When we think of fear, we don’t exactly picture positive things, and we don’t exactly welcome it. After all, the purpose of fear is to scare us, isn’t it? This way we can spring into action, and escape. This way we can run or avoid the awful, anxiety-provoking situation or person or place or thing.
In other words, fear is a threat. Fear is a saber-toothed tiger or a snarling dog. Fear is a dark alley. Fear is a confrontation. Fear is rejection. Fear is public speaking and final exams. Fear is loneliness.
Fear is unpleasant at best—and dangerous at worst.
Many of us even see fear as an enemy, because it arises at inconvenient times (like during a presentation!), because it paralyzes us, and because it makes us feel helpless, weak, and out of control.
And yet, fear also can lead us toward a fulfilling life, toward more satisfying days—if we’re willing to listen.
In early 2005, Carla Marie Manly found herself whispering, “I’d rather live under a bridge than live this life.” She’d spent years pursuing the “right” career, living with the “right” husband, and being the “right” daughter.
But all of those yearnings for the right things only led to living a “hollow, unfulfilling life.” Which, she realized, was the result of a profound fear of not being lovable or good or perfect.
“I came to understand that fear certainly has its destructive side—the side that keeps us stuck and immobilized. I came to see, too, that if we take the time to slow down to listen to fear’s other voice—constructive fear—that we have found a dear, trustworthy friend in fear,” Manly said.
Constructive fear, which Manly also refers to as transformational fear, is the softer, smarter side of fear. It’s the side that inspired Manly to go back to school and become a clinical psychologist.
Today, Manly, Ph.D, has her own private practice in Sonoma County, Calif., where she specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. She’s also written a book aptly called Joy from Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.
When we listen to the voice of constructive or transformational fear, it “will guide us away from the limiting chains of destructive fear and into the freedom of self-awareness and true inner joy,” Manly said.
For example, she noted, for a person in a toxic relationship, constructive fear might say: “You deserve to be in a love relationship where you feel honored, treasured, and deeply loved.” For a person who’s stuck in a dead-end job, constructive fear might say: “You want more than this. Let’s discover what it is. Let’s begin to expand our vision to discover a career that brings you joy. Yes, change is scary, but you can do this. You can go back to school if you desire; you can do whatever is needed.”
Listening to Constructive Fear
To listen to your own constructive, transformational fear, Manly suggested taking these specific steps:
- Notice when negative or bullying thoughts arise.
- Pause, and say directly: “I hear destructive fear’s negativity. Constructive fear, what wisdom, what positive guidance, do you have for me?”
- Listen for an optimistic, uplifting inner voice. “At first it may seem very fragile because you are not familiar with it, but it will grow steadier and stronger with time.”
- Jot down what constructive fear has to say, along with anything else that arises.
- Identify achievable, micro-goals to support the changes constructive fear suggests you make. “This is an important step, for when we put our goals and dreams down on paper, constructive fear gains more power.”
- Take small actions to slowly achieve your goals.
To illustrate what this really looks like, Manly shared this example: You’re terrified of talking to your partner about trust issues. Destructive fear tells you: “Stay quiet! You don’t like confrontation.”
When you ask constructive fear about what wisdom and guidance it has to share, it says: “You deserve to be able to talk openly about how you feel. You’ll feel so much better getting your feelings and thoughts out.” When you take out your journal, you write about how scary it was for you to get shut down when you were a child, and how much better you would’ve felt being open and honest, while receiving unconditional love. Maybe you even visualize yourself talking to your partner.
Your micro-goals might be scheduling several sessions with a therapist to sharpen your communication skills, reading a self-help book on communication, and working on personal boundaries. Your small, actionable steps might include: making an appointment with a therapist, attending a support group, buying and reading a self-help book, and eventually making a date with your partner to talk.
Letting Go of Judgment
Manly also noted that we’re more likely to befriend fear and recognize constructive fear when we stop being so judgmental. She suggested starting by noticing when you’re being critical and judgmental. In a neutral, detached way, say “Oh, I’m being critical.”
Next, imagine the critical thought floating away in a dark balloon. Imagine a kind, friendly thought coming in, which is the voice of constructive fear. Then, imagine placing that thought in a clear balloon that you can hold—a constructive, uplifting message that becomes a new image for your psyche to embrace.
Visualizing a Dear Friend
Another strategy is to imagine constructive fear as a treasured friend, Manly said. “It can be a human friend, a superhero, or a cherished icon.” Either way, whatever image you choose, Manly noted that you can learn to walk alongside your fear.
“As you learn to consult with your best friend, constructive fear, you come to find greater freedom from the darkness of destructive fear. And, as a wonderful bonus, you come to realize that this amazing friend—constructive fear—has been waiting patiently for you—and will never leave your side.”
Manly wants readers to know that you’re “not broken, defective, or doomed,” which are all descriptors she regularly hears from her new clients.
Every person “has the power to create change.” Every person “has the power to make fear into a dear friend.” Every person “has the power—and the right—to live a life that is free of destructive fear.”
And every person can do exactly that: You can tune into the voice of constructive fear—the soft, self-compassionate voice that has your best interests at heart—and you can take small, even tiny, steps to act on your significant goals. And you can start right now.