By Morton Hunt
“KEEP YOUR fears to yourself, but share your courage.” In our day of soul-baring confession books and television dramas in which the most personal problems are nearly solved through self-disclosure, that advice of Robert Louis Stevenson may sound old-fashioned.
But Stevenson had a point. And lately a number of experts who are called upon professionally to observe fear-doctors to observe fear-doctors, psychologists, marriage counselors, social workers-wonder whether we haven’t been talking about our fears too much. Fear grips all of us at some time during our lives; fear illness, of financial disaster, of inadequacy, of death, even of the intangible or inexplicable. Though these experts agree that there are a good many times when it may be necessary to express our disturbing fears to others, they feel that often the course of wisdom is to keep them to ourselves.
There are occasions, of course, when this counsel is obvious. We are all familiar with examples of people who have deliberately concealed their fears in order to sustain others: the military leader who puts on a display of confidence before his men, the mother who, to reassure a child in time of trouble, hides her anxiety behind a shield of assumed unconcern. We know almost instinctively that courage can be caught by contagion.
But if courage is contagious, so are fear and worry. The look of despair on the faces around a bedside, for example, can crucially affect an ill person. Parents who betray their fears to small to small children often infect them with long-lasting anxieties. I once read about a mother who sent her daughter off to school each day with the admonition, “Be careful!” This repeated warning led the child to think of the journey to school as dangerous, and of life in general as fraught with perils-a view it took her years to unlearn. Wisher now, she hides her anxieties about her own son, and as he leaves for school calls out gaily, “Have fun!”
Broadcasting fear can paralyze the broadcaster himself, as well as his listener. Talking about one’s fears may reduce tension but it also weakens the resolve to do something about the problem. Every doctor can cite a score of patients who visit him to reveal their anxieties, but never carry out his advice.
Excessive self-revelation of personal fears may also bring about what Prof. Robert K. Merton of Columbia University calls “the self-fulfilling prophecy.” For example, a man who continually airs his fear of losing his job may actually weaken his position by undermining the confidence of others in his reliability. “Confession,” a keen observer once said, “is good for the soul but bad for the reputation.”
Yet must we keep silent when the burden of our fears becomes so great as to threaten our health? Experts say no. Our bodies respond to fear and danger with a number of involuntary reactions originally evolved to ready primitive man for combat or flight in emergencies: the release of adrenal and cortical hormones into the blood stream, causing an increase in blood pressure and heartbeat; the increased discharge of stomach acids; and so on. Useful on a short-term basis, when this alarm system is continued for long, as by a persistent fear or worry, damage to heart, blood vessels, stomach and other organs may ensue. Telling one’s fears to a sympathetic listener eases the pressure by absorbing some of this overflow of “readiness” or “continuous alarm.”
John Gunther in his book Eisenhower, the Man and the symbol tells of a time during a campaign in 1945 when Eisen hower, walking along a bank of the Rhine, overtook a young soldier who seemed silent and depressed. The general asked how he was feeling, and the reply was, “Well, you and I are a good pair then, because I’m nervous, too. Maybe if we just walk along together we’ll be good for each other.”
Another important reason for not keeping all one’s fears a secret is that many of them as Prof. John Dollard of Yale pointed out are “shadow fears,” based not on real threats but on imaginary ones. It may safely be said that most general fears-of strangers, of failure, of childbirth, of germs, etc-are illusory or exaggerated. So are fears of sexual contact that make some men impotent and some women frigid. Often these fears result from misinformation or lack of information, or are based on unconscious conflicts which they grow in the dark of secrecy. They can be dispelled by discussion in the light of reality. Communicating them to a responsible person (a doctor, an understanding friend) will do much to put them in proper perspective.
How can you know when your fears should be disclosed, when withheld? It will help, I believe, if you ask yourself, first, what effect will the telling have-not only on your confidant but on you? Will it be just a whining complaint that provides temporary relief, or is it a distorted phantom fear that might e dissipated by frank discussion? Ask yourself, why am I pouring out my fears? In order to elicit sound advice and help? Or is it done simply for momentary relief, or to indulge self-pity?
In our world we are not likely to be without causes of fear. But by learning to distinguish among them, by applying intelligence and good judgment, we can succeed in living wisely with our fears, knowing when they can be shared with others and when, with maturity and courage, we must face them alone.
By Morton Hunt