Malignant fear shackles the spirit.
In an email to some friends, I once, and only half-jokingly, closed with the words, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” One friend, whose opinion I very much respect, responded with thoughts on how damaging fear could be; how destructive.
Her point was well-taken. Early in life I’d learned that fear shackles the spirit, limiting ambition, ability, and productivity. Unhealthy fear looms like darkness, blotting out each sunrise. Constrictor coils of fear, formed of apprehension and catastrophizing, squeeze every particle of joy from the simplest happy moment.
Malignant fear is born sometimes of abuse; other times of neglect; often from trauma. Unhealthy fear paralyzes. It is a parasitic vine destroying the very tree to which it clings, and is ultimately destructive.
Malignant fear thrives in an atmosphere of pessimistic What Ifs. “What if I don’t have enough money?” “What if someone I love becomes seriously ill, or is in an accident?” “What if I go on vacation and the pet-sitter neglects my animals?” “What if there is a tornado, a wildfire, a hurricane?” “What if I’m making the wrong choice?” This sort of fear never remembers to ask any of the positive possibilities: “But what if it’s wonderful?!” “What if I have the best time of my life?” “What if this is the perfect path for me?”
I began to recognize malignant fear in my life only after years of working on myself. Growing up in a household of addiction meant that anxiety welded itself to my personality at an early age, and perpetuated itself long past the time it should have been acknowledged and done with. A morbid fear of being alone, for instance, chained me to several very unhealthy relationships. It took me the greater part of my adulthood to finally comprehend that being alone was in no way more miserable than being in a bad relationship.
Malignant fear also kept me from speaking out endless times throughout my life when I was ill-treated. Sad to say, I’ve watched this circumstance play out in the lives of many women I’ve known. Staying with one’s abuser, accepting mistreatment as the price of companionship, is the ultimate expression of malignant fear.
Yet, despite such negative aspects, I’ve finally come to realize that not all fear is unhealthy. There does exist such a thing as healthy fear.
Healthy fear is protective and intelligent. It is built on logical, rational decisions and concern for the welfare of both self and others.
In its simplest manifestation, healthy fear keeps one from foolish physical choices. Healthy fear prevents a person from standing too near the edge of the cliff; it clicks on the seatbelt and checks the mirrors before driving away. When there is a choice to be made, healthy fear examines all the possible consequences before making a decision based on the available facts. Healthy fear focuses a realistic gaze on both the virtues and faults of a potential partner, and weighs the future in that balance.
Healthy fear declares, “I will not allow you to belittle me or treat me with anything less than courtesy, not only because I deserve respect, but because of what I might become if I permit that sort of conduct.”
Healthy fear is also, conversely, courageous. It bravely acknowledges the bad examples in life, and admits the possibility of replicating that behavior. I experienced healthy fear when I faced the truth about my alcoholic parent, read everything I could find about the genetic component of alcoholism, and, conceding the possibility that I might perpetuate that behavior, spent the first 23 years of my child’s life as a non-drinker.
There is often a fine line to walk between a determination of whether a fear is malignant or healthy. It requires soul-searching that delves into the depths of old trauma, facing long-forgotten pain, before rooting out the parasite from the symbiont.
Some say there are only two genuine emotions: love and fear. But that explanation is simplistic. Love, as well as fear, splinters into shards and factions, each mutating into something different: rich and strange, or small and cruel. Love, as well as fear, can be unwholesome and damaging. But when properly understood, acknowledged, and managed, fear can become the surprising beacon that guides our soul through the shoals of a perilous existence.