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All our fears boil down to one simple thing: our fear that we’re not special. We’re afraid that we’re replaceable, one of a crowd, that there’s nothing unique about us. And we’re afraid, as a result, that we won’t be able to meet whatever challenges life presents us with.
And while this fear is ancient, it has been greatly exacerbated in the modern era because of our culture of lovelessness. If you’re not made to feel in your earliest years that you are of infinite value, then you will usually spend the rest of your life trying to prove that you are.
Bad and distracted parenting is one of the principal causes of the culture of fear in which we all walk. When kids have to fight for their parents’ attention, when they see it is not them who brings their parents happiness, but rather good news from the office, they internalize a mentality of valuelessness. The fear that results from that sense of valuelessness can often animate their actions for decades to come.
This is constantly reinforced by our culture, which tells us that we’re nothing. The designer tell us, “You’re nothing, unless you’re wearing my jeans. Your own name is utterly unrecognizable; nobody’s heard of you. I am somebody, while you’re a nobody. So you better have my name on your butt.”
The culture tells us: “You’re nothing – unless the plaque on your desk says ‘Vice President.’ You’re nothing, unless you jump into bed with this rich and powerful guy. You’re nothing, unless people will pay to buy a magazine that has your naked photos in it.”
And so our individuality is under assault, every minute of every day. A woman looks in a mirror and instead of seeing the lines on her face as souvenirs of all the adventures and triumphs and tears and laughter that have marked her life, she sees an old hag, one that compares unfavorably with the Hollywood actress in the advertisements for an expensive skin cream. What makes her unique are her experiences; shallow lives lead to shallow lines. Celebrating her difference, her uniqueness, is really the way out of her insecurity. But her fears – of being undesirable, of being abandoned – lead her to try to conform to an ideal, a cookie-cutter stereotype. Soon she’s got needles in her face, as if poking your head with sharp metal objects is going to make you forget your fears.
Fear is the emotion of conformity. If Abraham Lincoln was correct that we all come into this world as God’s original but usually depart as man’s copy, then nothing is more responsible for the erasure of this dignity than fear.
Of all the fears that currently plague our lives – from the fear of terror and death, to aging and illness, to professional setbacks and public humiliation, perhaps none is more tragic that the simple fear of being yourself. Wow – just take a moment to think about that and to fully grasp how serious that is: You’re afraid just to be.
I counseled a 20-something woman, who had already experienced multiple rejections from men, and she told me that she had become so uncomfortable in her own skin and so depressed about her life that she was even self-conscious around her own family. As a result, she avoided family celebrations and holiday get-togethers.
“My whole life involves my being whatever others want me to be. I have no self-confidence, so I have no backbone. I fear every new day, and I’m cowed before every new experience.”
From my own experience, I certainly know what it’s like to be afraid just to be. When I was a boy of 8, my parents divorced and we moved from L.A. to Miami where I was enrolled in the fourth grade of a Jewish day school. The boys, who had formed a clique since nursery bullied me endlessly as a newcomer. The experience made me afraid not of them, but of myself. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what about me was so hideous that they so forcefully rejected me.
I remember well the experience: the terror of being myself. I did everything to conform, everything I could think of to fit in. I laughed at their dumb jokes, shot spitballs at the uncool fat kids who were rejects like me. And while I had a mother to comfort me, I did not have a father in my immediate vicinity who could give me backbone and inspire me to be myself and find a better circle of friends. My father loved me, but he was 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles. The situation got so bad that – I’m embarrassed to say this even as I write it – I started buying these boys gifts just to be my friend.
It wasn’t until the seventh grade that I developed the courage to do my own thing. I knew I was a better person than they were. Maybe not as cool, but more compassionate. I didn’t want to treat other kids like garbage. It didn’t make me feel good about myself. I rejected these miserable, mean-spirited bullies, and the contempt I developed for them made me unafraid, because they were now beneath me. I made a point of getting to know the new kids who came into our class, and I treated them like they had been there for years. In the process, I came to know that the bullies in my school were even more afraid than I was and could only feel good about themselves by passing on their fear to others.
So when my 10-year-old son recently went through a bullying experience, I told him neither to fight them nor to simply ignore his tormentors. “Rise above them,” I told him. “Look at them and determine never to become like them. Be everything they’re not. Reach out to the kids in your class who no one else takes an interest in, and soon the admiration you earn will make you a leader in the class.”
How tragic it is to be afraid to be you! A leading New York attorney told me that she disagreed with my philosophy of fear.
“When I was in eighth grade,” she said, “I had a teacher who hated me and always put me down. She always said that I wouldn’t amount to anything. And it was that fear of failure that spurred me to work so hard. I graduated top of my class at law school and became the first woman partner at my firm. Her comment was always in the back of my mind, and it motivated me: I always wanted to prove her wrong.”
I responded, “That’s ridiculous. Instead of a bitchy teacher to react against throughout the whole of your life, you could have had a loving parent to make you believe you had a gift to give to the world. Instead, you were lead to believe that you had something to prove to the world. When you’re inspired by fear and a need to show that you matter, you may eventually get to your destination, but one thing’s for sure, you’ll enjoy neither the journey nor the view once you’re there. There are many things that can motivate our success, but when it’s motivated by fear, it is always accompanied by suffering.”
So we hide. We’re afraid that if we let our real selves – our real beliefs, likes and dislikes, our thoughts and hopes and dreams – show, we’ll be rejected for them, and that we can’t bear. It’s too much exposure. It’s easier to go with what the culture tells us we should like and do and think. As I said, most of us lead lives that are predominantly motivated by fear. We’d rather rely on pundits to tell us what to think, on style mavens to tell us how to decorate our homes and on advertisements to tell us what to wear. We’d rather surround ourselves with what’s cool than with those things that address our individual needs.
You can see the catch-22 at work here. We’re afraid that we’re not inherently special or unique, so we willingly cooperate in eliminating the things about us that make us special and unique. This is how fear actually exterminates the part in us that is most worth saving. Fear causes us to conform, when in fact, the thing we should be most afraid of is losing ourselves. If you’re not going to be yourself, why come into this challenging world in the first place? And what do we really lose when we pretend to be someone we’re not?
Let’s say that you never show your true face to your spouse. You hide your insecurities and preferences and deepest self from him or her because you’re afraid of rejection. What have you really gained? Your husband or wife is in love with a stranger, a construct. Is there anything more lonely than the knowledge that you’re not loved for who you are? You’re really more alone than you would be if you showed that person your innermost self and got rejected for it. Then at least you’d have the courage of your own convictions. So you have someone to watch television with in the evenings. Congratulations.
I counseled a husband who has an addiction to pornography. He came to see me because of my well-known opposition to it and its destructive consequences for marriage and relationships. He was hoping through our conversations to wean himself off the corrosive addiction. When he told me how bored he was with this marriage and how desperate he was for an erotic thrill, I asked him, “Have you ever discussed your erotic needs with your wife?”
“I’d never do that,” he told me. “She’d think I was a sicko.” I have met countless husbands in the same boat. They’re terrified that if they expose their male libidinous needs to their wives, they’ll be rejected. So instead they develop a subterranean and damaging erotic life, one that pulls them further and further from their marriages.
Our greatest fear should be not that we will lose our lives, but that we never lived because we became somebody else.
I am certainly no stranger to the desire to conform out of fear, and I have struggled with this problem over and over again in my own life and work. This fear is sometimes magnified when you’re part of a close-knit religious community.
When I first published “Kosher Sex,” a book whose success in many ways changed my life, I never expected it to appeal to my own religious community. I wrote it for the world at large, to teach them how their physical lives could become more intimate and redeeming.
I was amazed by the number of staunchly religious people who wrote to me secretly, sometimes with fictitious names, telling me of their moribund sexual existences within marriage and asking for counseling. In most cases, the people writing wrote secretly, in the fear that their spouse would discover that this was an issue of importance for them. They were embarrassed: They thought spiritual people shouldn’t be so eager to fulfill a “base” physical need. It seems incredible to me that we can be so fearful in our lives that we tremble even before the person with whom we share our children and last names.
A woman who had conducted a secret affair, regretted it and was desperate to reconnect with her husband asked me what she should do. I told her, “It’s essential that you tell him what happened. You have to right the wrong and regain his trust.”
“Impossible,” she blurted out. “I’m terrified of his reaction.” “By being afraid of him,” I answered, “you wrong him doubly. It’s bad enough that you betrayed him. Now you wish to betray him as a human being by portraying him as an ogre with whom you cannot share a confidence.”
As we talked further it became evident (as is often the case), that the principal cause of her unfaithfulness was her deep marital dissatisfaction – and her inability to talk about that dissatisfaction with her husband. Finding a lover seemed a lot less frightening than confronting the problems in her marriage.
Another woman wrote to me that she is convinced, two years into her marriage, that she has married the wrong man.
“I know that in your books you’re completely opposed to the idea that we might have married the wrong person, saying that if so, we must have had the wrong children. But I’m convinced that in my case it is so. I was raised in a traditional home and did what was expected of me, including dating and marrying the son of my father’s old schoolmate, whom my parents adored. I did not have the heart to let my parents down or challenge their presumption to know what’s best for me. But I do not love or respect this man.”
This woman’s fear of standing up for herself to her parents made her passive in the face of the most important decision of her life.