I find the concept that fears can be assessed as rational or irrational hilarious. Does this mean some fears are valid and other are not? How do we know which fears are legitimate, rational, right?
Say, your mother has cancer and you are afraid of her dying. Is that considered a rational anxiety, because she actually might die? Everybody is going to die. Fear of one’s mom dying is actually a fear of being afraid when mom is dying, or most accurately fear of not be able to handle the anxiety when mom dies. Is that rational?
Rational or Irrational, Nothing Is a “True Fear”
If behind all fears is the fear of fear, (an illusion) then ‘true fear’ is an oxymoron.
We mistakenly think some fear is “rational.” It is as if some fears have evidence and some don’t. Let me let you in on a secret: The evidence is an illusion. The meaning is construed to support the fear.
- “It could happen.”
- “You can’t trust yourself.”
- “It will be awful.”
These are what the fear tells us, to get us to buy in. This doesn’t mean it is true! However, many of us get caught; hook, line and sinker. If you think about it, they may hold the energy of fear’s evidence, but they don’t really mean anything.
Conversation with Irrational Fear Trying to Appear Rational
“You have to do this or else.” Fear says.
Or else what?
“Or else something bad will happen.”
What, what will happen?
“Something real bad. You will hate it. It will be awful.”
Damned if we know and fear doesn’t tell us. The evasiveness is part of the PR plan to hold the market on our lives. Evasiveness is fear’s trademark. The mystery of it gives it power.
Twelve-year-old Samantha came to see me for therapy. She’s experienced many losses over the last few years. Her younger sister was hospitalized from a life threatening illness that left her permanently disabled. Both her maternal grandparents died within a few months of each other. Her parents got separated and divorced. And her mother had gone through her own bout of breast cancer, incurring surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Through all of this, Samantha remained calm and engaged in life and school. Now it is one year since any tragedies, and she began to feel excessively anxious in school, needing to call her mother several times during the school day. She was worried about her mother dying by the cancer returning, getting kidnapped, ‘just stopping breathing’ or getting into a car accident.
Many family members were curious how she was strong through the troubling times, only to be immobilized once everything was peaceful. Her school counselor, who had been supporting her, offered the following explanation: You were young before and did not understand the serious nature of the events when they were happening. Now you understand and that is why you are afraid.
Oh no! I thought. This comment might not sound too fatuous off hand. However, I propose that it elevated Samantha’s anxiety to a truth status: Now you are smart enough to know you are supposed to be afraid. You should be afraid of these things. Fearing these things is right, you were just too stupid before.
Not helpful. It constructed the anxiety as “rational,” associating it with being more mature, more knowledgeable and, I hate to say it, more normal. This confirmed anxiety for her, making matters worse.
Irrational and rational are just meanings we make to chide or justify ourselves. One more way to assess we are on or off track. It is judgment plain and simple and it is one more way to keep us attached to anxiety. Do any of you want to be attached to anxiety? I don’t! Treatment needs to deconstruct that “We should be afraid.”
Fear is Not Rational or Irrational: Fear is Relative
What is apparent is that fear is relative. It is not real or imagined; logical or illogical; rational or irrational; valid or invalid. Fear is just an experience. It may be an intense experience and have many unappreciated effects on our lives. But, the good news is, we can change it.
Next time ask fear and anxiety: What is the worst that can happen?