I wrote an article a while back about how, ultimately, many of our anxieties can be traced back to a single fear—the fear of annihilation, or nonexistence. I described a few exercises we can use to grasp this fact at a deep, visceral level. In this article, I’ll talk about a method I’ve used to work toward transcending that fear.
The fear of annihilation often manifests itself in our lives as a worry that, if we show the world who we truly are, we’ll be hurt or destroyed—in other words, that we’ll be annihilated for fully “being ourselves.” Many people have a specific part of themselves that, for this reason, they’re afraid to display to others. For instance, maybe this part is their anger, vulnerability, sexuality, or something else. If they let others see this emotion or behavior, they fear, others will abandon them and leave them to die, or even physically harm them.
In my own case, for much of my life I was afraid of hurting others. I believed that, if I expressed emotion or asked for what I wanted, others would suffer. Thus, I was very careful to avoid telling or showing others how I felt, and I literally held my body in an expressionless and rigid posture to make sure no one knew.
Consciously or otherwise, I believed that, if I released the tension in my body and expressed emotion, no one would want anything to do with me, and I’d be isolated, unloved and eventually starve to death. I was in the predicament Dr. Darren R. Weissman describes in The Power of Infinite Love And Gratitude: “What’s the foremost reason . . . why so many of us are afraid of getting well? The answer is the fear of losing love as soon as we reclaim our disowned selves.”
Eventually, I started recognizing that this approach to living wasn’t actually serving anyone. It took great effort for me to constantly monitor my communications and posture to ensure no emotion was ever expressed. Instead of thanking me for my efforts to avoid hurting them, as perhaps I hoped they would, other people became uncomfortable around me, as my rigid and robotic way of being was unnerving. But while I knew on a rational level that I wasn’t helping anyone by concealing who I was, I’d become so accustomed to hiding away that I was afraid I couldn’t change.
In a moment of despair about this, I had an interesting thought. What if my worst fear were actually true? What if I actually would hurt people, and they would abandon or harm me, if I showed them who I truly was? What if I am an inherently evil, hurtful person, who brings pain into the world? What if hiding away was the only real option for me?
At first, having these thoughts only plunged me deeper into my funk. But after a few minutes of moping, I suddenly burst out laughing. It was as if an inner voice I’d never heard before spoke up and told me that, even if I am an evil person, that’s perfectly okay. As I had this thought, the constriction in my body released, and I felt infused with energy. It was as if a dam inside me broke, and healing, empowering water was spreading through every part of my body.
Another realization came swiftly afterward. I recognized that there was, indeed, a “dark side” of my being. There was a part that was willing to do and take whatever it wanted, when it wanted it, without regard to anyone else’s feelings or wellbeing. There was nothing unique about this—everyone carries some of that “dark” energy. But I was so afraid of this energy that I’d designed my entire life—down to the way I moved my body—to avoid unleashing it on the world.
When I simply acknowledged that part of myself, without pushing it away or pretending it didn’t exist, I suddenly saw that I had nothing to fear from it. Yes, I saw, I am mean and hurtful—and I am also generous, kind, beautiful and so much more.
My “dark side” is just a universal part of the human experience. Simply acknowledging its existence in me doesn’t hurt anyone, and won’t cause me to be abandoned or annihilated. I created much more discomfort for myself and others by disowning that part than I did by just letting it be.
My own story illustrates the exercise I’ll share. You, like most people, probably have an emotion or behavior you’re afraid to show the world. Perhaps it’s your weakness, sadness, aggression, ambition or something else. If this is true for you, and you’ve been designing your life around not displaying that part to others, I invite you to try this simple technique: just admit to yourself, without judgment or reservation, that the part you’ve been concealing exists.
For example, if you’re worried about revealing the fact that you sometimes feel weak and helpless, try saying to yourself out loud “I am weak and helpless.” If you’re worried that others will see your jealousy, say to yourself “I am jealous.” And so on.
Once you’ve done this a few times, notice that admitting the existence of your disowned part didn’t destroy or damage you. Recognize that what you’ve just said is not simply true for you, but has been true for practically every other human being in history. And feel the peace and relief that acknowledging more of your humanity brings you.
I was inspired in doing this exercise by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone‘s wonderful book Embracing Our Selves. The Stones lovingly describe the difficulty, but the eventual empowerment, we experience when we integrate aspects of our humanity we’ve pushed away in the past:
It is sometimes painfully difficult to honor all our parts. As Jung once so aptly said, “the medicine we need is always bitter.” Well, it may not always be bitter, but . . . it is not always easy to accept patterns that seem reprehensible to us or, more accurately, that seem reprehensible to that part of us with which we are identified. The rewards for embracing our selves are great, for each reclaimed pattern feeds us with new energy, each helps to make our journey on earth more meaningful, more effective, and more joyous.
I’m convinced that the key to inner peace, and achieving your goals in life, is developing a healthy relationship with every part of yourself, no matter how frightening or ugly those parts may look to you. In acknowledging and honoring every aspect of your being, you gain access to more resources, and to more composure and empowerment.