The Myth of Constant Vigilance: How we're taught to live in fear, and why that's so effed up

I remember being about 12 and agonizing over crafting the perfect screen name for my first AOL email account. Not long after, I got my first chain email warning me about attackers who will hide under my car and slit my Achilles tendon so I can't run away. Then another, warning me to always check the backseat for rapists. Then another...

I wasn't allowed to watch horror movies, but my own relatives would forward these warnings without a second thought.

Take a minute to think about how effed up it is for a 12 year old to need to be coached about stuff like this.

Now here's the really effed up part: It's not even true.

There weren't really men hiding under cars. This wasn't an actual threat. (But I spent a good decade or more looking under cars before I learned that.)

I'm not the only one. In this (super scientific and statistically sound Facebook) poll, more women than not recall being warned about under-car-slasher-rapists and a slew of other "things that aren't really things".

For example, CRAWLING FROM THE PASSENGERS SEAT INTO THE DRIVERS SEAT to enter or exit the vehicle if you happen to be parked next to an unmarked white van??

To be clear, the commenter is responding to my request for examples of things we're told to fear — not perpetuating the idea women should actually do this!

To be clear, the commenter is responding to my request for examples of things we're told to fear — not perpetuating the idea women should actually do this!

Based on that advice, you'd think that the vast majority of white vans belong to rapists and human opposed to painters, bands, businesses, and ordinary people who just like the convenience of sliding doors and extra cargo space.

Certainly some fear is justified. Crime rates and statistics show us that women are more likely to be the victims of violence. One in six women will experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetime. ONE IN SIX. That's crazy.

But a lot of this fear is unjustified, yet culturally instilled. 

We're told to check our backseats for rapists laying in wait. We're told not to walk alone at night. We're told to carry our keys between our knuckles, or dial 9-1-1 and keep our fingers poised over the call button.

We're taught that constant vigilance is justified. Responsible, even. An acceptable normal. 

We're taught to be afraid to simply exist, and move freely through the world. 

But worse, we're taught to respond to fear with avoidance. To run away. To cross the street. To wear a fake wedding band, or lie about being alone when traveling.

"But, these examples are all about physical safety? What does this have to do with chasing dreams and living the life I imagine?"

My hypothesis is that many women don't live the lives they imagine because we aren't encouraged and equipped to push through fear.

We aren't told "man up" or "grow a pair". We're expected to have and exhibit fear — while our male counterparts are expected to exhibit courage and bravery. (The affect that has on them is another post entirely.)

We're taught to play it safe, while boys are taught to take risks.

So when it comes to facing fears in the classroom, the field, the stage, the conference room — we have to fight both the fear AND the conditioning to back down from it.

"But, I already know I'm supposed to feel like a fearless, strong woman — but I'm still afraid. I must just not be as brave and empowered as the women I see on Instagram."

It's not about not having fear.

EVERYONE has fear. People who say they don't are liars.

Fear is one of our core emotions — and like all emotions, we feel different intensities at different times. If you haven't seen Inside Out (Disney/Pixar's brilliant exploration of emotion and behavior), stop reading and go watch it right now. 

We all feel Fear's presence — but certainly some of us feel it more intensely or more often than others. Some of us allow Fear to drive the control panel of our consciousness — while for others, Fear is just a voice in the background, rarely getting a chance behind the wheel.

It's not about evicting Fear from our minds. It's about seeing Fear, recognizing it for what it is, accepting it, and moving through it. Not letting it control us.

Feel the fear, but do what you want anyway.

Doesn't that sound good?

So that's my take. What's yours?

Am I the only one who wants a step-by-step guide for being all like, "Oh hey Fear, what's up? Gee, I'd love to hang out, but I'm gonna go ahead and do this "scary' thing anyways. Thanks for dropping by!"

Where do you encounter fear in your life? Does it feel justified, or just culturally-instilled? How do you push yourself when you feel afraid?