When we are afraid, we hold back. We cower. We hide. We experience an inner resistance to the flow that normally characterises a playful nature. We freeze. We watch while we are frozen, terrified that something will happen next that we can’t control.
Cognitively, we stop functioning properly. We can’t think straight, because the fear of something bad happening inhibits our natural ability to perform fine judgements. In relationships, we become clumsy and awkward. Other people, and the world around us, become objects of nervousness. We cease to be able to trust. We become isolated, hermit-like.
THE EVOLUTIONARY BASIS OF FEAR
Fear is logical. That is to say, it is an understandable reaction to danger in our environment. Extreme fear sets off an alarm bell in our nervous system, whose function is to stop us playing in a dangerous environment. The alarm bell says ‘don’t do anything for the moment. It’s not safe. Just hide.’
I have a fish pond. From time to time, (once every few years), a heron attacks. Fish are killed. The survivors go to the bottom of the pond, sometimes for months. They have experienced danger, and something ancient in their nervous system tells them to retreat.
The behaviour of the fish reminds me so much of the behaviour of depressed psychotherapy clients. The withdrawal from engagement with the world is the same. The reluctance to be seen. The need to mooch around in darkness and obscurity.
So it is deep in our animal systems, this fear reaction.
OUR BURIED AUTHENTICITY
If we have experienced fear in childhood, we may have developed the habit of hiding our true feelings. If we feel safe in company, we tend to share how we feel. In contrast, if we feel nervous in company, we tend to hide how we feel, because we don’t want to provoke a bad reaction. This is very subtle. If the fear was of a strict father, or of an institution, then we may have idealised that father, or that institution. As adults, we may express gratitude for the discipline they gave us, without realising how they also traumatised us into emotional silence.
Sometimes the threat is hidden. If our mother was emotionally fragile, then we may have learned to hide our true selves because we did not want to provoke a vulnerable reaction in her. It is not that she was aggressive. But we knew that we should restrict our behaviour to make her life easier. We learned to spike our own guns, to make way for the hidden guns of others.
However it happened, we have buried some aspects of ourselves, because we have feared the reactions of others. We have learned that it is better to remain silent, and not to fight back too hard.
LEARNING TO SPEAK AGAIN
Often, the process of counselling and psychotherapy involves allowing this buried self to come back out again. It has been stuck inside for so long, that it is almost imperceptible at first. Many clients have a covering shell of abruptness, rudeness, shyness, silence, that makes sure this covered self doesn’t get to speak too much. Sometimes it comes out in one session, and then, like a snail retreating into a shell, it is hidden again in the next session.
We all have ‘small voices’, repressed reflections of our buried true selves. As we grew up, certain ‘acceptable’ voices learned an extensive language, a language of impressing others. These became our covering ‘big voices’ – the ones that were acceptable to our parents and guardians, the ones that protected us from feeling smal and vulnerable. Our softer inner selves turned into ‘small voices’ – hidden, except perhaps when we are with people we trust intimately.
If we choose, we can begin a process of teaching our ‘small voices’ to speak again. The threat of childhood is gone, and we have a chance to build up a new language of self now. This is sometimes scary. The language is new, and our unconscious automatic self has no way of knowing how others will react. We can suffer an abiding worry that we will be rejected.
How do we detect the hidden parts of ourselves, that have become buried?
Often, they come out in play. Follow your tastes, and see where they lead. Give part of your week over to play activities, as though you were a child again. Try to listen to your heart when choosing what to do.
For instance, give yourself half an hour to browse the internet, or a library perhaps. Let yourself dip in and out of any books or videos that take your fancy. Don’t be restricted to things you think you like. Just go wherever you want… read a few sentences… see how you feel. See if you can detect when your hIdden inner self is feeling a little happy or liberated by something. Make a mental note to continue exploring that.
Fear changes our behaviour. We become unplayful, frozen… we hide… we become clumsy, awkward, nervous and isolated. Withdrawal from engagement with the world is a natural reaction to danger.
Emotionally, fear makes us hide our true feelings. We adapt our behaviour to avoid provoking hostile responses from those around us; or we may even go completely silent.
We develop ‘acceptable voices’, designed to defend ourselves from attack. The problem is, they cover up what we truly think and feel. We end up with a hidden self, a small inner voice, that wants to be heard, but isn’t allowed to talk.
It can take a long time to reawaken our own authentic inner voice. Sometimes we can do it through the help of counselling. Sometimes we can do our own exploration, through research and books, to discover thoughts and ideas that reflect our buried selves. This can help us to find future direction, and to find a new, truer voice.