strongly through intuitive or instinctive means, dwells within the realm of self-preservation.
That which is generally innate to the animal kingdom as a whole is the apprehension signifying an intuitive (or expectant) threat. That is to say there is the perception of threat even though there is a singular lack of concrete evidence, but neither is motivate purely based on a neurosis or dysfunction whereby the individual’s perceived threat is solely through the distortion of their own given reality. Rather, though while lacking an event or object with sufficient gravitas, there is nonetheless a pattern detected by cues both cognitively recognized and subconsciously perceived that informs us to be wary. This type of fear can usually be directly linked to the survival mechanism… it warns of approaching predators and hidden dangers. Our response is typically primal in nature: fight, flight, freeze, etc.
Signals from our subconscious are an important message containing valuable information we should neither discard or obsess over, but rather acknowledge and balance as to how we should choose to respond.
A given situation might be talking to someone you just met, or walking alone on quiet though bright sunny day. While there is no overt reason for the building apprehension, a part of you “senses” the growing potential of threat, and you react. Frequently these are signs you perceive on a sub-cognitive level, signifying a lack of preparation to handle an anticipated situation (i.e. anxiety). This kind of instinctive fear not only signifies feeling a lack of security for which one may need to prepare, but also hints at the desire to avoid the test altogether.
In essence, anxiety is where we often fear what we are fearing, or fear what we may yet have to fear.
The reactions to the above situation may vary, from collecting yourself to brave the situation regardless of the unheeded warnings, to changing your course of action so as to avoid the potential conflict. What happens many times is that there are attempts made to rationalize these instinctive or intuitive fears. Very often there is a habit of ignoring that “little voice” or quiet ringing bell that goes off when something is wrong because there is no seeming concrete reason to be found for the sense of unease. Even more often is ignoring the warning because the potential of it being right and taking action is more painful to us than the danger. We are experiencing fear in the situation, but we also fear the choice and outcome if we acknowledge and act accordingly.
More times than not our intuition and instinct speaks very clearly, but because we have removed ourselves from our natural self, that signal has become foreign to us or too subtle sounding to take heed.
In part 2 we will continue our examination on the Nature of Fear and conclude.
Copyright Limits Unleashed
originally written 2000, updated & republished 2018