Living in Fear

fearSeems like everyone lives in fear of something. We shape our lives around what makes us feel safe. Perhaps there are a few people who don’t feel fear, but they’re weird. (Don’t worry, it’s awesome to be weird.) So yes, almost everyone lets fear shape their lives to some extent, and I want to explore a couple extremes.

One of those extremes is me. Due to some imbalances of brain chemicals, I have several issues with fear. The most troubling is that I wake up almost every morning absolutely terrified. Shaking, unable to speak, sick with fear.

Yet despite that, I still get up every morning, get ready for work, drive thirteen miles, and start working. When you’re faced with potentially paralyzing fear, there are only two things you can do—become paralyzed, or grit your teeth and keep on going.

In addition to the morning terror, which often lasts several hours into the day, I am startled very easily. Especially by physical touch. If I’m not expecting it, I get really freaked out. Loud noises also sometimes leave me with a pounding heart for minutes.

I have social phobia. Just being in the presence of people makes me tense and frightened.

I’ve had a lengthy run-in with PTSD and shorter ones with feelings of agoraphobia.

All that to say, I am well acquainted with fear of the life-changing sort. But here I am with a full-time job, new friends, about to rent my own place to live for the first time in my life. At some point, the fear had been around for so long that it became normal, and now I just keep going in spite of it.

I’ve learned that I can’t let fear stop me. It may stop me from being able to talk, but I can still write. Instead of becoming paralyzed by what I can’t do, I ignore it and go on doing the things that I can.

The other extreme I’ve been thinking about can best be summed up by critiquing ideas from the “emotional purity” movement. To get an idea of what these people believe, read this rather sad article on the blog of someone I know: The Struggle for Emotional Purity

To start with, the scenario laid out by the young woman is a perfect example of why girls shouldn’t be taught that their ultimate purpose is to belong to a man. And, for Pete’s sake, why she should express her feelings instead of waiting in a state of tension for a year without saying anything, just hoping that the guy she likes will ask her father’s permission to pursue marrying her…

Contrary to the analysis presented in the article, the problem with this situation is not that they got “too close”. The problem is that they were not close enough. He kept his distance from her, never disclosing his true intentions. She remained silent, never telling him how she felt. A perfect illustration of why we need to eradicate the ridiculous stigma against the woman approaching the man.

The story is founded on an inherently problematic situation created by the very ideas that are supposed to prevent it.

But before I critique those ideas, let me give a real-life story of How To Do It Right, lest you suppose that I am speaking from ignorance. This story is just one of several like it from my own life, and I doubt it will be the last.

I met a girl through a writing group, and in a very short time we became close friends. So close that before long there wasn’t really anything we kept from each other. It’s a classic example of emotional impurity. We talked of our worst fears, our darkest secrets, our most troubling insecurities. And we both had thoughts of marrying the other before either of us brought it up.

Can you imagine the author of that blog shaking his head at my dangerous level of emotional closeness? Of course, because we were so close, we were able to feel comfortable and safe with bringing up our thoughts of starting a relationship.

I visited the girl and spent a couple days hanging out. Her father took us on a cruise in a magnificent convertible 1965 Mustang. We spent time alone. Hugged. Shared food. And we talked.

We ultimately decided a relationship wouldn’t be best, considering the different directions we’re headed in terms of religion, and how stubborn we both are…among other things.

So here we are, still close friends like we’ve always been, with no heartbreak, and some great memories of hanging out. All thanks to emotional honesty.

What the “emotional purity” people propose is really emotional constipation. It’s an extreme response to fear that gives into it, rather than going against it.

They say: When a guy starts paying attention to a girl, whether out of politeness or genuine interest, it is the inclination of a girl to want to run with it. If a girl feels safe with a guy, she will start to share her heart with him.

I say yes! That is how it should be. Of course, any attention should be given out of genuine interest in her as a person, not merely out of politeness. That part of the phrase subtly presents a false dichotomy…that is, either a guy is just being polite for the sake of politeness, or he is interested in a relationship.

Reality is that some of us guys are genuinely interested in people. And if anyone feels safe with anyone, they should naturally want to “share their heart”. It’s part of being human and showing love for our fellow humans.

When you reduce the opposite gender to being either “someone to be distantly polite to” or “someone to potentially marry and/or have sex with”, you’re saying the only real relationship you can have between a male and a female is a sexual one. And that simply isn’t true. This next quote illustrates how they sexualize emotional purity…

They say: Never make physical contact unless absolutely necessary. No hugging, touching her arm, and don’t stand too close to her.

I say this is innocent human interaction. I hug my male friends, touch them, stand close to them, yet they wouldn’t consider that sexual. I do it with my sisters too, and still it isn’t considered sexual. But if I do the same with a girl who I don’t happen to be related to, I’m being inappropriate (which is Fundamentalist Speak for “sexually arousing”). I have an issue with this, because my love language is physical touch. I need it to feel connected to people. And no, it won’t make me suddenly fall in love with a girl.

Even if it did, I can handle falling in love. Unlike the people who promote emotional purity, I don’t run in fear from the possibility of heartbreak. Partly because I’m much less likely to become heartbroken thanks to my emotionally open approach, and partly because reacting to fear of something good turning bad with total avoidance of the good thing is not going to actually make the fear go away.

They say: Try to remain in a group setting. Don’t take off with her somewhere or separate a little from everyone. The female may very well take that as a sign of interest.

I say if you’re taking something as a sign of interest, ask if it is! There’s no need for these complex and mysterious dances around the elephant in the room. Just ask. I’m sure the guy would appreciate being able to communicate openly, instead of being afraid that you’ll break off the friendship if he shows just a bit too much “interest”. If he’s really interested like that, he’s probably trying to get to know you better before he decides if he thinks you would be a good person to pursue a relationship with, or if it would be better to keep it platonic.

They say: Don’t ask about her feelings, and don’t ask her what she is thinking. She is likely to share her heart, because she will feel like her words and thoughts are valued, and that is a danger zone. I think this is the most important point of all.

I think it’s the saddest point of all. I honestly feel bad for this girl. She’s trying to do the right thing, staying at home and waiting for a great young man to come ask her father if he can marry her…so that he can start getting to know her.

Is it just me, or is that seriously backwards? Okay, the young man would be asking for permission to “court” her. This means he had better end up marrying her, or figure how to back out of the relationship without breaking her heart. Which, given how unhealthily obsessed the girl in the example story became when treated with basic human decency as a friend…looks to be just about impossible.

One does not simply enter into a courtship without being serious about marrying the girl. And when you don’t even know her that is a very daunting prospect. In a frantic effort to feel safe from the fear of a broken heart, they’ve only created more fear.

The saddest part is that it’s supposedly a danger zone when the girl feels like her words and thoughts are valued. That’s honestly heartbreaking. Everyone’s words and thoughts are valuable. If someone doesn’t feel that they are, we should make an effort to change that.

Dear girl who wrote the article, I wonder if maybe the example you gave wasn’t so much fictional, but maybe a story from your own life. As someone who has experienced both a crush very similar to what you described, and real heartbreak, let me tell you that I understand.

I understand the fear. It can be overwhelming, this fear that your words and thoughts aren’t valuable, that you will be alone, that you’ll find someone and truly believe they are “the one” and then end up broken after they leave.

I understand it far too well. I also understand that attempting to save yourself from the things you fear with emotional distance will only make it harder to really love people. In fact it will make a relationship more likely to end in heartbreak. After spending so many years practicing diligent emotional purity around guys, how will you suddenly learn to be as open and vulnerable as a relationship requires?

I went through a relationship I almost entirely regret except for one thing: I learned that I must act contrary to the fear whenever possible, not give into it.

I don’t know if this article of yours is truly what you want to believe, or if you hold onto these ideas merely because it’s all you know, or if you think you can’t believe something else because you would disappoint the people who have power over you.

Whatever it is, I hope you know that your thoughts and feelings are valued. I hope your dreams of a wonderful husband come true…and I hope you know that you don’t have to stay at home and wait for him to notice you. If you notice a guy and you like him, then tell him so. It’s far better to get it out in the open so you can decide together if you’re interested in pursuing a relationship, or if you will remain “just friends”. (By the way, there’s nothing “just” about being friends. Real friendship is awesome.)

If you practice emotional openness instead of building walls, it’s far less likely to end in heartbreak, because you won’t spend a year wondering if he likes you or not.

I hope you will find a healthy way to deal with these fears and desires, because I know they hurt. And they will always hurt, even when you find your man, so I think it’s better not to keep trying to make them stop hurting, but to press through the pain and keep on going despite the fear.

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