Fear plays a significant role in the process of healing. This is especially true when addressing past trauma or abuse. The decision to explore memories of harm for the sake of healing can provoke anxiety and dread.
There are many times when fear is telling us to avoid imminent harm, like when we see a car careening toward us or when we encounter an animal growling and baring its teeth. But fear can be more difficult to discern in the context of relationships. Fear can cause us to avoid healthy self-expression, or conversely, compulsively enter into dangerous situations in an attempt to master past experiences of abuse. Regardless of the situation, we end up suppressing our unique humanity.
When fear is provoked in the context of a relationship, we are plunged back in time to the moments of harm that shaped how we currently respond to others. We have a bodily memory of the strategies we used to defend ourselves, which reinforces the belief that these defenses are necessary for our ongoing survival. But as we embark on the journey of healing, engaging with this fear is an inherent part of the process. This is because our individual journeys of healing will reflect the route through which we were harmed in the first place.
Some of my own fears revolve around vulnerability and exposure. I tend to believe that fear communicates the behaviors or interactions that I should avoid, and thus it is easy for me to follow my fear toward withdrawal. When I anticipate the approach of vulnerability, I may anticipate that the other person will use this vulnerability to harm me. This can make it difficult for me to develop trust, deepen relationships, and establish a supportive community.
At this point, I believe it is important to make a subtle distinction: In the context of relationships, the experience of fear may not necessarily point toward the assumption of harm, but rather toward the inevitability that our self-expression will expose our beauty.
Many times experiences of trauma occurred within our immediate family, with relatives, or close family friends. These are people in whom we placed complete trust, and there was a significant power difference, in that we had a visceral, bodily experience of helplessness in the face of their actions. When we experience harm in this kind of relationship, the betrayal of the trusted other can generate a kind of hidden, obfuscating agreement. The agreement is this: Our experiences of harm were not the unprovoked wrongdoing of the trusted other, but instead, the essence of who we are, our beauty, provoked the other to harm us, and therefore we are to blame for the harm that occurred.
As adults, the fear we experience in our relationships may be the same. We can become terrified of exposure and well practiced in the art of self-suppression. This is both the tragedy and redemption of this story. We shift our gaze back toward those unspoken agreements and follow our fear into the truth of our beauty. Our work then moves toward dismantling the bonds of betrayal that were forged in our narratives of trauma, by revealing our unique humanity. We risk being vulnerable with the ones we love, we expose our passion around the things that move us the most, and we dare to believe that our goodness is worth stewarding with kindness and grace.
This will never be an easy or straightforward process, but we can find hope in these simple words: “Fear is a messenger, not a monster.”*
*from Facing Fear, Finding Courage: Your Path to Peace of Mind, by Sarah Quigley with Marilyn Shroyer, Ph.D.