The Infantile Basis of Our Fears

Children and adults can easily feel menace or danger where none exist.

This post is a revised and expanded version of an earlier story, “How Inner Fear Becomes Our Worst Nightmare.”

Some people like digging around in the past—geologists, historians, archeologists, and genealogists—because the past is the foundation of the present and has a lot to tell us. Our own past in early childhood is also worthy of study because, for one thing, it has a lot to tell us about the levels of fear that permeate society.

Much is said and written about fear, yet seldom is it traced to its irrational psychological core. To overcome this inner fear, we have to see its existence in our psyche instead of denying it or trying to justify it by imagining Armageddon or “seeing” evil intent in others. Deeper insight makes us more conscious of our fear’s irrationality.

It’s easy to stoke our fears because we all have inner fears that have an infantile basis. Toddlers can burst out crying when getting a haircut, seeing a costumed character at the fair, even when meeting a neighbor’s new puppy. Children can also have fears of darkness, of falling, being dropped, chopped to pieces, accosted by bogey-men, and flushed down the toilet. We can also recognize that fear is an instinctive remnant of humankind’s early history when primitive conditions made the environment more immediately dangerous. [Read more…]

Cynicism: The Battle Cry of the Wimp

Cynics fly the white flag of surrender thinking it's a rebel flag.

Cynicism is the bravado of the faint-hearted, the strut of the weak-kneed, the battle cry of a feeble voice. This negative mentality, while self-defeating for its practitioners, seems to be gathering like storm clouds in the West. Barack Obama delicately brought this dysfunction to our attention when he noted at a campaign stop that “it’s fashionable right now for people to be cynical.”

Fashionable, indeed! A cynical view of the world has become a form of conviviality, like social drinking, that’s perceived as cool by many students, professionals, and sophisticates when they get together to talk or party. It’s cowardly, not cool. Cynics fly the white flag of surrender thinking it’s a rebel flag.

Cynicism is a cleverly disguised expression of passivity and hopelessness. It’s the art of being disgusted by hypocrisy and corruption without being moved to action. We can see its self-defeating effects in our faltering will to solve public and social problems, as well as in the loss of confidence in leaders and public and private institutions. Should America decline in self-defeat, we’ll have our cynical selves to thank. We can stop being cynical, though, by understanding its roots in our psyche.

Cynics tend not to see their inner weakness with any objectivity. They think they’re sophisticated realists entitled to take refuge in mockery, sarcasm, biting wit, and a know-it-all attitude. [Read more…]

Desperately Seeking Validation

We won't do friends and loved ones any favors when we validate their suffering.

Watch out for people who lean on you to validate their pain and misery. They may be using you to justify their unconscious decision to hold on to their brand of suffering.

Sometimes, of course, we can help others in their suffering as we listen to them and comfort them. Friends and family members are justified in reaching out to us at times of need for our emotional support.

It’s a different story, though, when we’re being used by others for the purpose of helping them to cover up their participation in their suffering. We’re dealing here with the weird and wacky determination of people to use whatever means necessary to deny their affinity for pain and misery.

Let me explain with an example. Suppose that Tom is really angry at Jane because she rejected him and took up with another guy. In his hurt, Tom tells his friends how mean and cruel Jane was. He paints her in the worst possible light, portrays himself as an innocent victim, and in passionate intensity convinces his friends that he was grievously wronged.

Tom, however, is blind to his own true role in the drama. [Read more…]

Being Seen in a Negative Light

We want to understand our attachment to the feeling of being seen in a negative light.

Many of us have had experiences of walking into a social situation and feeling shy, awkward, hesitant, and even fearful. Other times we can feel that people are scoffing at us because we apparently said something silly or foolish. We can also believe that our physical appearance or clothing is drawing critical attention, or that everyone was laughing at us when we played ineptly at the picnic volleyball game.

In self-centeredness, we typically exaggerate the degree to which people notice us or think critically about our appearance. Mentally or intellectually, we know that people have better things to do than to make us the center of their attention. They’re often too preoccupied with their own lives to even pay us much notice. Emotionally, though, our impression can be very different: We can feel that others not only focus their attention on us but also think less of us.

This feeling of being judged negatively comes and goes. Sometimes it seems to live inside us like an intestinal worm feeding off our entrails. We tell ourselves we’re as worthy and good as anyone else. Yet our emotions often say otherwise. Our subjective impressions don’t correspond to objective reality. Why is that? [Read more…]