Experts say we are born with two fears: loud sounds and heights. The rest of our fears are learned—and then create behaviors driven by unconscious habits. Take the fear of being alone, for example. If you experience this fear, pause for a moment and think back. Link up that fear to the memory of a learning experience that taught you that it’s unsafe to be on your own. For Randy, a rape victim, this thought process happens easily and immediately. “Ever since the night of the rape, I’ve been terrified to be alone in my apartment. I keep imagining that someone’s going to break in and I’ll be powerless to stop what’s going to happen.” Whether or not the origin of your fear of being alone is as easy to isolate as Randy’s, the bottom line for you and her is the same: a sensation of powerlessness.
In Feel the Fear… and Do It Anyway fear expert Susan Jeffers writes that there are three levels to fear. Level One fears are found in the “surface story,” those experiences that cause fear because they happen to you (such as losing a loved one) or require action by you (such as public speaking). Level Two fears derive from your “inner state of mind” and reflect your sense of self-efficacy—your ability to succeed at a task. This level includes such experiences as rejection, vulnerability, and failure. Level Three fears get down to the biggest fear of all and the one thing that keeps you stuck in fright: the thought, “I can’t handle it!”
In Randy’s case, she’s afraid she won’t be able to handle or survive another attack. This fear of being alone extends into every room of her small apartment. In order to take a shower, she brings her dog into the bathroom just to feel a sense of companionship.
If you also struggle with the fear of being alone (whether a mild or extreme fear), then you, too, are struggling with what Jeffers describes as being a major fear truth: “At the bottom of every one of your fears is simply the fear that you can’t handle whatever life may bring you.” Surmounting that fear will require that you make the shift from powerless to powerful, transforming yourself from someone who can’t to someone who absolutely can handle anything that happens. This transition hinges on learning to trust that you can depend on yourself to be clear, to make choices, and to take actions.
Overcoming the Fear of Being Alone
Going all the way back to our caveman ancestor, humans have learned (through oftenpainful and terrifying experiences) that we are more likely to be safe and survive in a group. While historically that may be true, it’s also true that you can be safe and survive alone. Realizing that your fear of being alone has been learned opens the door to unlearning it, and being released from the grip of terror that pops up in instances when you least expect or desire it. The relearning process begins in three successive steps that strategically build self-trust and efficacy:
- Identify the fear. The clearer you are about the actual elements that make up your fear, the more opportunity you have to change it. When you consider your fear of being alone, what’s the main driving element? If you were going to explain the specific fear to someone else (as Randy did), what would you say it’s really about?
- Identify what would bring safety. Starting to reduce the fear comes from making choices about what would bring the opposite experience: security. Imagine how you would express to a friend or confidant exactly what details would be necessary for you to feel safe by yourself.
- Identify actions to create that outcome. Here’s where you really create the shift that decreases fear and increases self-trust. Based on your ideas about what would create safety, determine what actions you need to take to lead to those outcomes. Then map out a plan to take them, asking for help from those you trust so that you find ways to succeed.
The real mastery of learning how to unlearn your fear of being alone comes from learning to develop your relationship with yourself. Recognizing that you can acknowledge, identify, plan, and execute scenarios that create the sense of safety you desire deepens self-trust, strengthens your “I can handle it!” muscle, and promotes a sense of being in control. Together these outcomes allow you to transcend and even debunk the old learned (limiting) fear belief. In doing so you create a new learning experience, one that installs a new belief tied to your ability to deliberately protect yourself both emotionally and physically. The more often you combine an emotional learning experience with a desired belief, the more successful your self-transformation will be and the more you just might discover that rather than fear being alone, you actually come to love it.