This article is the compilation of our learnings from 13 global dinners held in 2020.
Last month, we hosted dinners on the topic of “Fear” in 13 cities around the world. From Singapore to Nairobi, Amsterdam to San Francisco, women gathered on computer screens across the globe to discuss how they experience and relate to their fears. Here is what we learned.
And now, our key takeaways…
Fear is often present, but hard to disguise.
We are all born with a deeply rooted biological fear — the instinct that protects us when we are in real danger. And as we grow older, we start to develop psychological fears, which can be harder to detect and tame. For some of us, these fears manifest as stress, anxiety, ongoing mental loops, controlling behaviors, or perfectionism. For others, these fears are so severe that they become the source of panic attacks and strong phobias.
Some of us have disconnected from our fears, perhaps as a way to feel stronger. Culturally it’s accepted to talk about our stress, and even our anxiety, yet we rarely talk about what’s underneath: fear. As euni, San Diego host, describes so beautifully in this essay, “I’ve never once called it fear, I’ve always called it anxiety. It feels less scary when I phrase it that way.”
But what could happen if we call it like it is?
Fear is a visceral experience. It lives in the body and we do everything NOT to feel it.
While fear may be invisible to others, for the person experiencing it, fear can be overwhelming. The pressure in our chest, the weakness in our legs, the difficulty breathing…we all know the feeling and most of us don’t like it.
We are so focused (often subconsciously) on getting rid of this discomfort that we do everything we can to suppress our fear or distract ourselves from (eg. endlessly browsing on social media, adding more stuff to our busy agendas, or drinking that extra glass of wine).
But there’s a gift in staying present and breathing into the discomfort. When we are able to relax in the face of our fears, they lose their grip.
While we all experience fear, for individuals with depression, PTSD, and other deep emotional and psychological challenges, fear takes on a different meaning. It is a constant feeling that cannot be suppressed and takes ongoing professional support to be processed and released.
While what we are afraid of may change over time, 6 core fears remain
We all remember our fears from childhood and we think of them with tenderness. But as we age, it can be harder to feel that level of compassion for our fears. In our late 20s and 30’s, we start to experience fear about the future — will I meet a partner? Will I be successful? Will I have children (if that’s what I want)?
In our 40s and 50s, our fears become more urgent. Am I living the life I truly want? What am I missing out? Will my children be ok? We start to reckon with the fact that time moves fast and we don’t want “wasted it.” (This fear is exacerbated by this pandemic).
While on a surface level it seems like the list of fears we have is endless (from flying to poverty to public speaking), at the core, most of us are afraid of these 6 things:
Loss of control
Love and Fear and two sides of the same coin.
Author and vulnerability expert Brene Brown, discusses in her book “Daring Greatly” how our need for love and belonging is at the root of all fears.
The more we love and long for something, the deeper the fear of losing it. When we feel so much love for someone or something, it can be challenging to relate to that person or project with real openness. Instead, many of us try to hold on to it or even control it (eg. overprotective parents, struggling to say “I love you”).
Think of it like this: fear is the “gripping,” the instinct to hold onto something from a place of tension and clinginess. Love is the “release,” the ability to relate to others from a place of openness, curiosity and expansion.
What would happen if we experienced love without fear? We would be truly powerful, and perhaps that is the most scary possibility of all.
Moving forward… finding the light in our fears.
Fear is here to stay so we need to learn how to relate to it in a healthy way. What if we view our fears as a flashlight? They shows us where we need to go (and what we need to process and heal!). So when we first feel fear (perhaps disguised as anxiety, over -protection or micro-managing), we can flash a light into it and ask ourselves: Am I in real danger? Or is this something else?
Oftentimes we fear what we can’t control — Would my parents get sick? Will I be able to find a new job during a pandemic? In some cases, we can release the fear by finding a question we can actually answer — Am I doing all I can to “X”? ie. support my parents right now, look for a new job etc. The more clarity we have, the more agency we experience to create the change we want.
Other times, we need higher support. In those moments when we feel overwhelmed by fear, we can tap into TRUST and FAITH. Feeling a deep sense of trust that we’ve done our part, and the rest is up to Life.
Cultural dimensions of fear
In Europe and the USA, the narrative around fear is personal (eg. will I achieve my goals?). While in Asia, fear is driven by social and collective constructs (eg. in Singapore women struggle to balance personal needs with family duty). And in Latin America, the narrative around fear is financial, with many women afraid that their children won’t have the opportunities they deserve due to financial instability, and making tough choices from that place.
Important note about experiencing fear as women
As daughters of the patriarchy, many of us have experienced varying forms of oppression and injustice. From sexual assault to being expected to fit into a certain “female stereotype” (and being punished if we don’t), these collective experiences are passed down from generation to generation, creating layers of vigilance and for many, a desire for rebellion.
Use your body to heal your mind. Because fear it’s such a visceral experience, practice breathing deeply and relaxing your body when experiencing fear-related sensations. Then notice what happens to your thoughts.
Share some of your deepest fears with someone you trust in an open and honest way. How do you feel afterwards?
Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our hosts Lisa in Norman, OK, Rosalind in San Francisco, Mariasu Nicolini and Vanina Gruart in Buenos Aires, Roxanne in Edinburgh, euni in San Diego, Elle in Perth, Alexandra A in Amsterdam, Caroline in Nairbi, Yolanda and Marianne in Singapore, and Julie Beretta in Rome.