Unhappiness, says bestselling author Harriet Lerner, is fueled by three key emotions: anxiety, fear, and shame. They are the uninvited guests in our lives. When tragedy or hardship hits, they may become our constant companions.
Anxiety can wash over us like a tidal wave or operate as a silent thrum under the surface of our daily lives. With stories that are sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, Lerner takes us from "fear lite" to the most difficult lessons the universe sends us. We learn:
- how a man was "cured in a day" of the fear of rejection and what we can learn from his story
- how the author overcame her dread of public speaking when her worst fears were realized
- how to deal with the fear of not being good enough, and with the shame of feeling essentially flawed and inadequate
- how to stay calm and clear in an anxious, crazy workplace
- how to manage fear and despair when life sends a crash course in illness, vulnerability, and loss
- how "positive thinking" helps and harms
- how to be our best and bravest selves, even when we are terrified and have internalized the shaming messages of others
No one signs up for anxiety, fear, and shame, but we can’t avoid them either. As we learn to respond to these three key emotions in new ways, we can live more fully in the present and move into the future with courage, clarity, humor, and hope. Fear and Other Uninvited Guests shows us how.
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About the Author
Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is one of our nation’s most loved and respected relationship experts. Renowned for her work on the psychology of women and family relationships, she served as a staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic for more than two decades. A distinguished lecturer, workshop leader, and psychotherapist, she is the author of The Dance of Anger and other bestselling books. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children's book writer. She and her husband are therapists in Lawrence, Kansas, and have two sons.
Read an Excerpt
The Dance of Fear Chapter One Why Can't a Person
Be More Like a Cat?
"Fear stops me from doing so many things," a neighbor confided when I mentioned the subject of this book. Then, without further ado, she launched into a description of her coworker Carmen, a woman who exuded such a deep sense of calm, joy, and peacefulness that everyone wanted to be around her. "Carmen never feels fear or other negative emotions. She's always in the flow of the present moment. She really lives each day to the fullest." My neighbor paused to catch her breath, then exclaimed: "I would do anything to be like Carmen!"
She spoke so earnestly, her voice ringing with italics, that I restrained myself from suggesting that maybe Carmen had multiple personalities and that one of her alters might be sitting mute in some corner having wall-to-wall panic attacks. But I did tell her this: The only being I have ever known who was entirely free of fear and always "in the flow" was my cat, Felix. When Felix was alive, I aspired to be like him, much as my neighbor aspired to be like Carmen. I could relate.
FELIX, MY ROLE MODEL
Felix was my little Buddhist, my role model for mindful living. He demonstrated a healthy fight-or-flight response when threatened, but he only felt fear when fear was due. He became anxious and agitated when forced into a carrying cage, because he knew very well it meant a car ride to the vet. But he didn't let fear, worry, and rumination spoil an otherwise perfectly good day.
By contrast, I recall my own human experience anticipating my first allergy shot as a child. For a good week before the actualappointment, I freaked myself out with fearful imaginings, all of them having to do with long needles and terrible pain. My mother, who had certain Key Phrases to Live By, informed me that "a coward dies a thousand deaths; a brave man dies but once." She learned this aphorism from her younger brother when he went off to fight in World War II.
I personally found no comfort in her words. What sense did they make to a nine-year-old? I wasn't brave, I wasn't a man, and why was my mother bringing death into the conversation? When I was older and had developed the capacity for abstract thinking, I understood the lesson she was trying to convey. In essence, my mother was encouraging me to be more like Felix.
Felix lived in the moment. When he played, he played. When he ate, he ate. When he had sex, he had sex, utterly unencumbered by fear, shame, or guilt. Once "fixed" (the downside of being a pet), he settled immediately into a perfect acceptance of his situation. "Wherever you go, there you are," was the motto I believe he lived by.
This capacity to inhabit the moment granted Felix a kind of profound self-acceptance. When he licked his fur, he didn't worry about whether he was doing the job well enough, or whether he was taking too long to lick down all his hair, or whether certain of his body parts weren't all that attractive and perhaps shouldn't be displayed to my dinner guests. Nor did he dissipate his energy with anxious thoughts such as: "What's wrong with me that I don't make more fruitful and creative use of my time?"
Because Felix didn't live a fear-driven life, he was able to operate from his essential Felixness. When he wanted connection, he would jump on my lap without stopping to wonder whether I might find him too needy and dependent (especially for a cat). With equal aplomb, he would jump off my lap and saunter out of the room when he felt like it, never worrying that I might take his departure personally and feel really hurt. I could go on, but you get the picture.
A sociobiologist friend tells me that I have an idealized notion of Felix's inner emotional and spiritual life, but I disagree. I'm not saying that all cats are like Felix. I've seen my share of traumatized felines who cower or scratch when strangers approach. But I observed Felix almost daily for more than ten years before he keeled over dead one afternoon on our back porch. I'm convinced that it simply wasn't in his nature to get bogged down in fear and shame.
Face It, You're Human
Of course, Felix didn't have it all. If he missed out on the miseries of being human, he also missed out on some uniquely human pleasures, from reading a riveting novel to falling in love. One might debate whether it is preferable to be a cat or a person, but why get into it? If you are reading this now, you are not a cat and never will be. So along with the good days, you're going to experience the entire range of painful emotions that make us human.
This means that you'll wake up at three in the morning searching your breasts for lumps. You'll worry that your daughter has dropped out of her drug treatment program (again), that your partner is getting bored with you, that you'll end up a bag lady if you leave your job, that your memory is getting more porous with each passing day, and that possibly you're going crazy.
You can make your own list. No one is immune to the grip of anxiety, fear, and shame -- the "big three" that muck up our lives. These are the uninvited guests. When tragedy or hardship hits, they may become our constant companions.The Dance of Fear. Copyright © by Harriet Lerner. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
This spirit-lifting book leaves the reader braver, wiser and laughing. Her advice is the best you will find.
(Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., author of Driven to Distraction)
“A flat-out life-changing book.”
“This spirit-lifting book leaves the reader braver, wiser and laughing. Lerner’s advice is the best you will find.”