(Video at the end of this blog post)

I want to discuss very briefly the acronym in the title of this post. I have to confess that I was never crazy about this statement. “False Expectations Appearing Real” always sounded trite to me, and maybe a little dismissive.

Sure, I knew that my fears were often only my concerns about the future, near or far, writ large in my thinking and feelings. I got that at some level.

But I was still AFRAID. And just because my thinking and feelings didn’t mean that something bad WOULD happen didn’t mean that I wasn’t scared, anxious, worried, feeling trapped.

When I heard someone say “you know Erik, fear really stands for… blah blah blah” I tended to shut them down, and shut them out. They clearly didn’t get what was happening to me, in me.

And isn’t that one of the biggest challenges of our struggle with fear and anxiety? That those around us don’t really get what we’re going through, how we feel, what’s happening in our thinking?

You Just Don’t Get It

That’s what I wanted to tell my friends and family for years about my battle with anxiety and depression. I wanted and needed their support, but when I would actually reach out for it (and I had learned that reaching out was usually an exercise in frustration) they would do almost anything but what I was looking for.

Here’s one response I would get: “Everything’s OK Erik. Why can’t you just focus on that?” It was usually delivered with intensity and care, and was usually utterly useless to me. Because it sure didn’t FEEL like everything was OK, and I could tell myself pretty much anything I wanted – it didn’t change how I felt.

Another response I heard was “You don’t have anything to be afraid of Erik. Just forget about your worries and you’ll be fine.” Really? It’s that easy? Don’t you think I’ve already tried that? Because that sure wasn’t MY experience! I had been trying to do exactly that for years! Same thing with the depression I faced – I wanted NOTHING MORE than to just forget about it, move around it.

But it didn’t work that way. It felt like there was this large black hole pulling at the center of my life, and I was being dragged towards it, no matter what I did. When I tried to explain this to the folks in my life that I cared about (and who definitely cared about me) they would look confused, worried, sad – or bugged, frustrated, even angry with me.

None of That Was Useful!

Here’s the hardest and simplest part of this discussion, oddly enough. My friends and family couldn’t fix my anxiety and depression. That would have been great, but they couldn’t. They didn’t understand what I was going through any better than I did.

So what COULD they have done for me? Here are some suggestions:

Just listen. Listen with empathy and a little patience. If they had 5 minutes, tell me they had 5 minutes, then let me articulate/vent what I was dealing with to them. The few times I could find that in my friends it was enormously useful to me.

Equally useful would be to do some reflective listening – mirror back to me what I’m saying, not necessarily word for word, but just paraphrase what I’m saying. Really helps the whole sense of being listened to for the person talking.

And, by the way, listening isn’t advice-giving. Make no mistake – I have been as guilty as the next person of doing exactly that. When we’re advising we are NOT listening.

Unless you have something that is a real resource or help you’re not helping (as I’ve already said earlier in this post) with commands to feel better or to do this or that to “get over it.” And even if you DO have something useful to say, LISTEN FIRST.

Drop a note or a call my way. We who fight with fear, anxiety and depression can find ourselves feeling so alone and cut off that it can be overwhelming. A short email, a quick phone call, the funny card in the mail – all of these can be anchors and encouragements to us in our seeming isolation.

Be present. Sometimes what was most useful from my friends, in those rare moments when we stumbled across it, was just BEING with me. Over the phone, in person, sometimes just that person’s presence was enormously comforting to me.

If nothing else it reminded me that there was a world outside of my fear and depression. It isn’t always necessary to have anything to say – just being present can be very helpful.

As I have said in other posts anxiety and depression can be fiercely isolating. This is one reason that just being present can be so supportive for some of us.

Another reason is that it helps those of us doing this work to feel respected – that even if you DON’T understand what I’m going through, you still respect me enough to want to help, even if only by being friend enough to hang out with me for a little while.

Back To The Whole F.E.A.R. Thing…

As you know (if you’ve been reading this blog) what IS useful to us in this work is the following:

1) Facing our fears, which means getting our thinking clear on when we’re reacting out of Flight or Fight – when we’ve turned a problem into a crisis,

2) DIS-counting our learned fears of our physical and emotional Flight or Fight Responses (that racing heart, that tight feeling in our chest, that sense of anger or guilt or terror) and learning patiently that those messages are ONLY the efforts of Flight or Fight to get us to RUN from our scary thinking,

3) Converting those problems-as-crises BACK into problems, first in our thinking, then in our behavior.

So yes, the truth is, FEAR really is false expectations (i.e., our converted problems-to-crises scaring us) appearing real. That doesn’t mean we can usually wave a wand and make it better for us. What we need to do is reframe our thinking and do the time and effort to really understand this, make it operational in our lives.

To that end I’m going to revisit the basics of Fear Mastery in my next few posts, along with a few sidebars that I hope will help make the model even more useful to you, my wonderful readers. It has been almost two years since I first laid out the basics, and when I look at back at those blog posts they are a little dense.

I can do better now! 🙂