The Two Most Common Existential Fears & How to Deal with them
The fear of doing something wrong or the fear of losing something are the two most common existential fears.
There was a time that I didn’t know that!
So when I got overwhelmed by an inner sense that I’d done something wrong or by a fear that I was going to lose something, I’d try to analyse why this was happening in a (vain) attempt to appease that inner turmoil; I'd try to put my mind at ease by convincing myself that I’d done nothing wrong; or I’d just act hastily out of those fears (and so lose my agency).
Of course sometimes we do do something wrong, like when we say something insensitive, or take something that is not ours to take. That’s not what I’m talking about.
To have your nervous system buzzing in a subtle or jarring manner that’s out of proportion with what's going on is to be taken over by these existential fears.
Your sense of safety is triggered. Sometimes it can last for days, like a theatre backdrop that you hardly notice.
Just this week I got a text message from Danya, who I collaborate with, saying she’d like to meet up for a coffee since she didn’t like the way we’ve been working on our project lately.
I didn’t necessarily know what she had in mind - although I had few ideas - but I couldn’t stop the unsettling feelings, the latent shame and deep worry, and all the various scenarios that rehearsed over and over again how I was going to be kicked out and what I was going to lose.
I knew instantly that something I hadn’t experienced for a long time had been triggered:
I’ve done something wrong!
When one of those fears gets triggered we tend to ask ‘why’. ‘Why is this happening?’
We love to feed our hungry minds with logical explanations even when they give very little satisfaction and not a scrap of a genuine sense of safety.
Here’s what I learned a long time ago and teach all my clients —
Instead of asking 'why?', give space to what is happening. Be the sky in which a lightning bolt can discharge its energy and nourish the earth of your being.
I spent the 20 hours between the text message and our coffee meeting this way:
Extreme awareness to not believing any of those thoughts that were trying to convince me that I’ve done something wrong.
Opening myself up to the possibility that I might actually lose something and asking myself 'so, what am I really scared of if this will happen?' — until I got to the bottom of the fear (normally you discover there’s nothing to be afraid of)
Compassion for my agitated nervous system
As I parked the car a few blocks away from where we were to meet, this sentence suddenly came into my heart: “you’ve done nothing wrong!”. I felt it throughout my whole body like a mellifluent breath.
I was able to listen to Danya as if I had no opinions and complaints of my own and to see how she could have come to feel the way she did. We found our new balance, but that’s not why I’m telling you all this.
As I got back to my car I suddenly had an insight: “Could it be that in every conflict I’m afraid of being abandoned because my mother left me in the middle of the night, without any explanation or warning, to returned only three years later after being committed to a psychiatric hospital?!"
You will not find your explanation written neatly in a clear line as in the paragraph above, nor did I get to it in anything like a linear manner.
We don’t live our stories. Most of the stories that hurt us don’t show up in our memory during our daily life. They live encoded in our nervous system, encrypted into symbols in our psyche.