Fear: Its Impact on Individuals and Organizations

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Fear is often a hidden and unconscious emotion, an emotion that is at the root of our inaction and ‘stuckness’ in our careers and personal lives. What we often see on the surface are the symptoms of fear. Those symptoms may manifest in many ways: as anger, grief, physical pain (yes, physical pain), lack of energy and motivation, procrastination, and other negative manifestations. If we look closely at our everyday actions and interactions we can acknowledge areas of discomfort. If we then sit for a while with that discomfort, we often will find at its basis the element of fear.

For this post I would like to focus on my recent experiences at the Shalem Institute’s Empowering Leadership session, “Conflict and Creativity.” Through discussions, drawings, and meditations we focused on conflict within our individual lives. In the Institute’s Annual report (July1, 2011 to June 30, 2012) there is a quote by Howard Thurman,

 We wait in the quietness for some centering moment that will redefine, reshape, and refocus our lives.  It does seem to be a luxury to be able to give thought and time to the ups and downs of one’s private journey while the world around is so sick and wary and desperate.  But, our Father, we cannot get through to the great anxieties that surround us until, somehow, a path is found through the little anxieties that beset us (pg. 4).

            The 14 participants at this session on conflict and creativity included individuals from various backgrounds and careers who had experienced various conflicts (personal and professional). The sharing was honest and at times raw.  Through these exercises and discussions, it became evident that there were unexpected shifts in self-awareness around the subject of conflict and around the identification of hidden fears and wounds felt by several participants.

One participant, a lovely lady, was dealing with an extreme internal conflict over a 15-year work initiative that, just the previous day, had come to a head. She explored the roots of that conflict and expressed how she felt that she only had two options. One was to explode at the person she felt was the cause of the conflict and the other was to walk away from her work and the organization that she had been so satisfied with up until that event. In the course of our discussion, she realized that she had other options, but could only identify them once she came to terms with the emotions this recent event had triggered. She unexpectedly identified within herself a hidden issue related to an event that occurred when she was a quite small and powerless child that was possibly surfacing in this work conflict. This is a great example of how our emotions, our fears, impact our personal effectiveness and that of our organizations.

Once we identified our conflict narratives in the workshop, we then identified where we feel conflict in our bodies.  In my case, I recalled that when I am stressed (internal conflict) I carry that stress in the muscles and ligaments of my right shoulder, up the right side of my neck and back of my head, and across my forehead. In very stressful times, that tightness can turn into a severe, migraine-type headache. During the exercise, I also identified those areas in my body as the areas where conflict settles in. 

Our next step was to name the conflict associated with those areas of physical discomfort. I found myself writing “not heard, not understood, not believed, not accepted (or possibly acceptable)” and finally, “not on top of everything (work, academics, career, family, friends and community).”  I asked myself: “Could this conflict possibly involve not being ‘perceived by others’ as being on top of everything?” I realized that my laundry list of experiences that created stress are totally fear based, totally ego base.  “Oh no,” I thought, “the ego word!”

I also discovered in the Shalem Institute annual report an article by Tilden Edwards entitled, “Which Glasses are You Wearing Now?” This article talked about the experience of looking at a lake through several types of glasses. Through the ego glass, the lake is seen in the aspects of danger, protection and pleasure. Could it be that fear- the emotion of protection, the emotion that makes us enter fight or flight mode – is really ego based? If we are in flight or fight mode are we connected with our passion for our work? Are we connected with others, or with the mission of the organization? My experience and belief is that when ego gets in the way, we become stuck within ourselves. When this happens, we are not engaged in effective and meaningful work.

At the end of this very reflective day-long session centered around conflict and creativity, we each created an object out of clay that represented what we wanted to replace our conflict with. My object was a vessel, a container that represented the space I hope to create for all my interactions.  The bottom of the container represents compassion, one side represents honor and the other side represents respect for the person or persons with whom I am interacting. This exercise concluded with our replacing the symbol of our stress with the object we created.

I would encourage you to take the time to be mindful of and consciously explore feelings of discomfort when they occur.  Those feelings may be a mental red flag that is saying, “stop, think and discover what you need to clear within yourself to allow you to become stronger and more available.” Identify the discomforts of the mind, body or spirit. Embrace that discomfort. Explore that discomfort and determine if at its root lies the fear that needs to be released and replaced with the strengths that are found at the core of your being. With this clarity, you will be able to move forward with your passions and abilities to make a difference on this Earth.  Allow yourself to be excited over the new-found awareness and the opportunity to grow and become stronger within yourself.

Read other posts by Deeanna Burleson

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