The 5 Deadly Fears of Loss (and what we gain by letting go)…

As I contemplated divorce more than a decade ago, I encountered a number of fears and uncertainties with the idea ending a 15 year-long marriage. Although I was pretty sure it’s what I wanted, I found that fear hides in the most unexpected places and in abundance. Furthermore, it’s not something one overcomes once, but throughout one’s life….if growth is the objective. The fear of loss, specifically, creeps up in all sorts of situations that extend well beyond our personal relationships. For anyone working toward a more minimalist lifestyle, for example, you’ll find that the five following types of fears associated with loss apply to letting go of all sorts of things….from personal belongings to our investments of time and resources and feelings of security and control. This is why, after finally overcoming the fears encountered in one aspect of my life, I took to applying what I learned to other areas…and hope that others are able to find value in what I’ve learned and do the same. If you’re reading this, then I wish you all of the best in your own fearless journey in letting go and living a freer and more fulfilling life. For, as Socrates is credited with saying, “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

1. Identity & Self-identity (how others see us and how we see ourselves)

When I was struggling with the decision to divorce, one of the challenges I encountered was in imagining how others might see me and how I might see myself as a divorced person. Would people think of me as a failure and would I feel like I was a failure? Furthermore, was my identity somehow based on the success of my marriage? And although I had always considered myself a person who loved unconditionally, would I not be such a person if I placed conditions on my marriage? Since I was the one who wanted the divorce, was I also the “bad guy” in my situation? In a nutshell, I found that I had identified myself as the victim in my marriage for so long that I was afraid of the idea of being anything different. I was, after all, a nice and caring person. Wasn’t I?

Similar feelings and questions arose in the monetary area of my life when, after struggling financially for a few years following my husband’s suicide, I decided to file for bankruptcy. Up to that point, I had always paid my bills on time, had excellent credit, and considered myself financially responsible. In short, I did things “right.” By filing for bankruptcy, did that now mean that I was a “loser” or “irresponsible?” Even if I came to terms with my new identity as a person who (at one point) went bankrupt, how was I going to be able to deal with how others would now perceive me… a bad risk, both financially and personally? After all, getting a car loan wasn’t likely to be the only thing I would have trouble with after experiencing financial ruin. It was just as likely I would have trouble finding a date….knowing all too well the stigma of bankruptcy and how I also once bought into it.

Overall, when we fear losing our identities, we also fear a loss of acceptance and self-esteem. And not only do we fear what we may lose, but we fear a negative gain. That is, we fear rejection and not being accepted for our new identities….either for who others think we are or who we think we are….as if who we are is measured by superficial labels and absolute definitions that we are either “this” or “that”….responsible or irresponsible….a success or a failure… or stupid….nice or bad, etc.

“All the stress and misery of life comes from fear of loss. Remember that you can never lose anything without gaining something. To avoid misery, concentrate on what you will gain.”

-Debasish Mridha

However, when we open ourselves up to new ways of seeing ourselves, we have a chance at becoming more complete and whole beings. We become, in a sense, more human. We don’t, in fact, lose who we are at all…but become more of who we are by our willingness to embrace new experiences and grow as people with innate value not dependent on set-in-stone identities and labels. So, are you afraid of being the “bad” guy, driving around in an old beat-up automobile, or living your life as a drifter? Is your identity dependent on what you do and own? Maybe it’s time to lose it…

2. Investment (in time, resources, heart)

When we are first starting out in life, we begin to build our lives the way we think we want them to be. For many, this means a career, house, marriage, kids, and the overall accumulation of financial security and nice things. Investing years and our hearts in our careers and relationships and investing monetarily in acquiring wealth and personal belongings, we often fear losing any number of these as we get older and become more established. After all, with the amount of time and effort we put into something…into our lives…starting over can seem a bit scary, if not insurmountable.

But what if, at any point, we realize that what we have built is not what we really want? What if we build a very practical and stable life for ourselves, but decide we want a more creative and risky career? What if we decide that we married the wrong person or have so much stuff and are so busy trying to maintain our lifestyle that we have no time to enjoy what really matters to us? What then? Do we throw it all away? Or, do we keep going for the simple reason that we don’t want to lose what we worked so hard for? And what if, in deciding to throw it all away, we regret it later and want it all back?

Letting go of personal relationships, specifically, can be difficult because we fear the loss of collective memory. In sharing any part of our lives with another person, we begin to establish a shared pool or collection of memories with that person that are best reminisced together. It’s just not the same to share our memories with people who aren’t a part of them and as many relationships don’t last beyond a couple of “dates” or months, building a collective memory with a new person can seem rather unlikely.

As far as personal belongings, again it’s the years of effort we put into attaining possessions that we don’t want to lose or put to waste. We remember all too well what it was like to have little and, therefore, the thought of losing any of the things we’ve managed to collect can be quite frightening. One particular experience in my own life serves as a rather harsh example of just how much a person will fight to hold onto the smallest of material possessions….even in the most desperate of times. On April 1, 2010, just minutes after my husband put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, I rushed to the bathroom to grab towels. As soon as I got there, however, I was confronted with an unexpected dilemma. The towels, all color coordinated, somewhat pricey and purchased fairly recently, were all neatly stacked on their rack near an equally nice and happy piece of hanging art. Although the pause was brief, I hesitated to grab them, knowing that they would be ruined. And despite the reality that the towels were the least of all of the things my husband took with him that day he ended his own life, I hadn’t wanted to lose them.

“Though surely to avoid attachments for fear of loss is to avoid life.” -Lionel Shriver

But here’s the thing about towels, memories, and anything else we invest in. There’s always more of it all…waiting to be experienced, purchased, enjoyed, remembered, etc. And while I, personally, make every effort to not be consumed by consumerism, more of everything I could possibly ever want or need is available at any time. More people to connect with and relationships to grow. More cars, houses, money. More time…as long as we are alive. No, it won’t be the same people and “towels” we invested in before, but the value of new experiences and efforts doesn’t negate those of the past and, in fact, is a reminder that life is about the journey rather than the destination. After all, where there’s loss, there’s also new people, places, things, and experiences to look forward to.

3. Security (emotional, physical, financial, social)

Somewhat tied to investments is our basic feelings of security. Not only do we not want to lose the time, resources, and heart we put into our efforts, we don’t want to lose the sense of security those efforts can sometimes provide. In fact, emotional and financial security can sometimes take years to develop, in their own right. Consider the time it takes to build trust in a relationship or a substantial retirement fund. And yet, the reason that loss of security is its own separate item on this list has to do with the broader aspects of security and what they represent.

Emotional security, for example, doesn’t just derive from long-term relationships. It can derive from a general sense of belonging and not being physically alone at any given moment. Physical security can be obtained from the same, or from simply having a roof over one’s head and a warm place to sleep. Financial security can be as simple as having enough money to buy food to survive and feeling socially secure can derive from just a friend or two. In short, security can be derived from as much or as little of what we think we need to feel secure. Not necessarily dependent on our investments, security is derived merely from what we do or possess as a means to obtain the illusion of it. Furthermore, we don’t just fear the loss of it. We also fear other threats to it. As much as we don’t want to give up feeling emotionally secure, therefore, we also don’t want to be emotionally harmed….and the same applies to physical, financial, and social harms, as well. So, security is two-fold in that it’s derived from both a provision, on the one hand, and an absence of a perceived threat, on the other.

Once again, when I was considering divorce, I wasn’t crazy about losing the security that came from knowing I wasn’t alone in providing for my kids, having a decent home, and having a partner to share in life. However, these ever-approaching losses weren’t really what frightened me. No, what I feared stemmed from my husband’s harassment and threats. What I feared was what he might actually do in the process of divorce and the uncertainty surrounding that. Would he burn all of my books or burn the entire house down? Would we spend years in court? Was he capable of harming his own children? Me? Himself? I just didn’t know and for that, I realized that any sense of security I felt would be stripped away if I decided to go through with the divorce.

“When someone fears lsoing your affection, he or she will strive to keep it. Perhaps you have strived to keep someone’s affection, too. Fear of loss is not love.” -Gary Zukav

And yet, sometimes the possibility of losing a thing is the biggest threat. Maybe we find security in an object (such as a child may find in a blanket or a teenager with a cell phone) and we fear losing the object. Or, maybe we have trouble giving up a habit or addiction such as shopping, eating, hoarding, or promiscuity because they make us feel secure. Maybe we stay in a relationship because we simply don’t want to be alone or be separated from our children. Whatever it is, in order to overcome this particular fear of loss and grow beyond it, we need to be able to identify what provides us with feelings of security and what situations bring about feelings of insecurity and challenge those. For, our lives and worlds are fragile and what we don’t challenge ourselves with is likely to be presented to us sooner or later, whether we like it or not. I experienced this reality, even in my own situation with my husband’s threats and harassment. If I hadn’t overcome the fear that he might do something extreme, I would have had a much more difficult time coping with his suicide when it happened……and if I had stayed married out of fear of what he might do in the hope that I could prevent it, I may have found the outcome to be unavoidable in the long run.

4. Control (perceived certainty and power over one’s life)

Just as our sense of security can be tied to our investments, our sense of control can have a bearing on our overall sense of security. However, what we fear (in losing our sense of control) is the feeling of helplessness. Unlike security, which we seek because we feel helpless……control is sought in opposition to it. Security provides us with a sense of protection from the world. Control provides us with a sense of power over our lives and world. By sticking to what we know and the certainty that often comes from more predictable situations, we can achieve a false sense of control over the uncertain and unknown future. On the flip side of the coin, we can also create a level of predictability and certainty by manipulating and controlling others. In the first scenario, this means that a person who is afraid of losing control will often stick with the status quo rather than risk change. In the second scenario, it means that the person will manipulate and lie in order to maintain the status quo. The problem with either scenario is, of course, that one’s control and power is an illusion only. Situations, people, and outcomes beyond our control will always exist. The only real control one ever has is internal and even in that, we are fallible and sometimes weak. Therefore, we occasionally have to be willing to accept and let go of this control, as well. We have to be okay with uncontrollably crying our eyes out, for instance…or even smiling, laughing, and loving uncontrollably without fear and reservation. For again, what we fear prevents us from experiencing the joys of life every bit as much as it shields us from the pain.

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Returning again to the story of my marriage and how it ended, one might be able to see how my husband and I both tried to maintain a sense of control in the situation. For years, I maintained some semblance of control by limiting confrontation and attempting to keep the peace. As I often describe it, I walked on eggshells for most of my marriage. He, on the other hand, controlled and manipulated me with acts of punishment and threats of abuse. When I finally started the process of filing for a divorce after several prior failed attempts, he resorted to the same manipulative, controlling, and threatening behavior that had always worked before. The problem was that it didn’t work and I didn’t budge on my decision. Instead of trying to manage or limit his outbursts, I let go of the life I had known and entered into a whole new territory where I controlled only what I could and left the rest to work its way out however it may. I had hoped that he, too, would let go of his fear and would grow….that he would see the defeat and failure of his attempts to control me as an opportunity for a better life and embrace it. Unfortunately, the loss (I’m guessing) was too much to bare. For anyone who thinks that the fear of losing control isn’t something to work on, I would strongly urge you to reconsider. It might just be the most important one in this list.

5. Belonging (family, companionship, and connection)

Although it may be relatively easy within larger societies to find any number of varying and distinct social groups within which we may associate and identify, finding companionship and making connections still can be a challenge. Therefore, when we successfully overcome the fear of losing our long established personal identities (see fear no. 1) and expand how we define ourselves, we may move into this fear…..of losing our sense of belonging. This is because, as we develop as individuals and become more of who we wholly are, the less we fit into any one box. And, in fact, the drawback of knowing who we are, accepting and expanding who we are, and letting go of the perceptions of others and how they identify us is that it can affect the frequency, quality, and extent of our social interactions and societal engagements….and it also can affect our overall feeling of security (see fear no. 3).

So, how do we deal with this fear? Do we stick within the confines of limiting identities and groups or do we shun everyone, cut ourselves off from society, and self-isolate? Assuming we’ve already embraced our ever-evolving selves but have yet to armor up against the rest of the world, is there another option? Can we let go of the need to belong, while remaining open to the possibility of belonging? Can we resist the urge to separate ourselves from others as a preemptive strike against the possibility that they will separate themselves from us? And what makes us so sure that we won’t belong as ourselves? Is there any real basis for our fear?

Perhaps it’s the young child in us that fears losing our sense of belonging, as many of us may have struggled as children to fit in and be accepted into one group or another. Even upon transitioning to high school, the struggle may have continued with try-outs for sports and other activities….not to mention college fraternities and other social groups beyond that. Even the timing on when we marry and have children has a bearing on our social interactions. A person who marries at 20 and has three children by the time she’s 27 is likely to feel more comfortable among other young parents rather than among a bunch of young partying singles. This being said, it stands to reason that someone who’s going through a divorce might begin to feel a little out of place among long-time married friends and couples.

“A person who cannot sacrifice will never belong to himself, he belongs to whatever he is unwilling to give up.” -John C. Maxwell

So, perhaps the fear is justified and we can, in fact, lose our sense of belonging and wind up feeling out of place in our current social circles as we learn, grow, and evolve. But maybe not. I’ve personally seen some circles evolve alongside their individual members. And, assuming we are our growth and development, any group or relationship that doesn’t allow for this is not going to provide us with the sense of belonging we seek, anyhow. The likelihood is that once we outgrow our shells, like hermit crabs, we should seek new ones. Yes, we’re a bit vulnerable on our way to our new homes, but what we gain in space is completely worth the risk. Furthermore, there’s a strong possibility that the more we grow in the acceptance and development of who we wholly are, the more we may find a sense of belonging in ourselves, as well….and this is a gain that simply should not be overlooked. For, in belonging to ourselves first, the other four fears of loss don’t stand a chance. Not only does this type of belonging free us to grow and evolve as individuals, it also leads us to invest more in ourselves, strengthen our inner control, and create more emotional security in our everyday lives while simultaneously establishing and solidifying our overall place in the greater outside world….which just so happens to need us, whether we know it yet, or not.

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