“ Fears are educated into us, and can, if we wish, be educated out.”
Karl Augustus Menninger
Fear and anxieties grow out of our childhood. Your childhood does not have to be perfect for you to thrive as a reasonably adjusted adult. But if your childhood was seriously lacking in core areas necessary for your psychological development then you may well have an excessively high element of fear and anxiety in your life.
Core Areas for healthy psychological development:
Safety is a core area of a child’s life that is crucial for his psychological development. A child must feel safe within his childhood home. What happened in your childhood home? Did you feel safe? People who were abused or abandoned as children often feel that the world is not a safe place, they feel terrified, vulnerable and just want to run away and hide. This is hardly surprising. If you spent your childhood being afraid of parents who fought all the time or who abused you verbally or physically or who left you alone for long periods of time, then it is only natural that fear will play a large part in your life. As a child you had every right to expect your childhood home to be a place where you were loved, cared for and protected but alas your experiences may not reflect this.
Jeffrey was a client of mine who had experienced an unstable home life. He had a mother who showed signs of being mentally damaged and unstable and a father who could not stand up to the mother. Jeffrey never felt safe in his family home, mostly from the vicious tongue of an irrational mother who would lash out at him often for no good reason. Jeffrey was never sure what to expect from his mother when he returned home after school. He spent all his childhood on edge and worrying about what his mother would say to him next. He never felt that he could relax and trust anyone and he knew that he could never live up to his mother’s expectations.
Jeffrey spent much of adult life alone. He avoided relationships and suffered serious self- esteem issues believing that he was not good enough. To give himself a degree of comfort Jeffrey turned to food. He eats when he is feeling down or scared. This led him to become obese and suffer the consequent health issues that surround obesity. He also avoided situations where he would meet women and situations where he lacked the confidence to succeed. Avoiding became a way of life for Jeffrey when he felt threatened. And this avoidance, which was a defence to protect him from pain, became an avoidance personality disorder whereby his quality of life was seriously impaired.
Whilst Jeffrey wanted to have a relationship, he was too afraid to get close to anyone. He hid behind his weight, which protected him from relationships. He thought that most women would not look at him twice because of his ugly appearance. Jeffery is torn between wanting a loving relationship and the fears that are called up when he does open himself up to women. After long-term therapy Jeffrey was able to shed some of his weight and start to date women for the first time in his life.
2) Relationships and Connections
Another core issue of a child’s life is connection with others. In order for that to occur, the child needs to experience love, affection, understanding and empathy from his family and friends. Are you connected with your parents, siblings and friends or do you feel disconnected from them? Did you grow up in an emotional vacuum? Do you long for a relationship that you do not have? Are you lonely? Do you keep everyone at a distance? Do you find all relationships a strain?
Peter was a young man who I only saw once, as he was too afraid to come back for a second session. His problem was that he could only have sex with prostitutes. And yet he wanted to have a normal relationship with a woman but he simply couldn’t bring himself to. Sex with a prostitute did not threaten him but sex with a woman that he might love was overwhelming for him. He kept all his relationships on a shallow superficial basis so that they did not trigger his fears of truly being close to someone. He badly needed to stick with therapy and yet even the very thing that he wanted and needed Peter was scared of. I could not force Peter to stay in therapy, I tried to persuade him that all his fears were in his head but for him any relationship; personal or professional was toxic to him. He will only return to therapy when the pain of not being in therapy is too much to bear.
Another core issue of childhood is autonomy. Autonomy is the ability to step away from family and friends and be able to function independently in the world. Whilst it is ok to be dependent on others at times in your life it is unhealthy to be so dependent that you cannot have a life and an identity of your own. What was your childhood like? Were you encouraged to step outside of home to make your own mistakes and to find your true self? Or did you have an unhealthy childhood that encouraged dependence and fusion? Did your parents direct your life so much so that they wanted to do everything for you and when you tried to step out alone they undermined your efforts? Did they warn you that the world was a dangerous place full of bad people who would do bad things to you if you left home? Did you listen to them?
If you do not learn to be an autonomous individual then you are dependent. You fail to develop a belief that you are a competent individual and doubt your abilities to function in the world. Even if you leave home you search out someone who can replace your parents in the world. Someone who seems stronger and more capable than you, usually a partner or spouse who can be a stand in parent. Dependent people often have an enmeshed sense as they become completely taken over by their partners’ life and lose themselves in their relationship. This is why many women to take on the role of housewife are often more depressed than many women who have a career outside of the home.
Jane was a middle-aged woman who had always wanted a career but had never had one. She had spent her whole life being a mother and wife and had never ventured out into the business world. This was because of an overly protective and critical father who had never encouraged her to be independent. And when she wanted to leave home and go to university he refused to let her go. She did eventually run away from home on two occasions only to be dragged back kicking and screaming. Jane joined a dating agency and found a man who wanted to marry her. She saw this as her chance to finally escape her home situation and eloped with him. Unfortunately her new partner was of a similar temperament as her father and did not want her to work either and so Jane stayed home to be a mother and wife. Something that never did fulfill her and she spent most of her life in regret and wishing that she had had the guts to stand up to her father and her spouse. After long-term therapy Jane, now in her fifties, is attempting to open her own business.
Self-esteem is the feeling that you are an ok person. If you have a good self -esteem, you do not doubt your abilities and believe that you are a good and worthwhile person. A good self- esteem comes from feeling loved and respected as a child. Did you receive praise and encouragement without too much criticism and rejection when you were a child? Perhaps you did not feel loved when you were a child. Some parents never tell their child that they love them even if they do. Was this your experience of childhood? If you did not receive the love and acceptance of your parents as a child, as an adult you will lack self- confidence and feel inferior to other people. You can be hypersensitive to criticism and rejection and can believe that somehow you are defective and a failure. If you believe this then fear and anxiety can stop you moving forward with your life because you spend all of your time worrying that you are not good enough.
5) Communication and Feelings
The ability to communicate and to express your feelings is another core issue that should be part of a healthy childhood. As a child you have a right to express your needs and emotions. In your childhood did your parents listen to you? Were your needs as important as your parents? Were you free to act spontaneously without being put down and inhibited? Were you allowed to play a part in decisions that affected you?
If you were encouraged to express ideas and show your emotions in a reasonable way in your family home and were allowed to play and express yourself freely then you were lucky indeed. In many families children are discouraged from expressing their opinion. A healthy expression of anger or sadness is often not acceptable and work and achievement is usually encouraged at the expense of pleasure and relaxation. Was your childhood experience one of being criticised and controlled? If that is the case you are probably afraid to express your real feelings because you are afraid of the response of others.
The reasons why you are afraid are unique to you. Your fears and anxieties grow out of your childhood and reverberate throughout your life mostly when you least want them to. The level of your fears and anxiety is largely dependent on how dysfunctional your childhood was. If fear has played a significant part in your childhood years it stands to reason that despite being an adult on the outside you are still suffering from all those childhood fears on the inside.
Fear is self- defeating, it robs you of your life, it keeps you stalled, stuck in a place which might feel safe but is ultimately not satisfying and preventing you from living the life you want to live.