Outside of our basic survival instincts, fear is perhaps the number one motivator for the human race. Maybe for all sentient life. Acting out of fear rarely gives us the opportunity to show up as our best selves, and this can and will often cause harm in our relationships. This has been true for me and has had dire consequences.
Fear is pervasive in our society. It’s so common we don’t always notice it when it’s being leveraged or applied. When it’s factored into our decision making process, it often feels like a valid consideration vs. a problematic aspect. Or something that flies under the radar. This creates problems in a number of ways: we take away our partner’s agency, infantilize them, and rob ourselves of our autonomy, opting instead for the decision that appears to limit the perceived harm. Self-preservation is a tricky thing. This is born, at least for me, out of the desire to control the outcome and hopefully mitigate my partner’s bad feelings. Not a healthy move, but it happens.
Fear is a powerful thing. As I write this, I’m dealing with the repercussions of decisions I made out of fear. Looking back, I knew what the right choice was, but opted for the one that I felt would “hurt” my partner less. Doing so led to a host of issues; from unethical behavior to resentment. Doing the right thing would have caused less harm. I probably knew this, but I acted out of fear.
It’s human nature to seek control when we are scared. In the above example, I was afraid of losing someone important to me. I sought to minimize my fear by controlling their reactions. If I can make them feel safe, I thought, I won’t need to face my fear of them having bad feelings and considering me unworthy as a partner. We can never truly control anything but ourselves, so it’s imperative that we learn to control how we act in response to what happens to us. I’m not talking about the feelings we get when things happen, but rather our behavior in response to those feelings.
The way we do this is by acting out of trust instead of fear. Not only trusting others as I should have in the earlier example, but also out of trust of self. And really, the latter is the most important.
When we act out of trust, we grant ourselves permission to act in our own best interests. We also stop trying to control others since we trust them to act in their own best interests. Both can be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact others. For me? I was afraid of hurting someone by doing something perfectly normal. Instead I hurt them by acting out of fear.
Psychologists have known a rather complex (and yet oddly simple) truth for decades: external events/people can not MAKE us feel a certain way, even though it seems that way.
We enter into situations with our own expectations and even baggage/trauma. Those expectations directly impact the way we feel about the event or person. Here’s an example Dr. Edelstein provides from Chapter 1 of his book Three Minute Therapy:
Suppose a hundred airplane passengers are unexpectedly given parachutes and instructed to jump from the plane. If a physical situation alone could cause emotions, then all the hundred people would feel the same way. But obviously those who regard skydiving positively are going to have a [reaction] very different from the others.
I made my decisions based on expectations I had of my partner’s reactions instead of giving them the opportunity to have their reactions, own them and show up as their best self.
So what does acting out of trust look like?
- Trusting your partner to own their insecurities regarding your actions.
- Trusting your partner to share their insecurities without expecting you to alter your behavior.
- Trust your decisions and actions are perfectly OK, even if it appears to make your partner feel a certain way.
In my case, my partner’s feelings were valid and I didn’t trust them to show up as their best self because of those fears. Had I? Things would have gone very differently.
Trust yourself to act with integrity and work to show up that way. Trust your partner(s) to own their struggles and not penalize you for them. Trust that everything will be OK . . . even when it may not feel like it. Trust yourself so that fear won’t control your actions.
* * *
Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.
Image credit: Photo by Scott Web on Unsplash