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I was listening to the radio the other day, and a John Mayer song came on. I was struck by one line in the song: fear is a friend who’s misunderstood.

I don’t usually get huge psychological insights from John Mayer, but I thought this line was particularly deep. I don’t know about you, but I don’t usually see fear as a friend. In fact, I generally see fear as the enemy, or something bad that I need to get rid of. I feel ashamed of my fear. My fear makes me feel like less of a man.

Fear Has a Purpose

Like all emotions, we feel fear for a reason. Fear has a purpose. From an evolutionary standpoint, I think fear developed to help protect us from danger. When we were hunters and gatherers, fear helped us protect our families from dangerous predators. In our lives today, fear helps us navigate a world that can sometimes be dangerous and unpredictable. In that sense, fear is a friend.

Stuck in Our Fear

But sometimes we get stuck in our fear. Our fear stops us from engaging in life and being our best self. We can get stuck in our fear for a lot of different reasons. For example, maybe you were abused or neglected as a child, and learned very early on that the world was unsafe. You might be 30 years removed from that situation, but you still operate out of your fear and have a difficult time trusting people, even if they have proven themselves to be safe. In this case, fear is a friend (it’s trying to protect you), but it’s misunderstood. You think your fear is about the present, but it’s really about the past.

A Friend Who’s Misunderstood

What do we do with a friend who’s misunderstood? We don’t try to get rid of the friend, or lock them in a closet. We sit down with the friend, listen to them, and try to understand what the friend needs. We move toward the friend rather than away from them.

Move Toward Your Fear

I think we can take a similar stance with our fear. Move toward your fear. Sit down with your fear and listen to it. What is the need that underlies your fear? My guess is that it has something to do with protection or feeling safe. Perhaps the root cause of your fear is actually something about your past, that you may need to think about and process. Maybe you need to go to counseling to work through this. But don’t try to get rid of your fear, or push it down into the deep recesses of your unconscious. This doesn’t usually work. You might also miss out on something important that your fear has to teach you about yourself.