According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 19.2 million adult Americans are affected by specific phobias, “an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger.” Heights, tight spaces, and flying are among the most common phobias in our culture today. (Those all seem like fairly legitimate fears to me, but okay. We can call them irrational. That’s cool.)
Regardless of what real or perceived physical threats freak you out, we all experience panic in certain interpersonal environments—these are called core fears, dark strongholds of emotion that twist our hearts and warp our relationships. Want a list?
- being unloved
- being cheated
- being unaccepted
- being ignored
When we sense a core fear has been triggered, there’s a visceral response, an automatic urge for the fight or flight instinct to kick in. Adrenaline pumps like crazy, leaving you reeling afterward. As overwhelming as those episodes can feel, they’re fantastic opportunities to grow in self-awareness.
Many of our core fears originate in childhood, moments we felt deeply rejected, abandoned, etc. Our tender hearts pulled a protective coat around them made up of toughness or helpfulness or isolation or whatever, but we never really dealt with the wound. So those tender hearts grew into adult bodies with the same overwhelming fears that undid them years ago. This is why we react so intensely to tiny crises—we’re warding off that invisible nemesis that whispers we’re really not acceptable (or adequate or significant or whatever). Granted, we develop other core fears in later years through traumatic experiences, and these are no less brutal.
Until we identify our core fears, they’ll own us. It’s impossible to dismantle lies if you can’t recognize them. Scripture is absolutely crucial here. Apart from what the culture says is true about you, apart from what your family or your feelings or your Enemy or your best friends try to convince you of, there is a deep, unchanging, crimson-colored identity given to you that can defeat any lie given the chance. Jesus promises that the truth will set you free.
The more realistic and specific you can be in naming your issues, the more powerful the gospel can be as you preach it to yourself. Need an example? One of my core fears is worthlessness. If I were to have dinner with a group of Christian leaders and not be addressed throughout the entire conversation, I’d be tempted to either sink into invisibility (because aren’t they right? I don’t have anything to say worth listening to.) or to try to prove myself to everyone around (me included) by sounding really smart. Since I’m aware that I struggle here, I can be fully robed in the knowledge that God calls me priceless, that He says I have a seat at this table (literally). Then I can engage thoughtfully and freely, as much or as little as I like, not looking to a handful of men—even godly, wise ones—to hand me an identity that I already possess. Only then am I able to bring my true self to the conversation and offer a listening ear or an encouraging word with love rather than from a grasping hunt for satisfaction.
Certain relationships might foster different core fears. While I wrestle with abandonment phobia in all of my relationships, marriage, for instance, highlights a need for validation in a unique way. As you dive into the following activity, run through various contexts—your family, your small group, your boss, etc. This will help you see overarching fears and more specific ones that only tend to arise with, say, men in authority.
Ready to figure out exactly what your core fears are? I can’t think of a better place to begin than this assessment. (Bonus: While you don’t necessarily need to continue to #4, it will give you overachievers a head start on tomorrow’s study of triggers. You’re welcome.) Nobody enjoys exploring their fears. This is precious, fierce-hearted work, and it’s worth taking up. Keep the gospel close as you invite the Spirit to open your eyes. There’s so much life God has in store for you. Bravely on, friends!