Scared of Fear

It’s easy to confuse anger with fear.  I was watching a movie tonight, and the bad guy was shown in towering rage, in full bad-guy mode. I looked at it more closely, because it wasn’t quite. . . right. Yes, I understand that movies are fiction, but they are designed to manipulate our emotions, so they have to have a basis of reality in them, otherwise we wouldn’t connect. I get that.

Here is what I noticed: the bad guys knew they were bad. They broadcast bad out RATTLESNAKEin front of them, and people shrank and ran in fear. But that isn’t what happens in real life. People who are villains in our life are not aware they are behaving badly. Nope. They are scared. And scared people behave like scared animals do–they hiss, bark, bay, turn sideways and puff themselves up to appear bigger and show their teeth.

Scared animals and scared people are both scary. I’m not messing with the neighbor’s pit bull when he is leaning against his leash, teeth bared. And when I see people behaving in loud, rude, angry ways, I avoid them, too. But they aren’t necessarily bad people, they are scared people. They don’t always know what the problem is, they most certainly don’t have a good solution, so their fear gives way to aggressive behavior.

32i-arched-back-catWhat to do in the face of anger? Most often we get scared, and scared people are scary. We return the hissing, claw-bearing and take it one step further because we are now more scared. You can see where this is going. Someone’s going to get hurt. Emotionally, if not physically.

The way to react in the face of anger and fear is calmly. If scared people are scary, calm people are calming. Keep your voice low, say something that acknowledges the other person’s reactions. Pretending not to notice will only make them escalate so you will notice. Acknowledging is not telling them they are right, but letting them know you see their anger. “I can see how angry you are, Bill.” Notice it’s just an acknowledgment. No fixing, no advice, no soothing. Just witnessing. Without someone to scare them, scary people often aren’t scared and not scary.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who knows scary people and scared people, too.


23 thoughts on “Scared of Fear

  1. Excellent point. There really are bad guys out there in the way you describe but when they are doing their bad things, they’re not necessarily angry (or by Quinn’s extension, fearful). That’s just who they are, and they are unsane! (Great word BTW!)

    • I disagree. I believe firmly that anger breeds fear and fear, anger and that both can lead to violent behavior, often out of control. Of course there are deranged people, but that’s not the group I was talking about. This blog is about creative people and their triumphs, struggles, and problems.

  2. All of the comments are valid and true and wise when you are talking about people doing spontaneous “bad” things.

    What is not being considered in the cases presented is the idea of sanity versus unsanity. Not insanity which is a medically treatable condition usually associated with a chemical imbalance in the human brain, but unsanity, where social, economic and environmental factors cause people to act in a way that is societally unacceptable to the population at large, but is socially acceptable within the group itself (tight-knit gangs and criminal organizations are examples. So are political parties.). Suffice to say that some bad people do bad things because within their society it is acceptable, and in some cases required, for them to do so. What they consider normal, acceptable behavior, most of us consider abnormal, socially unacceptable, “unsane” behavior. Because they are in groups (gangs etc.) most of us do not come into contact with them on a day-to-day basis unless we are victims.

    CAUTION: The idea of being able to defuse that kind of calm, soicopathic criminal thinking with a dialogue or a series of actions that work to calm an angry, fear-induced outburst is dangerous.

    Hmmm… This has opened a train of thought and stream of ideas that need to be written down elsewhere. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • I firmly believe that there are people who are bad and they commit bad acts. Like you, I don’t believe everyone who does something bad is insane. When you use the term “sociopath,” well, that’s a psychological label for people who lack the capacity for empathy, sympathy or the ability to delay gratification. The book I was writing about is strictly for writers who want to discover themselves. It was never meant as a textbook for dealing with sociopaths or any other mental illness or aberration.

      • It always amazes me how fast some of these conversations can go sideways. I believe, as you do I think, that at the root of all anger is fear. Exploring those fears and their short and long term repercussions is what informs my writing. Reading your messages and being inspired by them helps me carry on. They are a light in the dark cellar of my creativity.

  3. Quinn, this just turned up on FB, and I thought immediately of you:
    Making room for our own fears, we suddenly have room for the fears of others. Once we have renounced the need to live without suffering, to be special, to be exempt from the losses and doubts that have afflicted all people since the beginning of time, we can see the difficulties of others without being afraid ourselves. Our fearful, disappointed surface face starts to fall away. We can welcome other people into our lives because no matter their fears, they do not make us afraid. Suffering is the natural cyclical visitation that comes from being alive.

    – David Whyte
    from “The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self & Relationship”
    ©2009 Riverhead Books

  4. How fitting you should post this on the day of yet another mass shooting: this one, very close to home. A psychiatrist friend told me years ago that most anger is the product of pain and/or fear. Your wisdom bears this out. If only a calming presence had been sufficient–or fortuitously timed. Thank you for this reminder.

  5. As always your post is thought provoking…something I will chew over for days. I know I am lucky to live in Australia where things are a little more relaxed 🙂
    I also came across a book about giving up sugar, it’s being released here in Ausralia tomorrow – ‘I Quit Sugar’ by Sarah Wilson. It looks as though it has lots of yummy recipes. Here’s a link to Booktopia here in Oz where I just ordered it –

  6. Quinn, I will remember this post and Pete’s comment for all time. I may not like what I’ve learned today, but your combined wisdom explains a lot. Thank you.
    PS: I carry the story of your quilt in my mind. Can’t help myself.

  7. Our society — and here I mean the US — is largely the way it is specifically in order to foster fear. Lots of different kinds of fear, some of which are entirely manufactured. When you can instill fear, you can manipulate people. Not just “do what I say or I’ll shoot”; how about “do what I say or you’ll lose your health insurance and you might starve.” Many Americans seem to believe fear of hardship, illness, and starvation should exist, because otherwise people won’t work hard. If there are only a few passing grades, fear of failing will make students work harder. Even some religions embrace fear as useful.

    This aspect of our culture was not entirely “designed” in a deliberate way, but neither is it an accident. Once a belief in fear as a necessary aspect of motivation and control exists, twin drives take effect: building in fear as part of a product/message/system/institution/practice, as well as *not* building in ways to avoid or reduce fear in those things. And it’s all based on something everybody knows: “we may not like it but that’s the way the world is.”

    Well, no, that’s not the way the world is. There are societies elsewhere in the world where reducing fear is a fundamental, accepted idea. In many ways those societies “work better”.

    Maybe being scared is not a morally culpable state (although I’m not sure I agree), but I think allowing that state to arise in others, when you can do otherwise, is bad. Actually I think it’s considerably worse than bad, but “crime against humanity” already connotes something else.

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