By Geoffrey Geddes
Ego uses fear to guard its emotional territory. During our evolutionary youth, reflexive fear helped to propagate our species by bolstering our battle skills and energizing our escape. Today, ego-embellished, maladaptive fear sabotages our best efforts to live effectively.
A fly on a cave wall watches Homo Predecessor scrutinize his own hand; HP giggles at the wiggling fingers. He wanders outside, passes beside a watering hole, and bolts at his reflection; the stranger in the water also retreats. HP peeks into the water, and the pool-man peeks back. HP makes faces and watches the image reciprocate, finally realizing his role in both dramas. He exists. He is. He swings his club and down goes a boar, just as before. But now, he ponders as he munches his kill. “Whew,” thinks HP, “if me slower, pig bite me; then me go down; me could DIE!!” Fear of death – a fear provoked by thought rather than circumstance – marks the beginning of ego’s maladaptive reign.
Fear prompts thoughtless action. A charging mammoth leaves no time for analysis; act or perish. Maladaptive fear (i.e., fear triggered by emotions and reflexive thoughts rather than by charging mammoths) also sparks action before our rational mind can determine the action’s suitability. Fear continues to serve our modern culture; it helps us dodge the drunk driver or flee the armed thug. It also clogs our arteries and fills church pews; it supports police recruitment and feeds locksmiths; it disrupts our sleep and stains our shirts. Fear underlies virtually every negative emotion, including regret, worry, anger, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, depression, loneliness, embarrassment, and shame. The persistent, percolating fear, stoked by ego, creates emotional pressure that requires discharge. Negative emotions provide the requisite release, but also feed the cycle of stress/relief that fortifies ego.
“Fight or flight” trips smartly on the evolutionary biologist’s tongue. But fighting and fleeing comprise only two-thirds of our instinctive fear response; we also hide. Watch a startled squirrel. Before he darts away, he freezes, hiding, as it were, in plain sight. Watch any horror movie. Ninety minutes of fleeing not only would be boring, it would be inaccurate. Escaping capture often requires hiding. “Come out, come out wherever you are.”
Ego incites us to prolong or misapply our instinctive fear responses: our impulse to flee becomes anxiety; our itch to fight becomes aggression; and our urge to hide becomes shame. Your boss knocks sharply and opens your office door before you can respond. The intrusion startles you and triggers your flight response. Without ego, your rational mind would quickly correct your perception, transmuting predator to employer, and you might inquire calmly about your next assignment. But ego grabs hold, turning your reflexive desire for escape into anxiety, which moistens your skin, quavers your voice, and produces defensive twitching, all of which play well to your boss’s own authoritative ego drama, escalating an otherwise benign encounter into an emotional farce.
You walk toward your train, sipping your latte and checking your phone for e-mails. Another commuter bumps you, knocking your cell to the ground and upending your coffee. Neither was paying attention; both share blame for the collision. Do you help each other gather your respective belongings and part amicably? Or do you rail at each other’s carelessness and then, assuming no punches are thrown, simmer angrily for the next hour? The initial impact is unexpected and jarring, and might appropriately trigger a raised arm or even a defensive push. Absent ego’s meddling, civility would return quickly, diffusing a fruitless face-off. But ego often flares with protective outrage and transmutes your urge to fight into aggression, prolonging the episode to serve its maladaptive ends.
You touch up your lipstick one more time, struggling to locate a single attractive feature in the mirror. He wouldn’t have asked you out if he thought you were repulsive, right? The light was bad, though. And he was probably drunk. Hell, he was probably just making fun of you. You realize that you have left the bathroom and are now mulling your date fears in front of an open refrigerator. A scoop of yogurt won’t hurt … maybe some peanut butter … maybe a couple of the kids’ cookies. Before you leave, you carefully hide the empty peanut butter jar and cookie bag deep in the trashcan. After driving past the restaurant three times searching for the perfect parking space, you accept divine providence and drive through Fatty McGee’s for some chicken chunks and fries while you ponder the only conundrum that really matters: Letterman or Leno? Hiding in your cave with your drugs of choice affords quick relief from the sharp pain of fear, only to add the sharper pain of shame. Maybe just one more candy bar…
Ego sets distraction traps; regret and worry are two of its favorites. Regret snares our attention and holds it in the past, aiming it at prior failures or disappointments or slights. But regret has no substance; it is a fabricated thought-trap that grows stronger as it churns the mind. Humans err. An authentic life, therefore, requires forgiveness, acceptance, and amends. Regret is not amends; regret is self-flagellation. Only an enlightened being (an apocryphal creature) or a psychopath would fail to experience disappointment at bending a fender or failing an exam. If life skills have been sharpened, disappointment can be experienced without shame or guilt and, through acceptance, channeled into appropriate amends (to others or to oneself). Disappointment, then, is not the target. Aim should be taken at the perverted, ego-driven evolution of disappointment into mulling, fussing, fretting, and, finally, regret – a regret that persists and can surface whenever ego craves attention.
Do you regret downing that shot after years of sobriety? Do you regret smacking your kid? Do you regret stealing that loaf of bread from the sleeping homeless woman? If you relapse, go to a meeting. If you hit your child, hug him, ask him (and your family) for forgiveness, and make an appointment to see a shrink. If you swiped some dough, give it back and get a job. Regret feels like atonement. But regret only compounds your offense and provides you with an excuse to avoid actual amends. Take responsibility, accept the reality of your failings and failures (as well as your assets and good works – more on gratitude later), make amends, and live.
Regret holds the mind in the past; worry traps it in the future. Was ever a goal achieved more quickly with worry? Was ever a problem more efficiently solved? What if I can’t? What if I lose? What will she think of me? As it does with regret, ego uses worry to pull focus from the task at hand, to drag attention away from the present moment. Worry feels sensibly cautious; it is not. Prudence may enhance achievement; worry can only prevent it.
Worry derives from our penchant for fiction. Tell me a story, Mommy – the one about the monster. Maladaptive fear hobbles us, yet we crave it. From demonic cave paintings to the latest zombie film, humans have sought a synthetic fear experience since ego’s birth. Like emotional methadone, risk-free fear squirts adrenalin, accelerates the heart, and readies us for action without the bother of legitimate danger; in its aftermath, we experience a gratifying “whew” of relief. But humans are habit machines. Every experience, every thought, and every reaction sets a mental precedent. Memories of dark woods and dangerous monsters seep into our subconscious and color our perspective. The answer is not to eradicate fairy tales; the answer is to equip ourselves with tools of empowerment.
Deliberation debilitates fear. Fear works most effectively below consciousness, where habits and attitudes are formed. Remember, then, to reflect – breathe and reflect. Practice catching your awareness just before you indulge a fear, and reflect on real consequences. What is the worst possible outcome? Unless your answer is death or torture (and even death may not qualify unless accompanied by prolonged pain), then your fear is as unfounded as your rationalization. No, you will not be stronger tomorrow. Face your fear now. Live now.