Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we experience. The power of fear can be overwhelming, and can activate the brain’s flight, fight or freeze automatic response. In his new book, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You*, acclaimed Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop offers an effective mindfulness approach to working with powerful emotions and freeing ourselves from their grip.
I recently had the opportunity to use Dzogchen Ponlop’s “Three Step Emotional Rescue Plan” as described in Emotional Rescue to work with my experience of fear when I make a perceived mistake. In reflecting on this emotional reaction, I realized that I had not previously identified what I was feeling as fear. I was afraid that allowing myself to experience the intensity of fear would overwhelm or paralyze me. I guess you could call this “fear of fear.”
Neuroscience teaches that when we experience an intense experience like fear, our amygdala or reptilian brain reacts automatically for survival by going into fight, flight or freeze mode. My brain reacts to fear about making a mistake by going into fight mode. In fight mode, I tend to overdo things by trying to make up for the supposed mistake, apologize needlessly and endlessly, or go overboard to justify my actions so I look good.
Rather than alleviating my fear, my automatic fight response becomes more of a habitual pattern, creating deeply entrenched neural pathways in my brain. It is like a highway with no exit ramp. The signposts on this highway in my brain include perfectionism, depression, self-doubt and loss of confidence. By working with Emotional Rescue’s three-step plan, I found, much to my relief, that the plan provided an exit ramp for this heavily trafficked highway of mine.
Dzogchen Ponlop calls the first step of the Emotional Rescue Plan Mindful Gap. Ponlop says this gap is like hitting the pause button on our DVD player. Taking this pause or time out allows us hold the present moment, feel the energy in our body, and look directly at our experience, without creating extraneous thoughts or story lines.
I took a deep breath as a way to hit the pause button and not go into my habitual fight mode. Taking that breath, I experienced a shaky tightness in my gut and a quickening of my pulse. By being in my body, rather than in my head, I was able to experience the raw, naked energy of my fear. I also noticed my tendency to concoct a whole story in my head, in which I create a scenario of being judged, criticized and even rejected because I made a mistake. By being with my direct experience of fear, on an energetic bodily level, I was able to let go of those thoughts. It was such a relief not to go there.
The second step of the Emotional Rescue plan is called Clear Seeing. This step allows us to gain perspective and see the big picture. Clearly seeing helps us get to know and create a relationship with our emotions, their triggers and patterns. By working with this step, I was able to look directly at my fear. I got to know it, rather than trying to avoid it, as I had habitually done in the past. I also came to better understand, with compassion and kindness toward myself, my fear trigger when I make a perceived mistake.
Creating a mindful gap and clearly seeing leads naturally to the third step of the Emotional Rescue Plan: Letting Go. Letting go entails naming an emotion when it comes up, simply and without judgment. Naming the emotion effectively decreases its intensity and power. Naming the emotion of fear, I was able to look at its energetic qualities, deepening my acquaintance with it, and learning what my experience of fear is telling me on a non-verbal level.
Using the three-step Emotional Rescue Plan allowed me to look, with a sense of compassionate curiosity, at my fear. This in turn allowed me to let go of my unreasonable need to be perfect. I have become well acquainted with the experience of fear in my body so that it no longer overwhelms and overpowers me. It is easier now for me to feel compassion for myself. Breathing into compassion for myself further lessens fear’s grip. I can then extend my compassion outward, to all of us who suffer from fear when we make a perceived mistake. I know that I am not alone in experiencing this, and this knowledge has further freed me from the grip of fear.
I can now welcome fear when it arises as a friend that has something to teach me. As soon as I recognize it in my body, I can say, through taking a mindful gap, clearly seeing and letting go, “Hello, my friend Fear. What do you have to teach me today?
*Dzogchen Ponlop, Emotional Rescue: How to Work with Your Emotions to Transform Hurt and Confusion into Energy That Empowers You. New York: Tarchen/Perigee