Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself: Breaking Free from Invisible Chains

Woman in pajamas standing on scale“Fear is the mind killer.” —Frank Herbert, Dune

“Fear is in your head, only in your head, so forget your head and you’ll be free.” —David Bowie, “Fill Your Heart”

In my work with people who struggle with disordered eating, I often encounter fear. Not my fear, but theirs. Fear of gaining weight, fear of certain types of foods, fear of eating too much, fear of what other people think, fear of failure, fear of intimacy, fear of rejection, and fear of being alone and unloved, to name a few.

My clients usually don’t realize that the problem isn’t weight, food, fat, how others see them, whether they’re successful, or being loveable. They don’t recognize that the real problem is fear, and the degree to which fear rules their lives. So they keep trying to fix the wrong problem. They work very hard to control their weight, their food intake, their work habits, and their behavior around others. Sometimes they withdraw from others and binge eat alone, a conflicted relief from the stress of being “on” and making sure they are looking, acting, and speaking the right way.

Fear is a natural human emotion, but at its extreme, fear becomes a driving force, motivating a person to go to great lengths to avoid or stave off what frightens him or her. A disordered eater might avoid eating foods that seem “fattening,” or that they fear they will eat too much of. Often, he or she will not eat enough because they are terrified of eating too much, and fear they will not stop eating if they cross an invisible line with food. In my work, I find this to be true of people who are, from a medical standpoint, dangerously underweight. Avoidance of what is feared gives a sense of control, and that desire for control becomes valued above all else.

From the perspective of someone whose struggles with body image, eating, and exercise are severe, the stakes are extremely high. If they eat over their self-determined limit, or believe their stomach is too big, or they get less that an “A” on a test, or say something that annoys someone, they see this as confirmation of their worthlessness.

In my office, I talk with clients about naming the problem not as weight or fat or food or lack of willpower, but as fear. And about the fear being rooted in beliefs that aren’t entirely accurate—beliefs that their safety and security in the world is contingent upon others’ approval, and that others’ approval must be earned by looking good and achieving quite a lot. They fear that they simply aren’t good enough, so they must work hard to look and be as perfect as possible.

The remedy is neither to avoid scary things nor to stop being afraid, but rather to develop courage. Courage involves identifying fear, accepting it, and then doing what is best for one’s self. Courage means learning to act not in accordance with what one’s impulse is when afraid (e.g., eat less, increase exercise, avoid social events), but instead in ways that support well-being. I encourage clients, when confronted with a situation that frightens them, to notice what they want to do, and then to ask themselves, “What is good for me?” It’s often the opposite of what they want to do. The next step is developing the willingness to do that thing, no matter how hard and scary.

Learning to live with fear is a process. It’s like building up a set of muscles that hasn’t been used much. When fear is named and accepted, it loses some of its power. The more someone bases their actions on what is good for them instead of what feels better, the less intimidated they are by fear. Eventually, when he or she is afraid, he or she can say “it’s just fear again” and do the right thing, whether it be eating a feared food or refraining from over-exercising or attending a social event or reaching out to someone for support or dealing with conflict in a relationship: the thing that meets their needs, supports their well-being, and leads to healing.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gabby


    May 3rd, 2013 at 1:52 PM

    Good grief I have experienced all of these things!
    Afraid to go to a party because I might not be able to enjoy the food that is there
    or to avoid the temptations that they will bring
    Afraid to go on a date because I will have to actually eat in front of someone
    Adraid that gaining a pound or two will keep someone from liking me
    Afarid to just enjoy life the way that other people apparantly can and I have not learned to be alright with yet

  • Agent Z

    Agent Z

    May 3rd, 2013 at 11:56 PM

    This is so true!People are so full of fear that they do not even realize they are chasing the wrong things.And corporations only capitalize on this.They feed on your fear and profit from it.Be strong people,its not about how slim you are its about how worthy you are!

  • frank t

    frank t

    May 4th, 2013 at 5:02 AM

    Let me start by saying that I am not most in shape guy, ok? And if anyone could stand to lose a few pounds then that would probably be me. But I just don’t see this as something to get all worked up over. I mean, our body is just the shell right? I try to do ok and waych everything, but to get so crazy obsessed over calories and food and weight? This just would feel to me like I am being shallow and not really focusing on the things in life that really are the most important.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 5th, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    Thanks, for posting, everyone!
    Gabby, I hope you can overcome your fears and come to enjoy life and food!
    Agent Z, if you’re talking about advertising, media,and the weight loss industry, then I agree– corporations certainly so capitalize on these fears. Worth is something that can’t be obtained by appearance or achievement. It’s already in each of us.
    Frank, you’re right– people who have conflicted relationships with food and with their bodies aren’t focusing on what’s really important in life. But the focus on weight and appearance isn’t really shallow, it’s the tip of the huge iceberg of fear. It may look shallow, but it runs very deep.

  • Sally


    May 7th, 2013 at 2:01 AM

    Great article! Yes fear can be crippling at times. I see all too often with my clients that although they are seeking change, the fear is so great that they cannot let go of the undesired behavior they are trying to work on. I play a game with my clients called the “and then what game”. They state the worst thing that could happen and then I state “and then what”. For example they may say, “I am fearful that if I don’t workout daily I will gain weight and nobody will want me”. And then what, I reply? Then they may say, “then I realize that one day is not going to hurt me to miss the gym”, then what?, ” then I may get anxious but I sit with the anxiety and tell myself that its unrealistic to think I have to go daily and cannot miss a day”, then what,” then I focus on doing something else for myself that is productive”, then what, and so on. Before you know it they have worked towards minimizing their greatest fears and normalize it and realize that their thought patterns were irrational and that they were “awfulizing the problem”.it is highly effective and really seems to help clients see that fear is driving the behavior and that they are seeking to fulfill an unrealistic expectation. It’s helpful to seek mental health therapist for help when learning to cope with fear!

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 7th, 2013 at 7:17 PM

    Thanks, Sally, for sharing your strategies. Sounds like a great way of helping folks deal with their fears!

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