The Faces of Fear
Recognizing triggers for our emotional and behavioral responses
Fear. One of our most base emotions riddles our lives in various forms, shocking, startling, and confusing us. In therapy work, I see the manifestations of it as a primary basis for seeking help. It seems there are an awful lot of people who don’t know what to do when they get scared. Let’s explore some together to see if we can get some answers.
Most people are aware of fight, flight, or freeze. In common discourse, a new designator has been established recently, called “fawning”. Let’s table the heady discussion on these, and dive into a broader area that can apply to fear. Conditioning and responding. You remember your Pavlov, yes?
To survive, our brain must create fear associations. An association requires both the fear and an object (or person) that elicits it. We create an association and then it gets lodged in our brain. We are conditioned to make the association. Some might call that programming. As children, we don’t possess the executive brain development to question this with logic. We are powerless in most circumstances as young children. We trust we learn, and we wish for all that is fantastic. We don’t understand the reasoning behind what our parents or others are doing.
So now that we’re adults, what do we do when we experience fear? I say, it depends on the origins of the conditioning. I lead my clients in establishing their origins. What were their childhood, young adulthood, or relationships like? When was the first time they felt fear, and what are their other fears? When did they first feel those?
Where do their lack of assertiveness, their codependency, their abandonment issues, and their hypervigilance come from? How has this made them feel their whole lives? It’s truly a lot of narratives to collect, assemble and then synthesize solutions for.
Next, we’ll discuss the key people. Their parents, their schoolmates, their partners, their leaders, and their community. We talk about the past because it’s important, it’s their conditioning. I can see the eyes dart toward one side of their face as their memories are recalled. “When you first felt this fear you’ve been identifying, who was there, talking, or intimidating you? Can you remember their face when you were feeling so afraid of them?” I ask. Silences follow. “Oh yes, vividly” many of them say.
These are their faces of fear.
Clients name abusers, cheaters, people with narcissistic personality disorders, substance use disorders, and bullies. The messages from the key people in our lives are very powerful in our development. Clients’ fear got instilled early, and they’ve been remembering this ever since. Their faces of fear shaped their lives. Later they’ll talk about how that plays out in many illogical, absurd, yet understandable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
We then talk about their thought process, and how they followed their thoughts, trying to protect themselves. Again, it’s our survival instincts kicking in here. It’s become automatic. Innocent children, remember?
I prompt them to reach deeper. “How has that affected what you do when you feel scared?” I query. You’d be surprised just how many people have been running scared their entire lives. They avoid conflict. They lie. They have masks they choose to wear around certain people (and sometimes everyone).
It’s even theorized that many people who develop personality disorders had it occur as a result of trauma. Some people with the disorder don’t have trauma, but the majority do. We find the same is true with substance use disorders, anger management problems, and sexual problems.
I express my empathy, and then I ask them if the origin of their fear, the message they hardwired into their brain about themselves, and the way they have been “surviving” ever since is functional in their lives. “No,” they say.
I’ve only heard a few arguments about how this has been useful for them, which is usually, creative rationalization, which we also discuss.
I too can place a face with some origins of my fear. My father. I will shamelessly discuss this in my writing because I have nothing to lose. I haven’t spoken with him in eighteen years and I don’t plan to. That’s not because of resentment or lack of forgiveness. I forgave him. He made amends. Nonetheless, I never saw him change his behavior. I’m still working on the fear he influenced so heavily.
My father had severe alcohol use disorder. When he drank, he blacked out and became mean. He abused me physically, verbally, and emotionally from the time I was two until the time I was sixteen. After my parent’s divorce, the physical abuse stopped, though the verbal and emotional was always directed at me with comments and putdowns.
He had stopped drinking when I was ten, however it never tamed his inner rage. That was his real problem. Anger is an evolved form of fear. The anger/fear response is “fight.” My father had plenty of fears, and I heard them regularly. He also programmed me with them. I won’t mention them because I’d rather share them with my therapist. Nonetheless, they affected me heavily. He had his own faces of fear. I can name them too. I do sympathize with him for his childhood.
The major reason I don’t talk to him anymore? Self-protection. Because I’m still working on the fear, my emotional response, and my behaviors as a result of his behaviors. I think chats with my therapist are a safe place for that, and so do my clients.
Sometimes, I can rationalize all kinds of things I do based on what I learned from him. Very little of what my father taught me was useful. It was a childhood of fear, and he was the face. I am not him in the mirror, thankfully.
So back to what we do with the faces of fear.
Our faces of fear are not just solitary. Often they haunt us, yet they take other forms too. They are transposed onto people through mental associations, events, and similarities that we’ve collected in our database of fear. The brain tries to make it simple for us. “Well, that looks like a snake, you remember the one that bit you when you were six, right?” it says.
We use the mental associations, the events, and the similarities with people who aren’t in any way connected to the origin, and the faces of fear. They are new, they never met our aggressors, or we just pass them boarding the train.
Interestingly, we treat them the same. We respond to them the same. We find ourselves hiding, escaping, confronting, cajoling, appeasing, or downright degrading them. It’s not their fault, and in the fundamental sense, it’s not ours either. There is hope. We must recognize first that all of this is taking place.
Plenty of people will never go to therapy, and many of them will never know about this discussion. They’re not tuned in. They’re just reacting. If we share the information with them they may tell us we’re full of crap, or they don’t want to hear all the psychobabble. That’s ok. We’re not here for them. We’re here for you.
You can tailor your responses to the faces of fear. Once you’re aware of all the implications and power dynamics, you’re making progress, and have opportunities to develop your responses with foreknowledge. You can turn all the conditioning and responses around!
Secondly, we can develop alternative concepts of ourselves and our beliefs. The faces of fear don’t get the final say. I do have clients who still have these people in their lives. Even when I understand how discouraging that is, I still encourage them to work on this, because the circumstances could change. Who wants to subject themselves to the messages over and over again if they have the power to break them down and challenge them? To do something different and have it lead to contentment instead of fear?
Finally, the faces of fear do have transformational value to us. When we confront them, question them, question ourselves about facts that contradict the messages they sent, and develop a new frame, they still feel terrifying, they just don’t hold as much power as we do in the now. We can pull back from them and say “Wait a second, I know what’s going on here, but I’m not who I used to be. I will, however, always be who I am, reconditioned and aware of my actions.”
Zachari George is a licensed clinical social worker.