How to find courage & strength when bad things happen in the world.
Think of the color blue. Now change that blue to turquoise and then to a lighter blue. Red.
Think of your left thumb. Focus on your left thumb. Imagine that your left thumb has gone rogue, that somehow you sense that your left thumb has a mind of its own and wants to go its own way. Feel the building rebellion in your left thumb, whatever that feels like, imagine that it is spreading into the rest of your left hand.
Now, STOP thinking of all of that. Don’t think of the color blue or turquoise or lighter blue. Do not think red.
Forget all about your left thumb. Forget I even mentioned it. Nothing is spreading into your left hand from your left thumb.
Oh yes, also, DO NOT think of a tall man with red hair wearing one clown shoe and one cowboy boot.
Here is the extent of my neurological knowledge: the brain does not encode a negative. Don’t think of your home town. Don’t remind yourself that none of us can predict the future. Don’t notice what that self-critical voice in your head says to you. And whatever you are afraid of – definitely do not think of that. Stop thinking of what scares you.
I have just successfully made you think of these things. You may have outsmarted me somewhere along the way by deciding to think of some things other than what I was directing you not to think. But even so, I still made you think of your unruly left thumb and turquoise. And you know that it was not a short man wearing the cowboy boot.
On the day that I am writing this, three bombs have exploded in Austin, Texas, killing two people. I am told that it is possible that a third victim could die before I finish writing. I will, in fact, ask Siri to update me before I go downstairs to walk my dog.
Last month 17 people died in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I read an article by Elizabeth Chuck entitled, “Teachers struggle with the new ‘default mindset’ after Florida shooting.” The new default mindset is, of course, that when teachers and students hear a loud noise, something in their nervous system responds as if they are being attacked. Somebody drops some books or slams a locker shut, and instantly, everyone is on high alert. Welcome to post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Not everyone will respond the same, of course, but it is perfectly understandable that many people in school buildings, movie theaters, at crowded events will be more vigilant. The new default is a reflex. There is no cognitive process that goes into it. And because in the few seconds following the noise, we discover a harmless explanation for it. So the post-traumatic reflex just takes a second and then it is gone.
But it’s not entirely gone, is it? Everyone sitting in that school who heard that noise is aware of why a flash of fear just ran through them. It is because we are hyper-aware that we live in a world, and specifically in a country, where people being shot while they are minding their own business is not unusual.
It is okay, even important, to consider that the odds are always greatly in our favor. We are each still far more likely to be hurt or killed in a car crash or in an accident at home than we are to be the victims of a mass shooting. That is good to know but knowing that is not likely to rid us of our newly installed post-traumatic startle reflex.
Today, if I hear anything that sounds like an explosion, I am going to think instantly of Austin, Texas or Parkland, Florida or Sandy Hook Elementary School or Virginia Tech. Mainly, I am going to think “DUCK!”
What we tend to do that will not help.
What will not work is telling ourselves and each other to not think about it. Blue, turquoise, lighter blue, red, and your rogue left thumb should be enough to make that clear.
Something else that most definitely will not work is criticizing ourselves for reactions within us that we are not choosing. I spoke with a young woman recently who was being very hard on herself because she was feeling fear when she was at school because kept thinking about what would happen if someone walked into her school and started shooting.
“That is a pretty natural fear following what has just happened in Florida and the 24/7 coverage that is getting,” I said.
She seemed almost irritated at my response. “No, that doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t there. I was safe and sound hundreds of miles away when those people were being killed.”
“Of course your response is very different than those who were there,” I said, “but that doesn’t minimize the fact that the news of the shooting has left you shaken. What happened in at that high school in Parkland, Florida has left lots of people shaken.”
“I think I feel guilty.” she said.
I asked, “Guilty about what?”
She was silent, thinking, and then said, “Guilty for feeling this much fear when I was nowhere near the shooting and when the people who were there are the ones who have every right to be this scared.”
“Believe it or not,” I said, “what you are describing is normal. The way you are feeling, including thinking about what it would be like for a shooter to be in your school, is what I think of as a sane response to an insane situation.”
“Yes. Absolutely really. Think about it. What is truly crazy is not only that these shootings happen, but that they have continued to happen and there is no reason to believe that it will not happen again. How could you keep from being afraid?” I asked her. “If you think you should have the ability to talk yourself out of fear, I promise that you are going to come up way short of that goal. We don’t have the ability to stop ourselves from these thoughts and all the feelings that go with them.”
See? Don’t think of the color blue or your left thumb. It is just the same as saying, “Stop thinking about a shooter at your school.” It won’t work. And when we think it should, we are left with the original fear plus we are now beating ourselves up about being afraid. We humans are masterful at taking something that is difficult already and making it much worse. We have this strange tendency to kick ourselves when we are down. Not fair. But maybe more pertinently, piling on ourselves by telling ourselves that what we are thinking and feeling is wrong.
What I am thinking and feeling is not wrong. It just is.
What can we do with this national post-traumatic fear reflex?
Let me teach you a couple of things that can really make a difference. The basic philosophy of what I do to help people is really just about the Serenity Prayer. Don’t worry, no religious belief necessary at all to make good use of this very handy tool.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
It is too late not to be effected by the shootings, bombings and just generally knowing that no one can predict when and where random violence will strike next. That last sentence might sound like the opposite of helping but that is not so. If we are serious about becoming more grounded and secure in our day-to-day lives, it is essential that we accept the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Keep in mind that the whole truth includes that statistically we are more likely to be hurt or killed falling down in our own bathrooms than we are to be victims of domestic terrorism. Arguments about which of us are more likely to fall down in our own bathrooms aside, the whole truth also includes that mass shootings, bombings, even assaults by automobile do happen and with the accessibility, we have to warn one another via social media, we are all intimately aware of details when these events occur. In other words, we are not going to be able to forget that not long ago our left thumbs were up to no good and we were trying like hell to keep the color turquoise out of our minds.
The goal here is not to be rid of fear, but instead to not be controlled by fear. The prospect of facing fear becomes much less daunting once we can accept that fear is normal and that the part we actually need “the courage to change,” is how we respond to fear.
[If you are interested in knowing more about how I work with people dealing with both fear and that accompanying shame, read my book, Embracing Fear: How to Turn What Scares Us into Our Greatest Gift, HarperOne, 2002, 2005]
You might be surprised how much more attention you can focus on responding when you really good at remembering that it is a waste of time to try to get rid of the fear.
If some of this makes sense to you, try what I am going to describe next and just pay attention to what you think and feel in response. No two of us are the same so we don’t want to make any assumptions about how you should respond. One thing I always say to clients about therapy assignments is, “Everything is information.” If we understand that the objective to any of this is to gather more information, then we are literally always succeeding as long as we are paying attention.
SEPARATING FROM YOUR FEAR
Write a list of a few of your biggest fears. They might be fears associated with the violence we are witnessing far too often in our country these days, but they can also be fears that are more personal. Now here is the twist: write each fear a message, addressing yourself in the second person, writing your name before each message. You are writing these messages as if they are being said to you, about you.
“I am afraid that I would freeze and become helpless if there was a shooting at my school,” becomes, “Thom, if a shooter shows up in your school, you will just freeze and be helpless.” The message actually becomes a prediction, maybe even an insult.
“I am afraid that I am not going to be able to accomplish the goals I set for myself,” [you may want to insert a specific goal here if that makes it feel more personal] becomes, “Thom, you might as well give up now, you are never going to be writer, you are not good enough.” Notice that sometimes these fear messages really come out as shame messages. Shame and fear are very closely related, two sides of one coin.
RESPONDING TO YOUR FEAR
Next, imagine that this messenger of fear sitting right in front of you. This is the voice that imposes self-doubt, predicts failure and for whom nothing is ever good enough. If you made a B, it should have been an A. If you made an A, it should have been an A+ and if you made an A+, you should have made it sooner. Look at the fear/shame messages you have written and imagine this Inner-Saboteur saying these things to you. Feel what you feel when you hear the messages being spoken to you. You can even get someone to role-play the Saboteur and have them read your messages. Feel what it feels like to be standing face to face as these messages are spoken.
Even if you do not feel strong in response to these negative messages, decide what you would like to say to the Saboteur. Come up with 2 or 3 powerful sentences – or even just one – that represent the stance you want to take in the face of this negativity. Write your response down and speak it out loud. Speak it aloud as many times as it takes for you to begin to feel the power in your words. Then pause to pay close attention to what you feel when you are separate from the messages of fear and when you are standing in defiance to the messages. Close your eyes. Memorize this feeling. Repeat the sentences as much as you need to. Build the power with those words, build the power within yourself. Do it again. And again. This is the voice of your strength and your courage. You are that strength and courage. You are not self-doubt, fear and shame. Those are not part of your authentic self. You were not born with these negative beliefs.
You are not your fear. You are the person who responds to your fear.
Fear: You never know when something horrible is going to happen.
You: Yeah, that’s obvious. What is your point?
Fear: My point is that something horrible could happen right now or an hour from now.
You: So, you are thinking that since something bad might happen, I should spend time now being afraid?
Fear: Yes. The world is a scary place. Bad things happen. Really bad things.
You: I got that. You are being very clear. I just don’t see the advantage of my being afraid right now when nothing bad is happening.
Fear: I am trying to protect you.
You: You are trying to protect me by scaring the crap out of me?
Fear: I want you to be prepared.
You: Being scared is not preparation. Thanks for dropping by.
PREPARING FOR WHAT MIGHT COME
Of course, fear does play a part. Fear helps motivate us to be as prepared as we can be. But the only way to be prepared is to…… prepare. If your school has drills to practice what to do in the event something bad happens, take those drills seriously. Talk with teachers and classmates about how you feel when you consider the possibility of facing down your own fears. Talk about how you feel as you prepare for what you hope will never happen. Imagine you all being there to support each other. It is not helpful to visualize something horrible and then just keep focusing on it. But it is helpful to imagine something horrible happening and you following through with the preparation you have been practicing. When you do that, you are rehearsing being courageous. Make no mistake about it, courage can be practiced. Privately, you can imagine yourself remaining calm and focused in the midst of chaos. Together with your classmates and teachers, you can talk about how you want to respond in crisis, if you ever have to.
With mental rehearsal and behavioral safety drills, you will gain confidence in yourself and in your brothers and sisters with whom you share the unsettling dread that something beyond your control can actually happen.
The fear never goes anywhere. The fear does not change. YOU DO. YOU CHANGE. You come to terms with the reality that there are real dangers in this world and that doesn’t have to stop you from living your life fully.
One More Conversation
Fear: Bad things can happen.
You: I know, you have mentioned that before.
Fear: Yeah, but bad things can happen today.
You: I know. Thanks for the heads-up. I am remaining prepared. I rehearse my actions and my thoughts. I rehearse my courage.
Fear: Yeah, but…
You: Shhhhhh. I got this.
Fear: Okay. I’ll be back later.
You: I know you will.
About the Author: Thom RUTLEDGE is one of Your Monthly Mentors, a psychotherapist & author of several books, including Embracing Fear: How to Turn What Scares Us into Our Greatest Gift. His website is located at www.thomrutledge.com. Thom blends his personal recovery from depression, addiction and excessive self-criticism with 30 years of professional experience to guide his clients, readers, and audiences from self-judgment and perfectionism toward genuine self-compassion. Thom’s trademark sense of humor, a down-to-earth practicality, and his own compassion are the common threads that run throughout his unique brand of self-help psychology. (INTRApersonal Therapy). Read More…