boat logo

Village Gate

Teaching Hut


by Serge Kahili King

We were born to be fearless.

We do not inherit fear from our ancestors. It is not an instinctive reaction, nor is it necesary for survival. Caution, yes; recognition of potential danger, yes; but not fear. We have to be taught how to be afraid.

I remember when I was a young boy watching my younger sister walk down a hallway in our home while smashing spiders on the wall with her hand. I thought it was disgusting, my sister thought it was fun, my Mom thought it was horrifying. I can still hear her screams when she saw my sister happily diminishing the spider population, and I remember how quickly my sister changed her attitude and behavior toward spiders after only one intensive spiders-are-awful-be-afraid-of-them training session.

One minute we can be fearless, and in the next we can learn to be fearful. For the moment let's put aside the question of whether fear has any value. The issue at hand is whether it is inborn or acquired behavior.

Here is another example, opposite to the one above. On a sunny day on a broad beach in Africa, when the ocean was like a calm lake, I noticed that my four-year-old and seven-year-old sons were having fun the water, and my three-year-old son was having fun on the sand. No problem with that, except that I also noticed how he scampered out of the way every time the smallest wavelet came within two feet of him. This looked like a job for "Parentman!"

I picked up my three-year-old, talked to him soothingly, and carried him a few steps toward the water. He immediately tried to squirm out of my arms, even though the water was only around my ankles. He was clearly afraid, so I stopped, calmed him down, and took a few more steps forward. Of course, he reacted in the same way. Very slowly and gently, using a classic psychological method of desensitization, I was able to get him to accept being in the water ankle deep, waist deep, chest deep, and, finally, we even ducked under the water together. After that I returned him to shore and let him develop his own relationship to the ocean. Today my youngest son is a US Navy Seal.

One more example to illustrate my point. I teach a self-help behavior modification technique called "Dynamind," and one thing it is very good for is getting rid of phobias. During a seminar demonstration I had a young woman on stage who said she was afraid of water. We further refined that to be a state of paralyzing panic when facing a swimming pool. Even further refinement produced the interesting discovery that the panic occured only when the pool was closer than two meters, more than one meter wide, and the color of the water was blue. In fact, regardless of the size or proximity of the pool, the panic disappeared if the color of the water was green.

In the first example above, my sister had no fear of spiders until she was taught to be afraid by our mother. Her first reaction to them was the instinctive one. In the second example, my son was afraid of the ocean, not the water itself. I know this because I had seen him happily splashing bath water all over on numerous occasions. I have no idea what event taught him to be afraid - and he doesn't remember - but his ability to get rid of the fear in such a short time definitely indicates a learned behavior and not an instinctive one. And in the last example, the fact that so many specific conditions had to be met before the debilitating fear occured is indicative of learned behavior as well.

This would be a good time to define what I mean by "instinctive" behavior, because many people confuse it with "automatic" behavior. Behavior is automatic when you have learned it so well you don't have to think about it anymore. It is basically a stimulus response like Pavlov's dog salivating at the ringing of a bell. For many people, riding a bicycle, using silverware, reacting with fear to specific events, or getting cold symptoms when you get your feet wet in street shoes, but not in beach sandals, are common examples of automatic behavior. Such behavior is linked closely to individual experience and cultural expectations.

Instinctive behavior, on the other hand, is common to all humans and not dependent on individual experience or culture. Breathing is instinctive; breathing rates are learned. Eating is instinctive; food choices are learned. The urges to get warm when you are cold, get cool when you are hot, seek security when you feel insecure, or move toward or repeat pleasurable experiences, and move away from or avoid unpleasant or painful experiences are all part of humanity's repertoire of instinctive behaviors.

Another important difference is that learned behaviors, automatic or not, are capable of being unlearned or modified very quickly, whereas instinctive behaviors can only be suppressed, amplified, or redirected.

It is a fact, supported by abundant research, experiments and experience, that fears can be unlearned, often quickly, without suppression, amplification or redirection. This alone puts them into the learned behavior category.

Part of the misunderstanding about fear comes from early experiments in which babies were tossed into the air and observations were made of their behavior. The instinctive reaction of seeking a connection to something secure was interpreted as an expression of fear. Actually, as long as you don't drop them, some babies get immense enjoyment from being tossed into the air.

"As long as you don't drop them." This brings up the subject of how fear gets learned in the first place. For that to happen, three vital factors must be present: self-doubt, a memory of pain, and an expectation of pain.

Self-doubt is the most important factor, for without it fear doesn't occur. Self-doubt is also learned behavior, but it can be learned while you are still a fetus. Basically, self-doubt is born when an individual interprets a feeling or sensation as meaning that one has lost contact with their source of power or love. To the degree that this interpretation is repeated with similar feelings or sensations it becomes learned and automatic behavior.

Memories of some kind of pain are present in everyone, but everyone is not affected by them in the same way. Fear is born - and eventually learned - when self-doubt is present at the time a painful experience occurs because, due to the self-doubt, an expectation of pain arises under any stimulus that resembles the original pain. When I was about seven-years-old I was playing with some friends and we decided to climb a tree and jump off a large branch. The other boys did it without a problem. They didn't have any self-doubt, at least in relation to jumping out of trees, so that even if they had gotten hurt in the past from leaping off a branch they had no expectation of pain from doing it again. I, however, had sufficient self-doubt, and a memory of a previous painful fall not related to trees, that I crouched on the branch, frozen with fear, for a very long time. The other boys simply crawled around me and jumped to their heart's content. At long last I suppressed my fear, gathered my courage, and leaped into the unknown - it was my first experience of branch-jumping. Fortunately, I had a good landing and it was so much fun I did it over and over, unlearning my fear in the process.

One of the last sentences in the previous paragraph reminds me of another aspect of fear that needs clarification, the so-called "fear of the unknown." There is no such thing, folks. It's always a fear of the known. Or, rather, a fear of not knowing. If we experience something truly unknown we will either be curious or we will ignore it. Fear only arises in this case when a new experience reminds us of a previous painful experience and we have an expectation of another painful experience because we don't know what to do.

Here is the moral of the story. It doesn't matter if we have self-doubt, or painful memories, or fear of anything whatsoever. We learned how to act one way; we can teach ourselves how to act differently. Self-doubt can be erased by teaching ourselves - over and over and over again - to trust in ourselves and/or in a higher power. To trust, not that nothing bad will ever happen, but that whatever happens we will be able to cope, and that more good things will happen than bad. How do we know? We don't. The future is never fixed, but now is the moment of power. What we do and how we think in the present moment may not control the future, but it has more influence on the future than anything else. There is no fear without self-doubt. Self-doubt begins with a decision. It can end with a decision, too.

palm isle
[Top of page]

Copyright 2003 Aloha International
Contact us