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Identifying the Three Fundamental Fears: Death, Abandonment and Failure.

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by Jen DuBos, MA LPC

People can be afraid of literally anything:

Snakes. Sleep. Germs. Airplanes. Malls. Relationships. Pogo sticks. Even a toothbrush going through the back of your head.

But as varied as one’s external, concrete fear may be, they can all be melted down to one primal fear: Xenophobia – Fear of the unknown. We don’t know if the snake will bite or we’ll have bad dreams. We don’t know if we’ll get sick, or crash, or be able to get away. You cannot know if you’ll be heartbroken, leg broken, or brain dead from a garish toothbrush injury.

Fear of the unknown is universal, but it seems to take form most commonly in three basic human fears: Fear of Death, Fear of Abandonment or Fear of Failure. As people seek to live ever-longer and more secular lives, as we further isolate ourselves from each other through technology and individuation, and as the societal and relational pressure to perform increases, we see the prevalence of these fears increasing concurrently. Along with the increase in fear, there is an increase in specific negative behaviors that, while they are meant to compensate for fear, only serve to make our worst fears come true. But this need not be the case. Your core beliefs have a weighty influence on whether you’ll be ruled by fear, or rule over fear.

Any fear related to potential physical suffering, bodily harm, illness, actual death, or the afterlife is usually linked to a fear of death.

If you’re afraid of rejection, humiliating yourself, or ending up alone despite your best efforts, fear of abandonment is what haunts you (and probably your relationships).

If your worst nightmare involves performing a task poorly, being unable to financially support your family, receiving a “C” in a class or your kid getting arrested for pot even though you raised him better than that, you’re battling a fear of failure.

Of course, any of these fears can also be experienced simultaneously and they really bleed together in a continuum rather than falling in to neat categories, but for the sake of problem solving, we will proceed by treating them as three separate issues.

From an existential and philosophical perspective, fear of death is really our subconscious realization that we are not gods and therefore, not in control of even the simplest thing- our own lives. We fear death because there is no way to know for sure, from a scientific standpoint, what happens afterwards (again, fear of the unknown). But we also fear death because we fear physical pain.

Much of life nowadays is spent trying to live the most convenient and happy life possible but this is a relatively new goal. In ages past, existential meaning had a much more prominent place in culture because it was one of the only ways to cope with suffering. When half your children died before they were 10 years old, or there was no hope of ever being freed from slavery, or being raped and beaten by your own husband was acceptable, believing there was a better life coming and that your children were already there was really all you had.

But now, with the advent of modern medicine, civil and women’s rights, and the potential for a relatively comfortable life in hand, people of the western world have a much lower tolerance for any kind of pain. Even more, with the decline of the apparent “need” for theological beliefs, people have increased difficulty making sense out of pain when it does occur. Instead of accepting pain as a part of the life experience, people feel a sense of injustice and indignance about pain and they want to blame somebody for it. This has led to the dramatic rise in lawsuits and, I believe, contributed to the rise in broken relationships. The fact is, pain is a part of life and certainly an inescapable part of being in relationship. Trying to avoid it by avoiding “imperfect” people or relationships will only lead you in to the next fear category – loneliness.

The most common signs that someone lives with a fear of abandonment are relationship sabotage, relationship hopping, self-victimization, and narcissism. The act of sabotage is carried out when you bring about your worst fear intentionally, as an attempt at controlling the pain, before the one you love can do it first. People do this as a consolation to themselves when they feel rejection is inevitable so they can at least say “actually, I am the one who broke it off.” Relationship hopping is seen when an individual only stays in relationships for a short time, then moves on directly to another relationship. This person hates being alone, but also fears the true self being rejected. So they move on before a deep attachment can be made. Never alone, but never truly known either.

Self-victimization is incredibly widespread. This is probably the behavior that overlaps most in all three fears because it means assuming a powerless role against your worst fear in hopes of avoiding responsibility when that fear comes to life. I see this most often, again, in marital counseling. One spouse will be so nasty that the other finally gives up – at which point the mean one says “see, I knew you would leave me.” Evading responsibility for our own pain is almost as unhealthy as pretending we  are just above all fear because we are so confident and smart and have it all under control. This is narcissism. A narcissist believes others are weak because they “need people”. They reject relationship based on the self-deception that they are better off alone. Sadly, these people usually are alone because it is hard to relate to someone who chooses not to live in reality.

Narcissism also translates into a coping skill for the third primary fear – fear of failure. In this venue, the narcissist believes they are not capable of failure and that anything appearing to be a personal failure is obviously the fault of someone or something else. They make a lot of excuses and must do so in order to maintain such a high level of denial. On a less dramatic scale, we have our cultural heroes of compensation: the perfectionists and the workaholics. These folks truly believe if they just try hard enough, they can learn to never fail, never make a mistake, never let anyone down. Unfortunately, these flawed coping skills are actually championed in our culture now. People no longer say they are perfectionists or workaholics as a negative attribute, they say it with a little smirk as they present you with their totally over-the-top report, or birthday gift, or nearly flawless physique. This is dangerous indeed because the pursuit of perfection – through any means – is a fruitless and therefore maddening effort. Failure, too, is a part of life. The key is not to battle against is tooth and nail, but to accept it when it comes, learn what you can, and move on.

Are you catching the theme here? These are not irrational fears that can be hypnotized away or shown to be ridiculous through calculated and continued exposure. You will die, you will be rejected, and you will fail.  Avoidance will accomplish nothing accept to lead to more of one or all of these outcomes. We must accept these realities; we must also accept that we will at times not have a villain to blame or a reason to name. This is why God is not and never will be obsolete. He will never leave you, His love is not earned, and He has conquered death.  Death, rejection, and failure will happen, but you do not have to live in fear of them.

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