Labyrinth of Fears • Unmasking the 25 Faces of Fear
I love Elizabeth Gilbert's quote, "Fear is the most boring thing about you." And yet, fear takes up such a huge space in our minds, emotions, bodies and energy field.
Why do certain people succeed while others struggle? Why do certain people actualize their potential while others prolong their own suffering? Fear is a top culprit.
Why do you swirl yourself in busyness? Why do you drown yourself in overwhelm? Why do you chock yourself with perfectionism? Because you believe that fear is telling the truth.
With my coaching clients, I do a Fears Drilldown exercise:
- Step 1. They name aaaaaall their fears, leaving no stone unturned.
- Step 2. For each fear, we speak every worst case scenario, such that they feel immense relief and freedom to just say it out loud, uncensored.
- Step 3. We then drill down each fear to the root of that fear, then the root of that next fear, and so on.
- Step 4. I repeat Step 3 until they laugh out loud because they suddenly see the pattern that aaaaall their fears drill down to the same one fear. Sometimes the laughter comes with tears of joy / enlightenment, other times with tears of hysteria / madness. Either way, there was a breakthrough!
- Step 5. I comfort my clients that there are simple and elegant ways to dissolve fear. And we get to work, not through self-flagellation, but through joy and grace.
I've known every single fear on this flowchart, more times than a calculator can count. Turns out there aren’t 25 different types of fear. There is one root fear, which wears 25 different masks.
We’re afraid to fail. We're afraid to succeed. We're afraid of being too small. We're afraid of being too large. We're afraid of being not enough. We're afraid of being too much. We’re afraid of dying. We're afraid of living. No wonder we feel nuts, living with foot on the gas pedal and handbrake on. 😝
So how do you exit this labyrinth of fear? You face the root fear.
If you could unmask each one and poke it in the eye, could you become fear-less, as in less fearful? If you practiced fear dissolution, could you become fear-free? Let’s explore.
Intimacy with fear dissolves the fear.
– Ellany Lea
What are some of the most common barriers to success? Procrastination, busyness as form of avoidance, the 3Ps of Patriarchy (pleasing, perfecting and producing), resistance, etc. If we drill down a layer, we’ll find that they all stem from the fear of being seen as you are.
If you’ve never been seen and acknowledged for who you truly are, then you'll face the fear of the unknown ➙.
If you do put yourself out there and you are seen, then you’ve just opened yourself up to criticism and the fear of criticism ➙.
If people see you greater than your desired identity, you may feel flattered for a moment but soon fall into the fear of success ➙, "What if I can't live up to that image?"
If people see you lesser than your desired identity, you feel resentful, invisible, neglected, even abandoned. This triggers strong childhood wounds that you don't want to feel again, so you develop a fear of pain and rage ➙ (which you were not allowed to express or severely punished for expressing).
Any injustice that wasn’t allowed to be healthily expressed or worked through turns to pain. Any pain that wasn’t allowed to be healthily expressed or worked through turns to anger. Any anger that wasn’t allowed to be healthily expressed or worked through turns to rage. Any anger that wasn’t allowed to be healthily expressed or worked through turns to grief. So a fear of pain / rage is really a fear of grief.
What top 3 challenges do I hear most from women? Burnout, overwhelm, not enough time. Drill down one layer and you’ll see a fear of setting boundaries.
If, like me several years ago, you’ve never even heard of this thing called “boundaries,” then you’ll face the fear of the unknown. Setting boundaries is completely foreign territory: you could thrive or you could die!
If it’s not your first time setting boundaries, then you probably already faced the fear of loss. At the same time, you know that if you don’t set and maintain those boundaries, you’ll burn out (again).
Let’s say you become a role model of setting mighty fine boundaries. Then you’ll likely face the fear of success, “But then I'll end up alone (again), unloved (again)?”
Fear of setting boundaries is also a mask for the fear of not being liked, aka the fear of not being worthy of being liked, aka the fear of shame.
“Self-care is not selfish,” was one the most transformational truths that my mentor taught me. A woman cannot give graciously and joyfully, without resentment, from an empty cup, only from her overflow.
This means that if a woman were to be truly loved, then she’d have to prioritize herself and not come rock-bottom last anymore. She’d either have to step to the forefront and demand respect (fear of being seen) or hand out a lot of no’s (fear of setting boundaries).
By overcoming fears, whether through success, failure, burnout, surrender or setting boundaries, you’ve likely lost “friends,” “home,” the familiar past, your old comfort zone, even past excuses you can't use or people you can’t blame anymore.
Sunken cost is more specifically the fear of loss of time, which is synonymous with the fear of mortality, of running out of time before you do everything that your soul truly yearns to do on this Earth.
The hardest pill to swallow is that you didn’t lose time, but you wasted it away. Add to that loss after loss of country, home, job, health, love, innocence, etc., it’s no wonder you develop a fear of grief. It would be all too consuming to mourn the enormity of your losses and face your ego’s self-sabotage that co-created the loss in the first place.
For people who self-reflect, especially women who self-blame because Culture made them out to be inadequate or wrong for their existence, the self-blame inevitably leads to low or lack of self-worth, to shame, and to the deeper the fear of shame.
For those who have suffered a blow, a shocking loss, it’s common to fall into such despair and depression from having lost “everything,”* which uncovers the fear of meaninglessness, "What was the point of it all?"
And now that you’ve lost “everything,”* you’re naked, exposed, maybe safe, but probably unsafe. This is a mask for the fear of vulnerability.
Lastly, for those like me who have known rock bottom, the only way left is up. From a blank canvas is one of the best ways to create your life anew. Re-building can be exciting, but most often it sounds like, “Oh no, not again, not another round of uphill climb and walking through fire!” which is the fear of The Heroine’s Journey.
* I put “everything” in quotes because through the lenses of fear, your ego-mind convinces you that you’ve lost everything. But if you’re capable of even hearing your fearful thoughts, then you haven’t lost everything. You’re still conscious, you can still have thoughts and hear them. You haven’t lost your brain, heart, soul, nor courage, creativity, and ability to rise.
Grief is probably the 3rd most challenging emotion after shame and despair. You never know when it’ll hit. But you do know that when it hits, it’ll hit strong like a tsunami. You don’t know how long it’ll last, tumbling you like a lone sock in a washing machine.
People may tell you that it passes, but it doesn’t seem to. With time and healing, you come out of the fog of grief and realize that it has subsided in intensity and frequency. But even so, grief can attack at anytime, any place, triggered by anything, including a random jar of guacamole in aisle 5.
For those who have lost much and grieved much, they may be more grief resilient. But for most, the fear of grief is a mask for the fear of overwhelm, the inability to digest the grandeur of your own emotions.
The fear of the unknown means you have no idea how things will turn out. Anything could happen. To a teeny tiny percentage of the population, this can be thrilling.
But to the other 99.8%, trying to guess the outcome is like painting a doomsday canvas. Beneath this fear is actually the fear of vulnerability, of being exposed to the dark abyss of your own psyche, the lovelessness of others, and even the omnipotent will of the Universe, who knows?!?
For all you know, you could actually succeed and then be faced with a myriad of problems you didn’t have before like leeches, thieves and assholes (fear of success).
This uncertainty and hyper-inflated doubt can be terrifying, generating an irrational fear of fear.
Yes, boys and girls, the fear of fear is a real thing! Your ego feels threatened and will do whatever it takes to sabotage you in order to keep itself “alive” and in charge, even if it means keeping you safe and small, ie fear of insignificance.
If the fear is too large and/or too constant, it leads to a fear of overwhelm.
If you’re brave enough to do anything worth remarking on, then there’s 100.00% chance that you’ll be criticized by unconscious, unloving, fearful and/or envious people.
What if I say something stupid or look stupid? Beneath this fear of criticism is the deeper fear that you won’t be able to tolerate the <da, da, da, da, da, da, da> machine gun of inhumane insults and criticism fired at you every second of every hour of every day, while you’re awake and while you’re sleeping. This is the fear of pain that words hurt 10,000X more than sticks and stones.
You’ve also seen instances where critics en mass took it too far to cyber-bullying, driving to suicide, witch hunting and witch burning. This is the very real archetypal fear of persecution.
“What if the critics are right, that I am a joke and I suck all around?” This is the fear of shame talking.
The fear of The Heroine’s Journey represents a lack of trust in self and sounds like:
- “Oh no, not another effing test?!? How many more rounds of arduous climbs, burning through fire and letting go?!? (fear of the unknown)
- “Oh crap, you mean I have to start all over, from scratch?!? I’m exhausted, I don’t think I can do this again!” (fear of burnout)
- “What if I don’t make it out alive this time?” (fear of death)
- “What and how much is it gonna cost me this time?!?” (fear of poverty)
- “You gotta be kidding me, I’m too old for this shit?!? Even if I go all in, what if it doesn’t work?” (fear of failure)
- “How many identity crises can one person have?!? What if I do all this work again and end up at the same point as when I started?!?” (fear of meaninglessness)
- “I’ve aced the previous 131 tests!!! How many more effing tests are there?!?” (fear of being trapped)
Like J.K. Rowling said in a commencement speech, “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
There comes a time on the soul maturation journey when blaming others, parents. school, work, society, even self (via self-hatred) just doesn’t work anymore. It’s like throwing popsicle sticks at a microwave. Moot. The only way out is through the fire.
The fear of overwhelm is the fear of the enormity of your emotions, as if your emotions were the raging sea and you, the lone Captain Ahab. At anytime, you might be engulfed into its dark belly and die! You are right to fear death (because you might not yet know that: 1. you are not your emotions, but you have emotions, 2. Emotions shrink when you face them, 3. your courage is far greater than your fears).
Fear of overwhelm gets exacerbated when the ego-mind has you believe that you’ll be caged in overwhelm forever, which inflates overwhelm even more, which inflates the fear of being trapped even more, hence an infinite loop.
This is the claustrophobic fear of being trapped in an eternal loop of misery, repeating gnarly past behaviours thus obtaining the same unsuccessful results. It is synonymous with the fear of immortality, of being stuck in a perpetual crap-dom, where death would be a welcomed relief.
In this trap, since death is not an option, the fear of overwhelm sets in, not knowing how long you’ll be trapped in this eternal hell. This is where suicide ideation often rears its monstrous head, cuffing one of hand with “what if I actually act on suicidal impulses?” and cuffing the other hand with “what if I attempt to die and it doesn’t work and I’m still trapped here?!?”
For those brave and hopeful enough to claw their way out of hell, they face the fear of another arduous Heroine’s Journey.
Note: Self-hatred and shame are usually the two culprits of this entrapment. The fear of ending up like your mom, dad, <insert name of person you don’t want to end up like> falls into this category too.
The fear of burnout is equivalent to the fear of martyring oneself (again) to the 3Ps of Patriarchy: pleasing, perfecting, producing.
Especially if you’ve done the rigorous personal growth or soul maturation work to free yourself from the 3Ps, then there’s inevitably the fear of losing your newfound peace / joy / freedom.
If this is not your first burnout, the body keeps score and your cells remember how you starved it of nutrition, sleep, air, movement and love last time. You’re painfully aware of the gargantuan effort to recover from burnout, including residual or permanent health damage. So beneath the fear of burnout is the fear of being trapped by the 3Ps in an endless loop of burnout.
Meaninglessness is a cocktail of despair, hopelessness, insignificance and purposeless that sounds like, “After all this work, was there no point to any of it?” The disappointment of not having actualized your potential, dreamed a bigger vision, played a bigger game or contributed a legacy asks, “Did I not matter at all?” This fear of “no point” (nihil in Latin) is the fear of annihilation, of complete extinction, ie the fear of death.
Especially if you tried your best and the outcome bombed in your face, meaninglessness sets in as the second hardest emotion to digest after shame. At least with shame, you can do something, even if it’s unhealthy numbing via busyness, alcohol, another person, etc.
With meaninglessness comes a depression and apathy, where there’s no desire, no will, no drive, no ability to do anything. And that is terrifying for an overachiever / go-getter / super-doer, to be paralysed, unable to do anything. This unmasks the deeper fear of being trapped in apathy, to a point where you wish for death to end your suffering.
So on one hand, you fear vanishing (ie fear mortality). On the other hand, you fear being unable to vanish (ie fear of immortality). No wonder we’re all so nuts!
Fear of poverty is the belief that you’ll end up bankrupt and/or homeless. Whether there is or isn’t enough to go around, you don’t get to have any. This fear especially asks, “Who will pay my bills or care for me while I heal / build / re-build?”
When you’re circumstantially poor, you’re at higher risk of living with fear of the unknown and fear of vulnerability. Some brave souls use these fears to overcome their circumstances and become the most resilient humans on the planet, while most live in constant fight, flight or freeze.
Let’s say you do go bankrupt and become homeless. Then the fear of poverty is but a mask for the fear of shame, which berates, “You couldn’t get your act together. What is wrong with you?! This is your fault. You should have done better.” Worse yet is if others find out about your poverty, then the public shame leads straight to the fear of persecution.
This is by far the most difficult fear to face. It is emotional, neurological, bio-chemical, physical, psychological, spiritual, cultural, inside the DNA of your cells.
Of the 25 faces of fear, if I had to pick just one as the ultimate mother of all fears, I’d say it’s the fear of shame, followed closely by the fear of The Heroine’s Journey. The former whips you with barbed wires, chanting your worthlessness as you plow the fields like an ox. The latter prepares a 10m bonfire for you to walk through. Dang, this life on Earth can be brutal!
You know shame. It feels like the shock-therapy collar around your neck when it’s your turn to speak. It feels like the hot flashes on your cheeks, armpits or back when you made a mistake. It feels like a nauseous, vertigo feeling in the pit of your gut when someone or something shut you down. It can also feel like your soul left your body, your brain fogged over, and you're an empty shell.
It’s no wonder of shame is a direct path to the fear of overwhelm.
To me, surrender is not giving up or capitulating. Surrender is accepting, engaging with and enjoying the organic unfolding of your life. So why do we fear surrender so much? Because surrender is a mask for 4 deeper fears:
- We fear the unknown, that sinking disappointment if we take a giant leap of faith and the Universe rewards us with divorce, cancer or bankruptcy, instead of love, fulfillment and money.
- We fear loss of control.
- We don’t trust ourselves. We fear The Heroine’s Journey, another effing round of fire, tests, fire, burning, and rising.
- We don’t trust others. We fear being betrayed (again) and left vulnerable.
- We don’t trust God. We fear the power of Life and universal intelligence.
With every loss of trust in ourselves, others and/or Life, we were striped of our innocence.
Everyone knows about the fear of failure, but the fear of success was a surprising discovery to me. Who knew such a fear even existed?!?
The fear of success often sounds like, “Oh, shit, what if I can’t live up to those high standards, sustain this level of success, or meet ever increasing expectations?” This fear is intimately correlated with the Imposter Syndrome, the fear of being found out as a fraud.
Success often means you’ve made it to the top:
- where it’s really isolating, which is a self-aggrandizing fear of scarcity, as if the top is only reserved for your lonesome ass, and
- where you start to worry that the only other direction is down and you have further to fall this time.
You know that saying, “What if I fail. Oh but darling, what if you fly?” Let’s say best case scenario, you succeed, big time! Then inevitably, the fear of the unknown will show itself with a plague of worries, “What if more is demanded of me? Will I be called to stretch outside my comfort zone again?!?” These worries are masks for the fear of another Heroine’s Journey.
“What if I get so busy that I don’t get to enjoy life anymore? What if this newly attained success attracts more leeches, thieves and assholes who take advantage of me?” These worries are masks for the fear of loss of balance, fortune, health, joy, etc..
Fear says, "If I fail, then end up in the poorhouse." This is a mask for the fear of poverty.
Especially if you tried your best, but still failed, it can be so hard to swallow. “I knew it, I am a worthless piece of shit,” is shame talking. It can be so viscerally brutal that you develop a fear of shame.
Or you may fall into a despair that asks, “Why bother ever trying again?” This is a mask for the fear of meaninglessness.
Beneath the fear of failure also lives the fear of loss of that founder’s spark, initial innocent hope, that driving passion, and unfeathered enthusiasm. After a blow or failure, all that can be lost and so hard to feel through.
On a good day, fear of vulnerability feels like being naked. On a bad day, it feels like your skin is inside out, rubbed against a cheese grater. A cavewoman without a tribe gets eaten by the lion. This is an ancient, primordial, irrational need for safety.
For those who don’t have as much experience sitting in discomfort, vulnerability can be too raw to bare. This uncovers the fear of overwhelm, that vulnerability is a whale that will swallow your little fish tale whole.
If you’ve ever been expelled by a tribe, then you know the feeling of being unprotected, alone, unsafe, isolated, and unloved for who you are. The emotional pain of non-belonging, of being left to rot, lead to a very potent fear of death that overpowers rationality.
And if the tribe didn’t expel you, but you chose to leave the tribe in search of freedom, love or adventure, then they may come after you with pitchforks to hunt you down and drag you back. This is the very, very real fear of persecution / witch burning that women, who are far ahead of their time, have experienced.
This is the fear of being hunted, burnt at the stake or crucified for being too bright, too wise, too outspoken, in short “too much.” It’s a retaliation and public shaming for non-conformity (the tribe left you) and/or disloyalty (you left the tribe). Gosh, those jealous, vengeful mofos!
The fear of persecution is also a mask for the fear of vulnerability, because you don’t know when they’ll come burn your house down or behead your loved ones. This fear of vulnerability is itself a mask for the hypervigilant fear of persecution. And now you've got yourself an infinity loop of fears.
I hear this often from modern “mystics out of monasteries,” empaths and highly sensitive women, “This Earth is so harsh. What if I can't hack it?” They mistakenly believe that their worth is measured by their ability to kill, pillage and hoard. Of course they'll fall short if that's the measuring stick that their shame uses.
Lastly, as a witch stands on that wooden platform with the noose around her neck, about to be burned by “queen bee” gossip / lies, cyber-bullying, in-real-life bullying, hate comments, narcissist firing squad, her every cell goes into fight, flight or freeze, and she's left with only the fear of death.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. [...]
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
– Marianne Williamson
The fear of Life represents the lack of trust in Universal Intelligence, Light, God, in the potent unnamable force that created (and may one day destroy) the entirety of the cosmos. I mean, who wouldn’t be terrified of being blasted to smithereens by 10^42 supernova forces?
More specifically, the fear of Life is the ego’s false belief that:
- you, and only you, are excluded from Life’s love, benevolence, abundance and grace,
- Life is out to punish and torture you and only you, and
The ego also knows that the Light can kill it, so it’ll do whatever it takes to not die, not be out of a job and not surrender to Life.
The fear of Life masks five deeper fears:
- At any moment, Zeus could strike you down with his lightning bolt, and you’ll die (fear of death). The fear of karmic balancing would fit in this category.
- If the lightning bolt doesn’t kill you, but only leaves you physically, emotionally and/or spiritually maimed, then you'll have to live in that not-so-dead-but-not-fully-alive state forever and ever (fear of being trapped)
- Becoming great is becoming Life itself. What happens to those who are great, to the crab trying to escape the bucket or to the sunflower towering the field? They don’t fear criticism, that’d be like flicking popcorn at a hippo. But they do fear being yanked back into the bucket (fear of meaninglessness), hacked down with a machete (fear of persecution) or ousted to survive alone (fear of vulnerability)
- What if Life is actually on your side, believes in you and calls you to greatness? Then damn it, you’d have to pull up your big girl pants, burn in the fire again to generate the ashes from which you rise as a phoenix (fear of The Heroine’s Journey)
- Against all odds, by pure miracle, let's say you succeed. Then you'd have to deal with the fear of success.
This fear represents a lack of trust in others, justifiably so because you’ve have been betrayed or witnessed the aftermath of betrayal. And now you fear it because it triggers the:
- fear of being left behind, such as losing professional street cred or networks after a bankruptcy or long-term illness. This is the fear of vulnerability / expulsion.
- fear of having to leave the tribe, such such as having to walk out empty handed sans assets nor friends after a divorce. This is the fear of persecution / disloyalty.
Lastly, in this series let’s look at FOMO, the classic fear of missing out. It doesn’t take a genius to see that it's a mask for the fear of scarcity. We were all raised by descendants of not one, but two World Wars, where there was not enough to go around. Even though the two World Wars were officially over, the scarce mentality stayed deeply rooted in modern society's unconsciousness.
FOMO is also a mask for two other fears:
- the fear of being left out, ie the tribe left you, which is the fear of vulnerability / expulsion.
- the fear / guilt of non-conformity, ie you left the tribe, which is the fear of persecution / disloyalty.
Let’s say resources do become scarce. Then what? We could consume less, share more, get creative, even innovate. That’s not what you’re afraid of: community, creativity and innovation. You’re afraid of poverty, of losing your comfy life, and worse yet of others finding out that you’re poor.
The fear of scarcity is also a mask for the fear of burnout, of having to exert so much force to swim against the current to become the most savage militaristic colonialist in order to survive this kill-or-be-killed life. Yikes!
When I ask clients or colleagues, many guess that the root fear is the fear of death. I tracked all the fears from the thousands of people I've crossed paths with and they were pointing in that direction. I even craughed (laughing so hard I cried) at the irony of how we so fearsomely fear the one absolute certainty: human death.
To my surprise, death is not the ultimate root fear. In fact, for those who have experienced the harshness, egoic density and mass unconsciousness of Earth, death is a gift, a welcomed relief.
Before we get to the ultimate root of all human fears, let's discern the fear of death, which itself is a mask for 6 previously mentioned fears:
- What if dying hurts to an intolerable level that lasts in perpetuity? (fear of pain ➙ overwhelm ➙ trapped)
- Holy shit, what will become of me? What will happen to my loved ones? (fear of the surrender ➙ Life ➙ unknown ➙ vulnerability)
- What will become of the things I spent my entire life building / amassing? (fear of loss ➙ meaninglessness)
- What if people learn that I didn't live well or find the skeletons in my closet? (fear of being seen ➙ criticism ➙ failure ➙ loss ➙ shame)
- What if "god" burns me in hell? (fear of The Heroine's Journey ➙ persecution)
- I'm not ready to die. I don't want to die yet. There are still experiences I want to have. (fear of missing out)
Crazy Making Infinity Loops
Do you see the infinity loops and all the crazy making? Just look at the gnarly forest of fears (below in dark pink) triggered by the fear of The Heroine's Journey alone!
We’re afraid to fail. We're afraid to succeed. We're afraid of being too small. We're afraid of being too large.
We're afraid of being not enough. We're afraid of being too much. We’re afraid of being loved. We're afraid of being unloved.
We’re afraid of dying. We're afraid of living. We're afraid of mortality. We're afraid of immortality.
Yikes, we're afraid of the Dark, the Light, the lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!
No wonder we feel like lunatics, blindly driving in circles, with foot on the gas pedal and handbrake on. Aren't you glad you came to Earth School? 😝 😂
So how do you exit these crazy making roundabouts, this matrix of fears? You dissolve the root fear.
Let’s say, 3… 2… 1… you’re dead. It's over. The mortgage payments, the busyness, the overwhelm, all the fears / worries and endless, endless, endless needs of the body (groceries, laundry, exercise, etc.). All of it is over. Done, done.
Then what? In the split nanosecond between dissolving from human form and returning to a blob of consciousness, what is the last imprint or “thought” you have?
Ask anyone who has had an NDE (near death experience) or any end-of-life caregiver and they'll say that last "thought" was, “No wait! I wasn't done.”
I didn’t say "I love you" to my partner more. I didn’t sing that original song, film that overseas documentary, launch that health product line. I didn’t confess my love to that person, start that second business even if the first flopped, have that child as a single parent. I didn't establish that leadership academy I dreamed of, publish that book I saved on my computer for 12 years, move to that island that I visited 7 times, etc.
Why do souls keep reincarnating? Because in that nanosecond of dissolving back to universal energy, the soul was stamped / imprinted with _ _ _ _ _ _ (6 letter word), a deep desire to return to Earth:
- to complete incompletes,
- to do it differently or better next time, or
- to weave / unweave the threads of personal karma.
Wouldn't you prefer your final "thought" to sound more like, "Dang, that was an epic fun ride!! See ya! 👊🎤"?
Can you guess what the ultimate root fear is? When you dissolve that fear, ALL the other fears weaken and can be dissolved as well, like butter on a hot skillet. It is the key to exit the labyrinth of fears.
Live fierce and free,
(First Published Oct 17, 2017)