Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.

By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT

Sometimes even just the word “fear” can be enough to cause a knot in our stomachs and send a shiver up and down our spines. We might remember a situation in which we felt afraid or a worry we have about the future that we just can’t seem to shake. It feels terrible to be afraid of what is to come, to experience anxiety, and to spend our lives worrying.

Fear is so often the thing that holds us back in life and certainly holds us back on the recovery journey.

We aren’t sure if we can do it, or what will happen if we try something new. So many things are unknown, unfamiliar, and require trust in other people.

One of things I have noticed in my work with people on the recovery journey is the spectrum of fear and the ways in which fear can manifest itself in different, almost opposing ways. For example:

  • We fear being rejected AND we fear being accepted and intimate or close to others
  • We fear failing AND we fear success
  • We fear things always being this way AND we fear what change will look like
  • We fear going back to a dark time AND we fear what it will be like to live in the light

I’m sure you can think of more or have your own experiences of the way fear shows up in your life, on your journey.

We know that fear can be an all-encompassing feeling. It rises up in our bodies and causes us to feel the urge to run from a situation, or maybe we feel frozen in time or paralyzed, or perhaps we want to fight back against the thing or person we feel is threatening our sense of safety.

These are all very human responses to fear. Ignoring or burying it won’t make it go away. Instead, fear will keep us focused on the things that have happened in the past or worrying about what might happen in the future.

Two big things I have learned about fear are:

  • To feel fear is to be human. It’s a normal human reaction to life.
  • To cling to fear is to be constricted and to stay small. Fear keeps us in a box or in a holding pattern, making us unable to act or take steps toward the life we desire.

Fear makes us think we can’t handle things, that we aren’t strong enough to deal with what might be coming our way if we try something new or accept a recovery challenge. We might feel hesitant to take it on, to try the new food, or do the therapy assignment.

On the other hand, it really is hard to admit we have fear or are scared. That is a vulnerable position in which to be. It is so much easier to get armored up and defended against the mere suggestion that we might be scared. “Me, scared?? No way, I’m good. I just don’t want to do it”. But the reality is, we feel powerless, like we can’t choose to do the thing that we are both  scared by and desire.

However, this denial of fear can be dangerous. When we don’t ask for help with our fears, we are alone with a very powerful emotional experience. This is often the very times when the eating disorder or drugs and alcohol gain a position of power in our lives. When we don’t think we can cope or don’t think we are strong enough to handle life, eating disorder behaviors or drugs or alcohol can become our coping tool. Often times, we manage our fear and anxiety through deep engagement with an eating disorder or addiction. And it works…but only for a little while.

Ultimately, if we continue down this path, we find ourselves isolated in fear and worry.

But, there is another way. There is a way of less fear and eventually even moments of fearlessness altogether.

Yes, this is a path that involves courage; however, I believe these steps will help you practice fearlessness and bring it more actively into your life.

Fearlessness is not a constant state. We move in and out of it, but the goal is that we practice and try and try again and keep trying until we create new patterns, new ways of being, and new ways of coping.

Living fearlessly is not the absence of fear. Fear will be there. Living fearlessly is acknowledging the fear, feeling the fear, and still taking courageous steps toward the life you want to live.

Here are 3 ideas to practice this that hopefully will make an impact on your life and your recovery:

  1. Take a Look at the Fear. This one is hard. The truth for most of us is that it is easier to turn away from fear, to ignore it and pretend our decisions are based in choice and not fear. The first step for practicing fearlessness is to actually start to become familiar with the fear.

Experiential Exercise: From a non-judgmental position of curiosity, choose a medium to look at the fear. Perhaps this is journaling, or drawing, or painting, or dancing. Give it a physical expression of some sort that you can really take a look at. Become an investigator of sorts. Think about these questions: What color is it? What texture does it have? How does it move or change shape? Does it express itself in short words or long sentences? Is it a story? As you look at it, try to adopt an attitude of acceptance and welcoming. It is just there. Try not to get caught up in the story.

The first step is just to acknowledge that the fear is there. That it just exists. It takes courage to look at the fear. This acknowledgement is a step toward fearlessness.

  1. Turn Your Ear to the Fear. What is the message it is sending you? So often, when we stop and listen, and really hear what the fear is saying, it can tell us something about our deepest values. We often feel scared to do the thing that will bring us closer to the fullest expression of who we are and of the deep desire of our hearts.

Experiential Exercise: To practice this, find a quiet space and sit mindfully, starting by listening to your breath. Then invite the fear to send you a message, what is it you are really scared of? How does this connect to your deepest values? Recognize that there is goodness in your heart, our values are those things that make us kind and loving human beings. Allow yourself to explore your values and goodness. Imagine that as a warm glowing light, moving through your body and permeating the fear, transforming it into courageous action.

3. Take an Action Step Toward Your Values. Once you have become familiar with the fear and heard what message it might be communicating about your values, the next step is to take an action. You do not need fearlessness to practice this step, just a dose of courage and a connection to your values. What matters most to you and what is one action step you can take toward that in the next 24 hours? How about in the next week? Then in the next month? The idea here is not to create a goal that is so lofty you can’t practice it for a year, but rather to choose something small, that is both challenging, but also do-able and practice it soon. You will probably still feel uncertain or nervous. That is just part of this practice.