You probably never thought about this before; but if you were ever face to face with a grizzly bear, you might think you’d run. But when I encountered a huge, teeth-baring, grizzly bear, I didn’t. I stood frozen, unable to move.
It was July, and my husband and I were hiking in northwest Canada, backcountry, in the Rocky Mountains. I’d asked a local man at the base about the possibility of seeing a bear and he laughed at me, dismissing me as an inexperienced, or let’s say, spoiled, New Yorker.
Not completely convinced we’d be safe, I hiked into the wilderness anyway.
After about an hour, I looked around at the magnificent, yet solitary, land and began to think about my children at home, and how dangerous this adventure could potentially be.
What if I tripped and sprained my ankle? What if my husband did?
We didn’t have cell phones back then (not that there would’ve been reception) and one of us would be forced to leave the other alone in order to travel down the mountain terrain to get help.
I started to panic as I let in that this escapade was in fact a bad idea, and kept a close watch for bears, and other wildlife like mountains lions and bobcats.
Mark made growling noises; and as I assured him he wasn’t funny, my anxiety rose.
So when Mark stopped abruptly and mouthed, listen, like the boy who cried wolf, I didn’t believe there was anything to listen to; and I kept on. But when he threw his arm out in front of me, a shield, to stop me from walking, I knew he wasn’t kidding around any longer.
And then I heard a growl, a heart-stopping, fierce, roar.
I turned; and approximately two hundred feet away, a grizzly bear towered on its hind legs.
We didn’t budge.
Remarkably, the bear came down on all fours and took off up the mountain, away from us, with a speed and force that is indescribable.
My husband wanted to continue on to Rummel Lake, where we’d been headed. But I refused.
(Some people need a brick to fall on their head; I needed a grizzly bear to roar at me. But I finally put my foot down and ended our expedition.)
Later, I thought about the fight or flight survival instinct and didn’t understand why I froze when encountering a bear, which considering how fast the bear could run was an excellent choice. But freezing, it turns out, has been added to the list of possible actions. (Fight, Flight, Freeze.)
Fear is a necessary and useful emotion, essential for human survival. But fear can also hurt us. Sometimes our brains misconstrue every day discomfort, equating it with danger, prompting extreme anxiety.
Too often the freeze instinct causes us to experience a kind of paralysis in our every day (difficult but not life threatening) lives.
In Your Survival Instinct is Killing You, Marc Schoen PH.D, discusses how to tame our overly active survival instinct in order to conquer fear. And this is important because fear cripples us, controls us profoundly.
I realized this recently when I considered emailing an agent who was reading my full manuscript. She had written to me saying she loved my novel and would get back to me soon. After many weeks, I resisted following up.
And then I realized why.
I was afraid.
It was more comfortable for me to stay in a hopeful place than it was for me to get a final "no".
I was being controlled by my fear.
There are 8 human emotions:
Joy, Love, Passion, Fear, Anger, Shame, Guilt, Pain.
Not too long ago, I would’ve told you that fear was not an emotion I felt often, and certainly wasn’t one of my problems. I would’ve told you that I had a healthy amount of fear (that kicked in appropriately when confronted by wildlife in the wilderness) but that it didn’t control my every day behavior.
I’ve begun to see how it has affected me and how with its stifling nature, it has slowed me down a bit.
It took me ten years to write my novel, and I can say now that the delay was due, in part, to fear. Fear my novel wouldn’t be good enough, fear I wasn’t good enough or talented enough to write a full-fledged book.
Fear I’d fail. Fear I’d expose too much, and that people in my family, and community, would not be happy with me.
Just as I stood powerless in the mountains, facing a bear, unable to move in any direction, I sat staring at my computer screen unable to write a word.
It was my survival instinct kicking in- freezing-, which in modern times translates into resistance.
Read this Brain Pickings post: 5 Timeless Books of Insight on Fear and the Creative Process by Maria Popova.
The creative process is inundated with fear; but if we pay attention, fear can be used for good. Often, it shows us what we must do, not only in regards to writing, but in all areas of our lives because we have to tackle so many fears, at work and at home: fear of the unknown, fear of intimacy, fear of failure and fear of success.
I'm learning to pay attention to all my emotions, including fear. If we can decipher healthy fear from random discomfort we can use fear as an indicator. There will be times we should stay put (stop dead in our tracks). But there will be other times that we might need to move forward, and do the very thing that is imperative for us, and the growth of our spirit.