Crossing the Fear Boundary

Reality is a big place, and the world of possibilities is larger still. It can be a little hard on the nerves. How else to explain the eagerness of people to shrink their world to the familiar and manageable? Science, technology, and religions are places where one might expect limitless horizons of discovery, but eruptions of new thought always have to push hard against the established beliefs that have a stranglehold on exploration.

Even once the new is accepted, there is the tendency to close ranks and declare that now we have reached the Truth, the outermost limit of where we need to go. Why is everybody in such a hurry to close the door on our own expansion? Why are we shutting ourselves down so fast?

People like small, cozy spaces like a cat loves a cardboard box. Shrinking reality to a familiar size makes us feel safe and in control. It is an unusual person who really enjoys suspense in the business of living. For the rest of us, we usually feel the pressure to hurry up and get things settled. Unfortunately, that can include our personalities and sense of identity, too.

We believe that we are our boundaries, which we extend only just so far, and no further. Once we have found a comfortable range of activity, a familiar place in which to locate ourselves, we say to ourselves that this is where we belong. Then we set about proving that and nailing it down at every chance. Finally we go so far as to confuse where we are in our little life boxes with who we are as people. Once that happens, it is very scary to leave the familiar because change feels like we would no longer know who we are. The cardboard box that we settled into now becomes our identity to be held onto at all costs. Self-limitation feels safe.

A wise therapist, Dawn Bennett, has called these limitations our fear boundaries. Most people only leave this box when they are forced out of it, maybe by a reversal of income or something unexpected with their children. Sometimes natural disasters or illnesses will do it. But it often takes explosive discomfort before people find out there is more to them than they ever imagined.

When we are dumped out of our box, there is usually panic and desperation. How will we ever be okay without our familiar walls? Most people do not feel ready to cope with radically different experiences, and yet most people do. People cope pretty well as soon as they stop trying to declare that things should not be the way they are and that happiness is only to be found under certain conditions. Resilience is in our genes if we don’t insist otherwise.

In fact, radical changes in life can often be surprising in how liberating they feel. Suddenly we find out that our desperate circumstances are a kind of gift. We would never have taken those new steps if we had had the option of keeping up our safe boundaries. It can be exhilarating to find out that we can still function, that life goes on, even when we are taken out of our box. Sometimes radical change can release such energy that we are almost giddy at being let out of the prison of predictability.   

There was an old Reader’s Digest story written by a man who developed a method to tell if a scary challenge should be embraced or refused. The man was invited by his college roommate to spend the summer with his South American family and become a cowboy on their ranch. The writer was scared about the trip, fearful of all the unfamiliarity and uncertainty. His worry got the better of him, and he backed out. But after school was out and the opportunity was past, he felt quite depressed that he had turned down the offer. He used this experience to guide him in all future decisions. He reasoned that any new experience was going to cause anxiety, so anxiety could not be used as a reliable indicator as to whether or not he should do it. Instead, he made it a rule to always look ahead and imagine how he would feel if he decided not to do something. If he thought he would feel relieved, he knew the right decision was not to do it. But if he felt a little depressed about not having done it, then he would know that he should take the chance.   

Apparently, there is a center in us that wants to grow and experience new things, even if a little risky. This part of us does not love a box. It has no boundaries made of fear. It feels excited when opportunities come up, in spite of the normal anxieties. There is fear, but there is also a lifting inside. It is as though our true self can literally recognize those things that are right for us. We feel more alive and focused. If something is not right for us, then the kind of fear we feel is more like an avoidant, depressing dread rather than anxiety. The wrong kind of challenge often has a sinking feeling, a heaviness, a total lack of interest to it.

Where you are is not who you are. There may be a larger self that you were meant to expand into, past the limits that your family or friends may have imagined for you. It is the greatest feeling to find out you are capable of much more than you thought possible. Ask yourself this important question: deep down, does this feel like yours to do? If the answer is yes, it does not matter how scared you are. Growth necessitates being scared, but if it is combined with excitement and desire, you may have found a spot outside your box where life just got a lot bigger. Once you try stepping over your fear boundaries, you will be amazed that you ever agreed to stay in so small a space.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.

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