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The Big Fears

Updated: Jan 24, 2023



This may be one of the most important posts for me to write. The reason we all avoid doing this work and get lost in endless distraction is all connected with the big fears that all humans have. I want to name these fears and talk about them a bit. Remember that the map is not the territory, but being able to put a name to the feeling, especially when you are triggered by that feeling, will help you to navigate it and ultimately release it. Also, treating these fear patterns as protectors is very helpful because they are all trying to help in their own way. Ultimately accepting them over and over again is what will dissolve the suffering around them.


Recognizing these fears is key since in the moment we are not aware at all that we are being controlled by our programming. Also, these fears are all connected. I will start with the ones that develop more recently and work our way back to the earliest fear that we have, the fear of being helpless and unsafe. You may notice that the deeper you go down through the layers, the more primitive the fears become. Deep down we all have the same programming as humans and need to be loved and feel safe (shocking, isn’t it?).


I will discuss each of these fears, but I just want to be clear that these patterns do not exist independently from each other. The later fears, like fear of rejection, are really just a more developed/complicated way of avoiding the deeper fear of being alone and even deeper the fear of being helpless. But we cannot skip ahead. We have to work with whatever is here, so if fear of rejection is what’s here, that’s what you work with. Just stay open to it changing the deeper you go.


Fear of failure - this common fear is what usually comes up first. In our workaholic individualistic culture, we’re usually mostly concerned with our ability to succeed in our careers, not let anything slip by, don’t make any mistakes, etc. This is where we first start to feel into shame, which is the driving force behind the fear of failure. But if we stay curious and explore this fear and ask “well what’s the worst that can happen if I do fail?” we will then start to feel into what is beneath it, which is the deeper need to be accepted and liked by others. If we lived alone on an island, would we still care about being a failure? Probably not. Avoiding failure is often how we learn in childhood to receive validation and acceptance from others. We get rewarded by our caregivers when we do well, and we get punished (or just ignored) if we don’t. There’s nothing wrong with having a need to do well and succeed, but stay open to there being a deeper need that is actually driving this.


Fear of rejection or embarrassment - some call this fear of humiliation. This fear is what leads to a lot of self-abandoning behavior where people act against their self interest because of the unconscious need for validation and approval. People can get into all sorts of unfortunate circumstances due to this fear, like joining a cult or just people pleasing behavior and being afraid to speak up. We are all conditioned from a really young age to act in a way that is acceptable to others. We’re taught to compare ourselves to others, and especially after we hit puberty in adolescence, there arises a sense of self-consciousness that leads to embarrassment, along with social anxiety and masking behavior (which is trying to avoid embarrassment and rejection by acting in the “right” way). Many people act completely differently in social settings as if they become a different person. This is all due to the unconscious need for approval and acceptance, rooted in a fear of rejection. Many of our outward behaviors, including those trying to avoid failure, are due to this fear of being rejected because all humans have a need to belong.


In adolescence we are learning how to fit in and be part of the pack and create a whole social identity that interfaces with the world, and this social identity is not always authentic or healthy. But it offers protection from rejection which is what matters. This fear is mainly focused on outward appearance — “how am I doing?” — by always comparing to others. We learn to wear a mask in order to fit in, and a lot of people spend most of their lives fine-tuning this mask through self improvement, obsessing about social media, etc.

Validation in our society is a poor substitute for love, and underneath the fear of rejection is really just the need to be loved and not hurt. Rejection feels like unlove, doesn’t it? That’s why it hurts, and that’s why we have so many programs or patterns in place to protect us from feeling unloved.


Fear of vulnerability or intimacy - this tends to go hand in hand with fear of rejection. When we are afraid to be vulnerable, we are also afraid to be intimate and close with others since vulnerability is a necessity for close connection. If you notice avoidance of emotional connection with others, difficulty trusting others, or perhaps even a discomfort with physical touch in general, this is the fear of vulnerability which is trying to protect from hurt and rejection.


For those who have a history of trauma and abuse, this protector may be stronger than usual. There may also be resistance to the protection, a sense of “I wish I wasn’t like this. Why can’t I just relax and trust when I get close with someone?” This is perfectly normal because we all desire closeness, intimacy, and love, and this protector can seem to get in the way of that. The frustration with fear of vulnerability I know very well. I suggest treating this part of you as a helper, opening to it by hearing its words and perspective, giving it space, and really honoring it for all the protection it has given you. I’m not saying that you should repress the frustration that you may have with it. But let yourself notice both, if there is both. There may be, at the same time, a sense of “I hate this” and “I need this.” I will write more about oppositional or competing thoughts in another post, but for now just stay open to paradox and acknowledge whatever comes up. Often times the programming makes no sense and seeing that clearly is quite liberating.


Fear of vulnerability is a sense of avoiding closeness in order to protect from potential harm. We may learn to “act cool” and not outwardly express emotion, for example. But like all fears, underneath this one is also the need to be loved and feel safe. What’s the worst that can happen if I am totally vulnerable and open with someone? Stay curious and see what comes up, maybe “they won’t like me” or there will be confirmation of a deficiency pattern like “they’ll see me for being worthless or not good enough”. Whatever comes up, you can start to notice that there is resistance to that outcome, a sense of “I don’t want to be hurt or rejected.” Allowing that resistance is what will start to release the fear since that fear is only repressed due to a resistance pattern (and that pattern is just made up of words). Every layer is trying to protect us and help us, and seeing this is what dissolves the pattern.


Fear of loss - when we start to open up to someone, trust them, care for them, etc., we are also opening ourselves up to losing them. This is a very normal fear that we have because we all intuitively know that nothing lasts forever, and loss is heartbreaking and difficult so we may pretend that it will never happen. Then when it does happen, either through a breakup or death, we may really suffer and get stuck in complicated grief or a depressive episode. The degree to which loss affects us is directly tied to how much we are avoiding the fear of loss and how unresolved the fears are underneath it. It’s not just about losing a particular person, even though it may seem like it is. Fear of loss is actually fueled by the fear of being unloved and alone. I often tell people that loss is the other side of love, and it’s very important that we acknowledge the reality of loss because otherwise we are also repressing our ability to be fully open, express love, and feel connected with those we care about.

Fear of abandonment or being alone - If we go deeper down the rabbit hole and ask ourselves, “what’s the worst that can happen if I am rejected and hurt?” we will start to tap into an earlier childhood fear of being unloved, abandoned, or alone. As an adult you can judge yourself and say “I shouldn’t care at all about this. I’m independent, can survive on my own, etc.” Intellectually your mind can say whatever it wants, but we need to trust our bodies here. If your body is telling you “I don’t want to be alone” then that’s what you have to trust. There’s no way to think your way out of this fear. You may certainly be numb to this fear if you are in a stable relationship, but as soon as the cracks start to show, this core fear will come up. It’s important to understand that this is a completely normal fear that every human has. Humans are social creatures and not meant to survive on their own, especially as children. The need to not be alone, to be loved and accepted, is there in every human being.


This unresolved fear from childhood may have some traumatic memories too, since our parents are never perfect and circumstances do happen where we feel threatened or have to spend time alone. In some cultures like the one I was raised in, children spend a lot of time alone which can have the effect of making you avoidant and emotionally numb (as a way to cope). More and more research is coming out about how traumatizing it is for children to be left alone and disconnected from their sources of love and safety.


Very early on humans will feel this fear of being alone, and expressing it will lead to positive attachment with our caregivers. It is very important for our survival as a species to have the fear of abandonment as it connects with the need for safety.


Even with the most perfect of upbringings, there will still be this fear of being alone in everyone. Unconsciously it can lead to significant self-abandoning behavior, like staying in a relationship that is abusive, avoiding conflict, or acting inauthentically to please others. When unresolved, the fear of abandonment leads to jealousy and controlling behavior, neediness and anxiety whenever there is any threat to the stability of relationships, co-dependent behavior, not wanting to be alone and an obsession with appearance or finding a mate, and even violent behavior. This will almost always show up in close romantic relationships if there is some degree of openness, though it’s not talked about in our culture. It is perfectly normal for this to come up because it wants to be resolved, but we often feel ashamed for having this — “I shouldn’t be needy” — and repress it down more (which is what leads to more needy behavior).

What’s underneath the fear of being alone is the need to be safe, which is there in every human being otherwise you wouldn’t be alive. This is why the fear of being alone can be so strong and why pushing it down doesn’t work. Because the fear of being alone, rejected, unloved, etc. are all driven by the need to be safe and survive. We cannot fight our survival instinct, but understanding the origin of our fears will help to dissipate the intensity and their power over us.


Fear of helplessness, losing control, or being unsafe - this is the king of all fears and is really what is underneath all of the fears above, but again you cannot skip your way here. You have to go down through the layers one at a time and acknowledge whatever comes up for you. But if you are noticing a sense of helplessness, loss of control, and perhaps a very primal panic feeling, this is the fear of helplessness that everybody has.


This fear of being helpless is connected with the fear of death and may feel like a primal restlessness or need to do something or react. Most people never consciously acknowledge this fear because we are too busy trying to fit in, not be rejected, etc. In a sense, that’s why we have those more developed fears, so that we can actually do something about it and feel a sense of control. Would you rather be a failure, rejected by your closest love, or totally helpless (drowning, confused, literally nothing I can do, totally stuck forever in the worst state imaginable, etc)?


Clearly being helpless is a much more vulnerable feeling since there’s not much you can do about it. Think about an infant, completely helpless and dependent on their caregivers. Humans never quite get over that fear actually even into adulthood, and I would say this is totally normal because of the fact that we're taught to ignore and hide our fears so they never get resolved.


If just reading this post brings up a lot of fear, just noticing the resistance will help and allowing that. Putting it into words like, “I don’t want to” and just being with those words a bit, as if you were holding a scared child in your arms. No sense of urgency. Just an openness, as if you were saying “you can be here.”


Hiding this fear is what makes it so charged. The culture that we live in avoids talking about death and the fact that humans are quite fragile and that, to some degree, dependence is necessary for survival. Instead, we're taught to use our will to stay in control. We end up focusing on getting strong and independent and cling to beliefs that help us cope and not feel helpless (by repressing fear). We are all programmed to avoid the reality of our situation by getting stuck in resolving deficiencies, trying not to be weak or incompetent, avoiding rejection and embarrassment by becoming worthy and likable, etc., because these more developed patterns are protecting us from this: the primal fear of being helpless and/or dying. These more developed patterns work quite well to keep us distracted, but at a great cost.


Surprisingly, you may realize that you can actually be curious to stay here and explore the sense of loss of control, the body sensations that feel like helplessness, and the thought pattern that’s trying to push them away. Allowing and staying open, you may find that even being totally helpless is not a problem once we can see the programming that’s constantly trying to escape it. What we repress, persists and grows.

Being willing to explore these fears, particularly the need for control and safety, and accepting that this part of you is valid and trying to help, is a step towards integrating what’s been repressed since very early childhood. By being present to this fear (or any other fear mentioned above) and holding it (by hearing the words) and giving space to the body feelings, you are in essence parenting this part of you in a way that nobody else can do for you. What you are doing for yourself is incredibly important, powerful, and transformative. You are being the loving parent that your own parents could not fully be for you growing up. Nobody else can resolve these fears, except you, and it all starts with the willingness to feel in and see: what is this fear really about right now? Can I hold it gently instead of judging, analyzing, trying to get rid of it, etc.? What does this part of me need right now?


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Sam Roff
Sam Roff
Sep 25, 2022

Love it Michael! A lot of wisdom here and interesting reflections to be made in how these show up for me.

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