July 16, 2013

What Are You Afraid Of?

It’s not as complicated as you think.

“There are only two emotions; fear and love.” ~ Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

I read this quote many years ago, and it has stayed with me. I’ve repeated it to my friends, family and students more times than I probably should have, and if you are a friend, family member or student of mine reading this, you’ll hear a ding-ding-dinging of recognition. But why has it resonated with me so?

The power of this idea lies in its simplicity.

It is no secret that our emotions can control us. They can be more persuasive than the intellect, they drive our daily needs and decisions, and we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decipher them. Entire industries (pharmaceuticals, health care, self help gurus, religions—and yes, I’m calling that an industry) have been spawned by our desire to understand and control our emotions. What if that understanding could be achieved easily? What if that achievement released us, at least in part, from our emotional bondage?

We generally consider our emotions to be rather complex. We feel grief, depression, boredom, passion, joy, excitement and countless other iterations of feelings. Yet each emotion falls into one of the two categories of fear and love and this is incredibly useful to remember and accept.

If you are having a negative feeling, no matter what you think it is, (apathy, anger whatever) first remind yourself that it is, in reality, fear. Once you establish that, you can ask yourself, what is it I’m afraid of? Simply asking the question and answering it honestly provides a wealth of information.

I found myself recently yelling at my kids to turn down the TV. The exasperation and annoyance I felt was almost overwhelming. Inside my head, this tape ran, “Why does everyone in my house watch so much TV? Why are they so insensitive about leaving it on, even when they’re not in the room? Don’t these kids have anything better to do? My parents never would’ve let me sit around and watch TV all day!” It went on and on.

Right in that moment, I remembered this theory about fear and love. The key was that I remembered it, stopped my internal dialogue, and asked myself the question, “What am I afraid of?”

The answer: I am afraid of being a bad mother. I am afraid that by not being firm enough with my children, I am inadvertently turning them into lazy, entitled people. Also, (this piece is important) I’m afraid that if I enforce no TV times, or even get rid of our televisions entirely like I want to, my children won’t like me—well. None of those fears will serve me, or my children. Because that is true, and it’s also true that operating from a place of love is the higher road, I wondered, how can I see this situation differently?

I can be kind to myself, first of all.

I can remind myself I am a good (not perfect) mom, and that my kids may not like me, but they do love me and that’s enough. I can then calmly, knowing I have nothing to be afraid of, explain to my kids why I will be turning off their show and telling them to find a book to read. They will do it, because they will hear my firm resolve rather than my panicked shrieking. I realize this is not a very dramatic example, but it works every time in every situation—dramatic or otherwise.

Try it yourself. The next time you feel any negative emotion, anything at all, tell yourself: I know this feeling feels like this, but it is actually fear. Then ask yourself what you are afraid of and answer as honestly and completely as you can. As soon as you do that you are likely to be filled with a sense of compassion for yourself and those around you—compassion which is the root of love. You will then be able to change your thoughts, change your feelings, and find a platform of positivity from which to spring.

To practice, I often have my students meditate on times in their lives they felt anything bad, scary, maddening, frustrating, anything negative. I ask them to temporarily accept the idea (even if they don’t agree with it) that the only two real emotions are fear and love. Then I tell them to examine what fear their negative emotion might be hiding, and see that by acknowledging their fears, love begins to automatically reveal itself. It can be quite an eye opening experience.

Try it! Be brave. What are you afraid of?


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photo credit: Pinterest

Assistant Ed: Dana Gornall/Bryonie Wise

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