Fear is fascinating. We all experience it. Or try not to. I see fear as the “thing” at the end of all the worries. The deep horror, as it were, that we try to avoid at all costs. Fear plays a big part in OCD. Part of recovery from the disorder involves digging deeper at first past the compulsions, then the obsessions, right up to the fear that fuels it all. Fear is the reason why those obsessions are there and the uncertainty over the plausibility of that fear causes the compulsions. So it therefore makes sense to get a little more comfortable with these entrenched terrors if you ever want to be free from them. I think fear should be treated as more of a friend rather than a ghastly neighbour you dare not to look at in the face. Fear can give you so much if you approach it in the right manner.
I used to think I had loads of fears. I was scared of: sharp objects, news stories, criticism, organised fun, failure, success, talking to girls, judgement, myself, opinions that contradicted mine, bodily sensations, saving money, bodily movements, sadness, losing friendship, getting old and being happy (in case I lost it!), etc., etc. I was engulfed by fears, every way I turned. As soon as I convinced myself that I was not hated by people close to me I would worry that I was self-obsessed for caring so much. As soon as I reassured myself I was not self-obsessed I would feel good and then worry about when I would stop feeling good. Then I would worry about whether I would always feel worried after feeling good. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the control of all this uncertainty creates more uncertainty to control. You are telling your brain that it is important to keep practicing this ridiculous game.
What massively helped me was realising that a lot of my fears could be distilled down into just a few topics. This was done by asking why. Repeatedly. For example, I looked at why I got nervous talking to girls. This was because I didn’t want them to see that I was nervous. Why? Because then I would not seem strong and confident. Why is that bad? Because then I would not be able to attract them. Why is that bad? Because then I would not be in a relationship. Why is that bad? Because then I would not feel loved. Bingo!
Example 2: I tried to avoid sharp objects. Why? Because they made me feel anxious. Why? Because I was worried I could hurt someone close to me with them. Why is that bad? Because I loved people close to me and I didn’t want them to get hurt. I could never cope with the guilt. Any other reason to be so frightened of sharp objects? Because if I ever hurt anyone accidentally or intentionally everyone would hate me. Why is that bad? Because I would not feel loved.
Example 3: I checked my pulse constantly for any irregularities. Why? Because I needed to check if I was having a heart attack. Why? Because that would be the worst thing ever and maybe I could prevent it from happening if I was constantly vigilant. Why would it be so bad though? Because I don’t want to die.
Once I had bottled all my fears up into a few nasty little bottles they felt much more manageable. I was left with: not feeling loved, death and wasting time/my life on worrying/OCD. Now I had to decide what to do with them. I discovered two fantastic approaches. The first was acceptance. This is simply the process of accepting the external or internal world exactly for what they are. This could seem a terrifying prospect when dealing with your deepest darkest fears. But for me I did not see it that way. The fact I had discovered the subjects I found most horrifying in the world did not alarm me. Instead it was empowering to realise that if I could come to terms with those I could come to terms with anything.
There is a good meditation called ‘The Five Remembrances’ read out by Mark Freeman at the bottom of this post. This gave me a great reference point of how to accept deep fears. The meditation instructs the listener to accept some of life’s difficult truths and to not react to them. The truths include: ‘I will get old’, ‘all my personal relationships will change’ and ‘I will die’. Now your first reaction to hearing these may be “Bit morbid isn’t it?”. Perhaps. But the wisdom and freedom that I felt from starting to accept these was awesome. The instruction to not react to them was paramount. Since I was young I would hear about illness and cope with it by saying to myself “Well I’m not old now so it’s alright”. Or when dying came up in conversation I simply avoided the topic via distraction. But of course these completely normal everyday coping and avoiding strategies are simply compulsions. Giving evidence to your brain that these subjects are monsters to hide under the bed and not look at. It feeds the false belief that you are not capable of handling them.
Instead I determinedly did not try to rationalise these fears. I did not try to comfort myself. I did not Google search websites that would reassure me. I went to a local meditation group that was doing a session on accepting death. I learnt to look at my fears for exactly what they were and embraced the very human emotions of anxiety and concern you would naturally associate with these subjects. After a while those emotions started to ebb away and I felt quite light and refreshed. I realised I could handle those fears because I was no longer trying to change them. The golden reward after this process of acceptance is that you begin to realise the amount of freedom that you do have and the precious nature of having your health and a life to live right now. If you do have OCD I would add that this process (including the meditation below) is by no means easy but it is well worth pursuing if it sounds like it would be of use in your recovery.
I discovered a second philosophical approach to fear that excited me just as much as acceptance. This was the idea that your fears point you towards your greatest desires. Once you discover what your fears are you can flip them and realise what you really value in life. For me the fear of not being loved meant that I so value connection. I did not want to die because I value life and all it has to offer. I did not want to waste time on OCD because I know there is only a finite time to do everything I want to do. It makes a lot more sense to live by those values rather than their fear counterparts.
Limiting beliefs are indeed a window to people’s fears and therefore their values. You hear them all the time. A common one is “I’m not a people person”. Well there’s a fair chance that someone saying that is actually communicating that they don’t like the feeling of social anxiety or the possibility of being judged. Instead they might in fact crave to openly interact with others and express themselves freely. But fear stops them. Another one is “I can’t trust people”. This is another example of a perfect defence mechanism. The likelihood is this person has had their trust broken in the past. So to protect themselves from that heartbreak they have now made it part of their identity that they cannot trust people. But they are capable of trusting people. And it matters to them because otherwise it would not have hurt in the first place. By listening to their fear they are limiting their happiness. If this topic interests you I would highly recommend “Feel the Fear and do it anyway” by Susan Jeffers. Clues in the title.
So I have found it sooo useful in building positive mental health to re-think fear. Getting to know my fears, accepting them and then using them to discover my values has really got at the core of my OCD. I have always found it so inspiring to hear about someone who is diagnosed with a terminal illness and they suddenly get a new lease of life and do everything they ever wanted to do. I think what might happen in (some of) those cases is those people react that way because they already know the worst is coming, so they develop an attitude of “fuck it lets have a party!”. What else is there to be scared about? I used to hear those stories, get inspired and make plans. Then the mind comes in with nuggets of fear and doubt, “It would be pretty dangerous to jump out a plane”, “I can’t save the money to go see the pyramids” or “Maybe swimming with dolphins would actually be a bit shit anyway”. Then you get stuck in the old neurotic world of risk assessing mundanity. It seems when you try to control or avoid fear you live in a self-made prison. When you accept it and flip it you start to feel a bit freer. It’s good to know I no longer need to wait for an awful diagnosis to start properly living.