“There are two kinds of fears: rational and irrational – or in simpler terms, fears that make sense and fears that don’t.” ~ Lemony Snicket
In its extreme form it’s called anthropophobia. In any of its forms it’s rooted in our neurophysiology, predominantly our polyvagal nervous system. Here’s one example of how it recently showed up in my life: a couple of weeks ago I agreed to attend a Whidbey Island nonprofit organization’s service presentation. A presenter asked for a volunteer to demonstrate a yoga principle. I stood up. The first thing the presenter asked me to do was “lock your knees.” Well, it’s been 50 years since high school gym class, and standing in front of the group, I had no idea whether she meant for me to bend them or hold my knees straight. While I stood there in my confusion, suddenly one of the other participants whispered within earshot, “And he has a Ph.D.” Immediately I could feel my shoulders hunch and my stomach tighten. Suddenly the room and everyone in it became unsafe. This kind of reaction can often be in response to pretty innocuous comments – they somehow remind us of someone who was once unkind, or it might simply be a remark that triggers neural pathways hiding in our Unthought Known – real thoughts and feelings that live in our body and brain that we don’t have words for. Our body instinctively senses danger and automatically acts to protect itself.
The amygdala is the early warning sensor in my brain and the first thing it does (if my social engagement network transmissions aren’t malfunctioning) is immediately make me look at people’s eyes. Some brain scientists, like Simon Baron-Cohen, think you can read people’s minds by looking at their eyes.
In addition to being the windows of the soul, the eyes are often the windows displaying people’s present-moment intentions – they signal a person’s internal emotional reality along with actions they may be driven to take. We can often know and predict these actions – especially if they might be threatening – before the person takes them or is even aware of them. For this reason – and others we’ll explore in a moment – other people turn out to be the second thing that most terrifies us. Only most of us don’t realize it.
Fear the One You’re With
What about the people we really like, or love even? We’re not afraid of them, you might argue. No, not consciously, but I’m willing to bet that your body is. Not always, of course, but pay attention next time some sort of afflictive emotion arises in response to someone close to you, like jealousy, anger, frustration or boredom.
There’s a pop saying that goes, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Well, if my neuroscience theory that “healing’s always trying to happen” is accurate, keeping our friends close will often prove more painful than keeping our enemies closer. Because it’s frequently around our friends and lovers that we soften our defenses, and when we do, what ends up surfacing more often than not? – traumatic memories yearning for healing integration. Every time I get triggered by “the little things” in the household – the toilet paper roll put in the “wrong” way; the “ladies” things spread through every room in the house; the overly-emotional response to a “factual” discussion – even a cursory bit of reflection will disclose that my upset has little to do with what’s happening now. Where the roots of the disturbance lay is in buried, ancient neural fibers often dating back decades.
Choiceless Threat Detection
Another way that people end up being terrifying to us unconsciously is underscored by Polyvagal Theory mentioned above. The vagus nerve is intimately involved in all social engagement. Without its activation little authentic emotional human contact is possible.
Through the unconscious process of neuroception, defined as “threat detection without awareness” (and the “without awareness” piece is key here), we are constantly monitoring other people for safety. And how do others frequently violate our safety without them or us realizing it? Through evaluation; that’s one way. Any time another person evaluates us, consciously or unconsciously – through word, deed, a critical look – commenting on knee-locking competence – showing up for meetings late, failing to follow through by action, failing to keep promises to us – our brain registers such experiences, most often as threats, great and small. But it doesn’t announce to our conscious mind that it’s doing so. Our body, however – through the workings of the dorsal (vegetative) and ventral (smart) vagal complex – clearly gets the message. And often takes precautionary, protective measures in response. And doesn’t inform us about that either.
How a Good Word Turns Bad
And the evaluation doesn’t even have to be negative. I can’t tell you how many creative projects of mine have been stopped dead in their tracks by positive evaluation. Evaluation of any sort often becomes a death knell. And the challenge for dealing with it becomes particularly difficult when the evaluation arises out of our own left brain’s sharp intellect. Few people’s evaluation, positive or negative, can carry as much destructive, immobilizing weight as our own.
So, how might we counter this mostly unconscious process? From my experience, the best we can do is expand awareness: become increasingly conscious of our brain’s and body’s responses – writ large and small – on our neurophysiology. With expanded awareness comes the most potential for taking fearless, conscious action in response.