It’s one of the few times my mom ever screamed at me. Because of that, the memory is seared into my mind.
I was six years old and ecstatic to visit the “Happiest Place on Earth” for the first time. We were standing at one of the monorail stations, waiting to board the next high-speed train. Curious about the way the unique system functioned, I darted off through the crowd to peer down into the track.
My mom’s angry shriek brought me back from the edge.
But it wasn’t really anger she was expressing, was it?
It was fear.
Fear is a strange emotion. Sometimes it’s easily visible – the shaking hands, the trembling voice, the widened eyes. It can be expressed as worry or anxiety. Or marked with the words, “I’m scared” or “I’m nervous.”
But even more frequently, fear masquerades as something else, especially in people who have been taught that it’s “weak” to show fear or, like with watching your child about to be hit by a train, the fear completely overrides the system. Additionally, fear is not a pleasant emotion and we often allow it to morph into other forms in an attempt to distance ourselves from the discomfort.
So the fear manifests as anger or control or dependency. And if we can learn to recognize – and respond to – the fear behind the mask, we can improve the communication and the interaction.
The following are fifteen common ways that fear hides in plain sight:
1 – Anger
“You’re never going to see the sun again!” the mom angrily threatens when her teenager shows up three hours after curfew. “You’re grounded for the rest of your life!” The parent certainly comes across as furious, with their reddened face and raised voice. But their slight tremble reveals the true emotion – fear that their child wasn’t returning home at all.
2 – Rejection
“I’ve realized I always seem to break up with guys right when we’re getting close,” my friend revealed to me one day. To the men, this behavior read as surprise rejection. Upon further consideration, my friend determined that she ended things out of a fear of growing closer and getting hurt.
3 – Isolation
I am fascinated with the people on the show Life Below Zero, especially Sue, who lives in an extremely isolated camp near the arctic circle. She never reveals much of life story, but her drive to be alone speaks to a deep-seated fear of being close to people.
4 – Irritability
“Why isn’t he picking up his phone,” I grumbled to myself, feeling my annoyance build. On the surface, my irritation stemmed from not having an immediate answer to my benign question. But beneath that impatience was a burgeoning fear that the call went unanswered due to some tragic accident.
5 – Stubbornness
Teaching me to ride a bike was a true exercise in my patience for my parents. Even though I was physically capable of mastering the technique by the age of 7 or so, it took an additional 3 years (and plenty of banana split bribes) for me to lose the training wheels for good. On the outside, I exhibited stubbornness, a resistance to practicing or to removing the supports. On the inside, I was afraid of falling.
6 – Control
Upon hearing about her daughter’s plans to marry before obtaining a college degree, a mother begins to try to dissuade the daughter and the intended husband through manipulation. It comes across as controlling, yet it stems from the mother’s fear that her daughter will not be able to look after herself.
7 – Meanness
The new girl showed up at my school in the middle of eighth grade. She was tall, blond, beautiful and had the best style any of us had ever seen. As the boys tripped over themselves in an attempt to get to know her, the popular girls began immediately to slander her reputation and make her life miserable. This “mean girl” routine was performed out of fear, the popular girls afraid that this interloper would steal their top spot and move them down the (very important in middle school) social ladder.
8 – Delusion
“I won the computer in a raffle at that networking thing I went to today,” explained my then-husband as he placed the new MacBook Pro on the kitchen island. The claim didn’t resonate as true, yet I still accepted his alibi. Because seeing the truth – that my husband was capable of extreme deceit, was too scary to face.
9 – Clowning
I had one student that would become disruptive towards the end of every unit of study. He would interrupt, annoy other students and basically treat the classroom like his own personal stage. Once I became aware of the cyclical nature of the behavior, it became apparent that the clowning was an attempt for him to manage his anxiety about not being prepared for the upcoming assessment.
10 – Distraction
I stood in line for the extreme roller coaster that advertised the steepest drop in the country. As people approached the start of the line, where the view of the first plummet jutted out at a sickening angle, they began to pull their phones out of their pockets and turn their attentions to something less frightening.
11 – Overly Cautious
“I don’t want to get a driver’s license,” the seventeen-year-old revealed to me. I don’t want that responsibility. The former student was one of the more mature ones that I have taught and was more than capable of safely handling a motor vehicle. Although she never admitted that she was afraid of the liability that comes with a license, it was clear that she was holding back out of fear.
12 – Judgmental
“I would NEVER get divorced,” a person on Twitter announced to me. “I would stay and fight for my marriage.” At first, I grew defensive, reacting to the subtext that I too-easily quit on my marriage. Then, it registered that this person’s judgment was really just a veil over their fear of losing their own marriage.
13 – Barriers
“Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m moving out of state within the next few months.” This was basically how I started my first several dates after divorce. I was afraid of getting hurt again, so I basically refused to allow anyone entry.
14 – Dependency
The eighth grader felt more like a preschooler, with his lack of maturity and independence. Once I met his mom and heard her story of a string of miscarriages and years of infertility finally leading to one successful birth, I understood. She was so afraid of losing another child, that she was determined to keep her surviving one a child forever.
15 – Overcompensation
He was easily the largest man in the gym, his biceps roughly the size of my head. Yet although he looked the part of confident bodybuilder, his physique was born of insecurity, a fear that he wasn’t quite enough.