A Deep Shadowy Fear

10-4-2013 11-37-42 AMMost of us have had the feeling that, deep in the recesses of our brain, there lurks some terrible secret or event, some deeply frightening, or even terrifying memory or experience.

For some of us there may, indeed, be a past trauma and a repressed childhood memory.

But the rest of us are left to wonder, if nothing seems to have happened, what is that dark fear all about.

I have come to think of this fear as the brain’s response to the terrible vulnerability of childhood.

Humans have the longest childhoods of any species. Our wonderful brain continues developing for decades after we are born. And children who are abandoned before age 8 or 9 don’t survive.

This means that when we are children the most important thing we must do is to avoid being abandoned.

These days, at least in the United States, most of our kids don’t have to worry about survival as a practical matter. But in the not too distant past, surviving childhood was far from certain.

So all of us come equipped with this terribly urgent sense that we have to do something if we are at risk of abandonment by our parents.

The emotion of shame largely exists to ensure that we don’t do things as children that are unacceptable, and likely will to lead to abandonment.

As we grow up we usually develop a sense of security about our safety, but in all of us there lurks a fear that we are really not as safe as we feel. And some of us never get the kind of consistent care that allows us to develop that sense of security.

Still, even though we are adults, the fear of abandonment or the sense of overwhelming shame that one is fundamentally not loveable lurks in the background, and can be triggered by powerful events or big shifts in mood.

Three things are helpful –

1. Being aware that fears are not necessarily rational, realistic or founded on anything more than our biological past.

2. Facing the fears, looking at them directly, rather than glancing at them and trying to move on to some distraction.

3. Sharing this experience with another, some loved one who can directly counteract the sense of shame or potential abandonment that is part of what makes these primordial fears so terrifying.