Like many people, I have struggled with anxiety since college. I had panic attacks just thinking of saying hello to people. Over the last 17 years my anxiety has become almost a non-issue. Although since we all live with fear as a normal, natural phenomena I find that at times it rears it’s head. Sometimes unexpected.
The other day I had an experience of sitting with intense fear for many hours. I was in a meditation circle where a woman was having a very challenging physical experience and thought she might be dying for hours. It was completely terrifying. In the end she was fine and even reported that she felt she needed to have that experience, but hindsight makes everything so easy. It’s in the moments of uncertainty that we are gripped with an almost unbearable anxiety. In those moments when you truly don’t know if you are going to be okay or just how long the suffering is going to last, and the horrible ways your mind tells you it might end.
In this experience I had been working with the way I speak to myself, learning to listen to what I say to myself and to choose to be at cause for how I want that dialogue to go. To choose what I want to say to myself instead.
I found that the fear was so overwhelming that I could not simply tell myself “You are safe.” There is no way I would have believed it. And in fact, I shouldn’t. That part of me that is yelling, screaming at the top of her terrified lungs that it is not safe has in fact kept me safe and alive my whole life. Indeed it is exactly that part that has kept all of human society surviving. We are the stewards of our bodies and it is important to listen to when their vulnerable flesh might be at risk. So to dismiss it as a simple ego-voice that needs repatterning would be dishonoring and, I believe, impossible. However, what IS possible is to repattern the RELATIONSHIP I have to this fear voice.
So, realizing that the way I scare myself by telling myself it’s not safe can’t just be erased by telling myself it is safe, I decided to enter into a healthy dialogue with this part that is simply trying to love and protect me, as no other being is in charge of keeping this physical body safe but the one who inhabits it from the inside: me.
As I sat processing this experience afterwards I let myself begin a dialogue. I was taking a hot bath to soothe myself from the work of staying present while in so much fear and what better place to have this conversation than where the fear would feel comforted. I sat at one side of the bath as my fully present witnessing self, the part of me that knows that all has some sort of divine plan, all is okay, no matter what (including death) and I began: “Hello fear. I see you.” I felt the fear wanting to speak just then so I moved to the other side of the bath and at once I could feel a different part of me inhabiting myself. The part that was full of terror. The part I have always run away from because it so overwhelms me. The part I have wished would just go away for nearly two decades. And I chose to fully inhabit her and let her speak from the place she was in the night before: “It’s not safe! I’m not okay! I don’t know what’s happening!” She was terrified, but felt comforted that her witness would listen to her and help her figure out what she needed. I moved to the other side and again spoke as the witness, my body naturally relaxing into the pose I feel when I am full of faith and calm, “I know. You’re scared. It’s really scary right now.” I didn’t script it. I didn’t fake. I just let myself fully embody each part and speak from that place. I went back and forth as I felt each part wanting to speak, moving each time to physically embody the space of that part of me. In the end the two parts came to a good understanding and I felt them integrated more inside of me. Sitting in the middle of the bath I extended both arms and gently hugged both parts into my heart as one.
This may sound like an odd way to deal with fear, more like acting than going inside to uncover what the fear is about or to have practical tools, but I have found this dialoguing practice to be one of the most effective in dealing with difficult emotions. Usually there are at least 2 parts and they just need to have a good healthy conversation. Sometimes the conversation can take a while if the issue is complicated and deep but often there is good resolution in less than a half hour. What better way to love yourself than to sit down and have a heart to heart with the voices that run you. I have also found that physically moving from one side or seat to another to embody each part is integral in being clear about who is speaking at any given moment.
So next time you are dealing with something you are afraid of, sit down with your fear, quite literally, and have a loving heart to heart with her. She will thank you for it later.
Karen Wolfe, MFT offers depth therapy with practices to deepen your connection to your Self and to others for individuals and couples in the Bay Area and via video conference across California