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.

In any event, baby fears are perfectly understandable because babies are so vulnerable. They’re profoundly helpless, at the mercy of the kindness of others. As well, their powers of reason are still unformed, so they can easily feel menace or danger where none exists. As adults, of course, we no longer fear being flushed down the toilet. But the fear itself remains in our psyche as unresolved emotional memories and associations. Despite our capacity for reason, this inner fear, which can be part of our identity, is unconsciously transferred and projected on to imagined dangers as easily as real dangers. Even common worry is a form of fear. Worry can fester in our psyche, becoming more problematic when it intensifies into anxiety, fear, and panic.

Fear makes us less clear-headed. Why is that? Unconsciously, we’re determined to justify our fear in order to cover up our lingering resonance with the unresolved baby fears of childhood. Keep in mind that unresolved emotional issues are harbored in our psyche, and that we’re compelled to experience whatever is unresolved, even when doing so is painful. Much of our fear, emerging from within, is irrational—yet we’re determined to make the fear seem justified by external situations. This cover-up of the source of our fear convinces us that the reasons or causes for our fear are real. Now we need enemies to justify our inner fears and to cover up our emotional resonance with those fears. The enemy is the defense: The more menacing we make the enemy, the more effectively we deny our inner weakness, our indulgence in our inner fears.

Of course, we often do face legitimate personal and national threats to our wellbeing and safety. For instance, America’s national-security state apparatus began to develop rapidly after World War II, following the worldwide fear aroused by the development of atomic weapons. Danger exists, of course, yet our fears have compounded the problem, says journalist David C. Unger in The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs (The Penguin Press, New York, 2012). Although we have the world’s most powerful military, “we live in greater fear of external and internal dangers than before World War II.” America’s self-perpetuating security establishment, Unger writes, has been “stoking our fears” in order to win public acceptance of its expanding powers—at a cost to democratic institutions and economic strength.

Handguns, too, can be used not just as a physical defense but also as a psychological defense. The unconscious psychological defense operates along these lines: “Who says I’m a fearful person emotionally preoccupied with being harmed or violated! This gun proves that I know how to take care of myself. No one is going to get the best of me!” America’s ongoing national state of emergency, along with our budget-busting military, is just a bigger version of the handgun defense. Our militancy is, paradoxically, a sign of weakness. The ever-expanding Pentagon budget is our very expensive and self-defeating cover-up of inner fear. We shower the members of the armed forces in thankful glory, in part because their bravery lets us off the hook psychologically: We don’t have to do the soul-searching that can overcome our fear. This refusal to achieve inner progress means, however, that we remain passive, unable to rein in our militancy, and unable to understand and practice the power of sincere diplomacy, persistent negotiations, and heartfelt expressions of goodwill.

Letting go of fear feels challenging because it’s a big component of how we know ourselves. Unconsciously, we’re familiar with ourselves through timidity, self-doubt, uncertainty, and passivity. Hence, our aggressiveness and militancy, which can hide this part of us, seem like the only possible way to express power. As a result, we’re unable to express the power of engaged citizenship. Instead, we feel childish entitlement and apathy, or the phony power that goes with cynicism and chronic complaining.

With real power, our citizenship is more resolute. We acquire our own sense of truth and don’t depend on others to know what’s true for us. Our inner freedom is the cornerstone of world peace.

For us to evolve, irrational fears have to be made conscious. These fears have kept us child-like, unable to successfully manage our modern world. To liberate ourselves from them, we can start by assessing external situations in the light of our inner fears, remembering that we act out what’s repressed and unconscious. We’ll rise and prosper from the embers of what we make conscious.