Naming Fear. Also Hats

Jungles in the mind,

Unknown map to be explored —

Darkness makes the fall.

Recently I’ve been feeling like I need to do an MMA match. This is absurd. I’m not yet out of the age range where people do such things but I’m certainly beyond the age when they start their fighting career. Plus I have a white collar job where black eyes are frowned upon and a family depending on me to not have a broken body. There is no upside to doing it.

None save one: I would confront a fear.

… that’s not nothing.

From time to time I get this way. I will realize that I have a fear of something and then fixate on it, unable to really focus until I do something to address it. Last year it was heights. I don’t like heights. I never have. There’s something about the instantaneous permanence of going over the edge of something that I cannot stand. Most mistakes in life leave room and time for correction but, going over a cliff? You’re done. Gravity wins. Naturally when I realized how much this fear bothered me I joined a rock climbing gym, an effort to try and push myself to confront it.

I had some success. Minimal though. I wasn’t able to get to the gym often enough to make real progress. Nonetheless, I tried, and trying makes it better.

Recently though I’ve been having insecurities about my own masculinity. Why? I think because I’m challenging myself more. I’m trying to live out the role of the hero and I am worried I am not up to the task. Strength? I’m fairly strong, stronger than most I’d imagine. Intelligence? Again, here I don’t feel lacking. But courage? Courage? Well, I wasn’t sure. Am I brave? Have I ever really tested that? I didn’t know.

I started to think about what sorts of things would scare me and I realized that an MMA match would be a good one. For context, I’m not a stranger to martial arts. I’ve done jujitsu, wrestled in high school, trained for a while at an MMA gym, and even participated in a few sumo matches. I’m not entirely unfamiliar with combat. And yet, when meditating on my own fears I recalled just how much I *didn’t* like competing in those sorts of contests. I never liked it. In fact I hated it. I remember every wrestling season in school just spending the whole winter with butterflies in my stomach, nervous about my next match. I couldn’t stand that feeling. I stayed on the team only because I loved the camaraderie of my team mates… but boy did I dislike the actual matches.

Thinking about this, I got it in my head that I needed to confront this fear. I needed to go compete again and sign up for a jujitsu tournament. Now, again, I’ve done that before as an adult, even won a tournament before, but, again, I never liked it. And the fact that I didn’t like it so much really bothered me. Of course, as is my tendency, I pushed that sentiment to its extreme: “Well, if you’re nervous about a jujitsu match you would damn sure by scared of an MMA match. You should do that instead! Do the hardest thing and prove you can!” As mentioned, this is absurd. Yet absurd ideas stick around.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something I needed to do so at last I sat down with my fear and meditated on it for a while. I got out my prayer rope and mulled it over while reciting The Jesus Prayer during a long drive.

I asked myself what it was I was really afraid of. This is important. If you have a fear, precisely what it is that you’re scared of may not be the surface thing the fear presents itself as. Naming the fear is important, it lets you deal with it in the most efficient way possible.

For example, a lot of people are afraid to speak up for themselves in front of their boss at work… but are they really? That’s how the fear is manifesting but, is that really what it is?

Well, one way to approach the problem is to isolate the components of the scenario and see where exactly the fear lies. For example, speaking up to your boss has several parts to it. There’s the actual act of verbal confrontation, which everyone fixates on, but, also there’s several other things: the power differential between you, your boss’s position of authority, the threat of being fired, the consequences of being fired, how those you care about would react to you if you got fired, the implications for your home life, the implications for future interactions with your boss after the confrontation takes place… on and on. Where exactly in that morass does the fear reside?

Isolate. Divide and conquer. Divorce each element from the others and see which one specifically is making you afraid. For example, are you afraid, really, of the verbal confrontation? Well maybe not. If you were not your boss’s employee would you be afraid of dressing him down? People engage in verbal conflict between their peers all the time, so maybe the actual verbal confrontation isn’t where the fear is.

Is it the power differential? The fact that he’s in a position of authority? Again, maybe. However lots of people speak down to police officers, politicians, and others in authority all the time, so maybe that’s not it. Likewise, by the same token it therefore can’t be precisely the power differential either, but rather the consequences of that differential. Namely, you could be fired. Even here though we’re probably not at the bottom because lots of people actually sorta want to be fired. They hate their jobs. It would be a relief to not have to go back to the office everyday. Sometimes perhaps they even fantasize about getting canned and never having to put up with it again. So is it being fired? Maybe not. In all likelihood the real fear is either the threat of going broke or, perhaps more likely, *the threat of how others would perceive your broke-ness.*. If that’s the case, then the path to clearing the way forward for the necessary confrontation with your boss may not actually be with him. Rather it may be sitting down with your wife, or your parents, or your friends, and discussing the problem with them first. If ahead of time you secure their support for your decision and they’ve assured you that they’re there for you and on your side… well, you might find that you’re suddenly a lot less afraid of the guy handing out pink slips. You’ve dealt with the real issue. All the layers above it become easier.

I tried a similar thing. As far as I could tell, an MMA match could be broken down into two primary fear elements: 1) fear of being hurt, the actual threat of physical violence and 2) fear of being judged publicly if I failed. Specifically, in the context of my current masculinity insecurities, number two was the fear of having my *masculine ability* judged in public.

So which was it? Where did the fear lie?

I had a couple of clues. First I realized rather quickly that the fear evaporated when I imagined a hypothetical scenario in which I had foreknowledge of my own victory. (By the way, it’s perfectly okay to play such games when working out a problem. In your mind, adjust the scenario to remove and isolate variables. Pin down the thing like a scientist in a lab.). Even in the hypothetical scenario where I also had foreknowledge of being badly hurt, if I *knew*, if I really had certainly I would win, there was no fear. Clearly then the fear lay primarily in the loss and not in the physical confrontation.

But also a second clue was that I had not felt such nervousness, the butterflies in the stomach, when doing sumo. Wrestling, jujitsu, MMA, all these scenarios produced the butterflies but I had competed, and gone up against big and scary guys in sumo with none of that anxiety. That was curious. Why?

I realized it was because neither I nor anyone else took sumo seriously.

In Japan perhaps it’s different, but in American culture that style of wrestling is an oddity, a unique cultural exhibition. It’s not *serious*. No one uses it as a gauge of your masculine prowess. I wasn’t nervous about the combat of a sumo match because it carried no cultural weight. It had no judgment. If I lost… well, it was just a silly eccentric contest. It was nothing *real*.

By contrast boxing, wrestling, MMA, *are* part of my culture’s masculinity measuring tools. That’s why I was afraid. I was not afraid of the combat or being beat up (though naturally that would be unpleasant). I was afraid of being judged. I was afraid of putting my masculinity on display and coming up short.

Ok, what difference does that make? Well, it lets me know my avenues to solving the problem.

If I was truly afraid of combat then addressing that fear would necessitate me going to a gym and getting knocked around. But if I’m rather afraid of being publicly judged…

While I meditated on this for some reason my mind kept being drawn back to a hat that I have. (You should listen to such things. Your subconscious knows things that you don’t. If images keep coming back to you that seem unrelated to the problem at hand, they’re probably not as unrelated as they seem.) This hat is a great hat. A traditional Scottish style golfing hat with red, green, and black and with a little puffy tassel on it and I look smashing in it. I really do. It perfectly matches my face for some reason and makes me feel great. The only trouble is, as it probably sounds, this hat is *very* flamboyant and extravagant. You can’t wear it and not call attention to yourself. People stare. You walk around and you can feel their eyes.

So… I never wore it. I love the hat, it was a gift I cherish, but I haven’t worn it except for a handful of times because of the judgement of the crowds.

And that’s the same thing, isn’t it?

That’s roughly the same fear I was now wrestling with.

So… I started wearing the damn thing. I started getting used to people staring at me. I started accustoming myself to their public judgement of my fashion choice.

And you know what?

The butterflies that entered my stomach when thinking about the MMA match started to go away. I started getting used to being judged, to being singled out by the crowd. No it’s not precisely the same because the hat isn’t a measure of my masculinity (although maybe it is because you have go be damn confident to wear it), but it is being judged, and that’s the primary component of the fear I felt.

So maybe by naming the fear you have, by specifically nailing it down… then you can deal with it. Efficiently. In a way that doesn’t require you to take up rock climbing or get kicked in the head. Whatever your fear is, dissect it. Take it apart. Maybe it’s not so monumental as it seems and maybe you can figure out an easy path around.

Name the Fear. To Name is to control. To control is to win.

And.. maybe one day I’ll still go do that jujitsu tournament. Just for fun. 🙂

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