Define the fear. Decide if the fear is rational. Dismiss irrational fears. Mitigate rational fears. Later, rinse, repeat.
I’m sorry, what?
I love fiction for its capacity to teach us something true about the world, or the way reality works, in a largely painless fashion; we may be triggered, but we ourselves are not in danger and we can walk away from it to go have a good long think without the same ramifications of, say, walking away from a relationship to do the same. And this backfires when what we read isn’t, somehow, true. But then, even that can be a learning experience. Eventually.
So, the long fic I recently finished, Venus In Effigy, is one I’m slowly releasing one chapter a week to my First Access Patrons first, and then to Archive of Our Own afterwards. And in Venus In Effigy we see one of the main characters use the Fear Remediation Protocol on himself and his own fears, and then walk someone unfamiliar with it through the process. (This happens, in case you want to go view it as an example, in Chapter 10: Situational Alpha.) And a comment on that chapter on AO3 made me realize I should write more about the Fear Remediation Protocol here. :)
Where I Came Up With the FRP
From Frank Herbert’s novel Dune (always better than the movies), we get the line ‘Fear is the mind killer.’ And I was thinking about that a lot as I considered in a deep worldbuilding fashion the fictional universe I was playing in that was in many ways so very advanced from current Earth, and yet also morally bankrupt in at least a few stand-out areas.
Because let’s be clear, simply saying that fear is the mind killer is not, I have discovered, actually useful in not feeling fearful. I do get it was part of a larger mantra, and in general I dig it, but it has always felt like the first step of five or eight in actually not having your mind killed by fear. I mean, ‘Fear Is The Mind Killer’ could be the title of the book that trains you how to do something like the Fear Remediation Protocol under all circumstances, and as fast as you can. It’s a beautiful statement of the obvious, but it doesn’t really finish the job, is where I’m going with this.
(Arguing the other side: fear is the mind killer can be viewed as a zen koan that is meant to leave you hanging, challenge your preconceptions, and open you up to a greater and deeper and entirely ineffable truth, after which you spontaneously come up with something like the FRP, which you could consider… also happened to me.)
And I thought to myself, ‘the military in this story would have a protocol for this. They have protocols for everything, it’s how they work. So they would have some sort of fear… remediation… protocol.’
And then I drew on my own training and experience as a spiritual director, exorcist, stoic philosopher (and way back there, social worker), distilled it down to the absolute essential steps, streamlined it, and took it for a test drive.
Who says being an exorcist is a useless life skill?
But is it real?
I didn’t get it from a book. It isn’t someone else’s theory or healing modality (at least not that I’m aware of). I created it myself, as much as a person can create anything in this world, which is to say it’s also heavily influenced from everything I’ve experienced thus far in life. And instead of first assigning it as homework to one of my spiritual directees, or with my husband, or my best friend, or one of my parishioners, I gave it to my readers first.
And since I’ve done that, I have used it other places and discussed it extensively with other people, and it has proven thus far quite useful. It’s not perfect. There are pitfalls, of course, but I’ll talk about those next.
Using the Protocol
Step One: Define the fear. Do it out loud. Write it down. Say it to someone else. Defining the fear only in your head, as we see a main character do in Chapter 10 is an advanced technique. The reason for defining the fear, and doing it outside of your head is two-fold and very important: First, thoughts that seem reasonable, rational, sane, and good inside our heads often lose the veneer of sanity when we say them out loud. Sometimes even just saying a thought that plagues us out loud is enough to jar us out of believing it is true and applicable. Second, our thoughts can be awfully jumbled and disorganized. Combing out the tangles and separating out the chaotic mess of our fears into two, or three, or five separate fears is an exercise in mental meditation that is good for the soul as well as the mind; it promotes mental mastery and we definitely want to walk closer to that, rather than farther away. Also, actually knowing the specifics of the fear/fears is vitally necessary to finish the protocol.
Pitfalls of Defining the Fear:
- Failing to do it out loud.
- Failing to separate individual fears; don’t use commas or the word and – it’s a sign you’re smooshing multiple fears into one larger mess that is then harder to deal with effectively.
- Believing that saying a fear out loud will make it more real than just leaving it in your head.
- Believing that saying a fear out loud will make it come true.
- Belittling your fears; we use lots of words to denote fear: concern, worry, anxiety, stress. It’s all fear.
- Scratching the surface of your fears; don’t worry about this one. :) We all do it at some point and if and when you get good at the FRP, if you choose to use it, you will eventually be able to dig down deeper with greater internal honesty than you could at the beginning.
Step Two: Is the fear rational? This is a yes or no question and it requires a yes or no answer. It may also require further thought, and possibly an argument with yourself. Chapter 10 illustrates this a few times when the inexperienced person is wrapped up in the fear and can’t actually see how irrational it is, even based on previous conversations with the character who is walking her through the RFP. This step can benefit from talking with someone trusted to get a reality check.
Pitfalls of determining rationality:
- Choosing someone who isn’t rational to help you. This includes people who are more likely to spare your feelings than tell you something true that may be hard to hear, people who prefer in general to give people platitudes, and people who are too close or triggered by what you’re saying or who you are to them to give you a rational, helpful answer. For instance, if your fear is about your mother, even if you have a good relationship with her, she is not the person you should ask to be your rationality buddy for this one.
- Not having anyone to help, and not knowing which way is up. Get a therapist. Or a counselor. Or a life coach. Or a spiritual director. No, seriously. The options are endless and sliding scales exist. You don’t even have to leave your home if you don’t want to, or can’t.
Step Three: Dismiss irrational fears. Take a deep breath and let it go. Light a candle. Ring a bell. Open a window. Go for a walk. Sing a song or play some music. Write it down on a piece of paper then burn it, or tear it up into tiny bits, or compost it, or soak it in water until it begins to dissolve. In whichever way actually works, say to yourself, this really is an irrational fear, and I don’t need to carry it around anymore.
Pitfalls of dismissing irrational fears.
- Not letting go. If it’s a familiar old fear that you’re just realizing is irrational, it can be harder to dismiss. Not because you want it to stick around, but because it’s awfully familiar, and the familiar does tend to be harder to get rid of.
- Not letting go. If you categorized a fear as irrational but some part of you (consciously or unconsciously) still thinks that fear is totally valid and useful, it’s going to be harder to let go of, maybe because you’re not ready, maybe because letting go of it isn’t actually the helpful, healthy action. This will require some deeper digging, and some greater self-awareness and courage, but don’t worry: this pitfall isn’t a failure. It’s actually a sign that you’re ready to go deeper, which is a beautiful thing.
Step Four: Mitigate rational fears. So your fear is rational, valid, and quite active. Okay. Whatcha gonna do about it? Because you do have options, even if you can’t see them all, even if you don’t like the ones you can see. Mitigating rational fears means taking the small, reasonable, achievable steps toward the goal of not being captured and ransomed by that fear. There’s a good example of this in Chapter 10. But let’s take the worst fear we have an example here in this blogpost: I’m going to die. So. This is a rational fear. It’s actually true for all of us, those of us in perfect health, those of us in hospice care. Some consider it the basic human fear, and more than one spiritual and philosophical path has deemed it a moral good to meditate on the fear in order to make it less fearsome. So let’s go there.
How do we mitigate the fear I’m going to die. First, we name it. Then we agree with it because it’s rational. Yes, I’m going to die. Then we insert whatever deep belief we have about the value of life and what we believe happens after, because there is no getting away from the fact that this life is terminal. For example:
- I want to live so that I have no regrets.
- I want to leave a legacy of goodness/hope/love/wealth/resources/improvement to my children/family/community/world.
- I want to let go of my negativity before I die.
- I want to reconcile with as many people as I can before I die.
- I want to tell the people that I love that I love them.
- I know that I will be with God after I die.
- I know that I will be reborn so I can work off the rest of my karma.
- I know that my loved ones will be waiting for me, when I die.
- I know that the subatomic particles that make up my body will go back into the world when I die, and I will live on.
- I know that my soul is immortal and will live past the death of my body.
- I know that I will watch over my loved ones when I die and protect them better than I could have in life.
And if we can’t say these things because the worry is so intense – perhaps we think we’re going to hell, or there’s no reconciling for what we’ve done and how we’ve hurt others, or we are so filled with regrets large and small there’s no escaping… I say to you as a professional: there is still time, because you’re reading this. If you still breathe, and still think, you still have time to live a different life. The most important change is always the one that occurs in your heart and in your mind, and if that’s all you have time for, believe me when I say it’s good enough. And if you have time for that change to take root in your the words you utter and the actions you take, great. Do it. Change. Start letting your fear motivate you to become the person you want to be, rather than allowing the fear to crush you into a pile of complete inaction.
Pitfalls of mitigating rational fears.
Maybe these are obvious to you at this point, but here we go.
- Some fears don’t go away. The fear of death, for instance. We can make it smaller, yes, absolutely, but until we actually reach Enlightenment, it’s going to be there, hanging out in the background.
- Some fears can be only partially mitigated. Not everything is under our control, and in fact, very little actually is. The outside world is something we can only affect, and not control, even at the best of times, but our internal reaction to the outside world is something that we can control, given practice. The cause of the fear may be external and uncontrollable, but the sensation of fear within us and how we approach and deal with the cause of it is absolutely in the wheelhouse of our own choices.
- Mistaking irrational fears for rational ones and then trying to mitigate them also means they don’t go away, but for a different reason. When we make a mountain out of a molehill and then bring in the heavy machinery to remove the mountain… we run the risk of only amusing the moles.