Clowning to Overcome Fear

J.C. LaCroix Emotional Mastery, Personal Productivity

Do you have a fear that seems hold you back? It just sits there, nagging, and won’t go away no matter how hard you try. It could be fear of failure, fear of people, fear of open spaces, or even a fear of heights if you wanna be a fighter pilot. They key part here is that the fear is residual and it wont go way, and you don’t wanna face it, or you do but can’t quite bring yourself to do it. This is the definition of limiting fear. It is something that, if overcome, would allow you to achieve your dreams. I talked about this a little bit in my article on overcoming procrastination, and like to go a little deeper here because the technique is important. And, I’m going to show you why 90% of all human fears are irrational.

First, lets talk about two things: your primal brain and clowns.

Clowns are creepy. There’s no doubt about it. Stephen King took our hardwired fear of them and laughed all the way to the bank with his novel “IT”. Some people have a paralyzing fear of clowns, but they make most of us at least a little bit uncomfortable. There are three main sources for this fear that they create in us, and its the three things all clowns have in common — they are painted in bright, contrasting tones, they wear strange-fitting clothing, and lastly, their comic routines almost always hinge on unpredictable outcomes (like when the clown presents you with a flower that squirts water at you). Me personally? I always get an urge to kick them right in the nuts, and I usually let go and follow the impulse — one of the reasons I try to avoid them. But, as you will see in a moment, this is because my primal brain and I have learned to trust each other…

As you can see, clowns are designed to unsettle you, and more importantly, they are consciously engineered to disrupt your comfort zone. Now, comfort zone has become one of those phrases that is like the hammer in the personal development guru toolbox — its so self-explanitory that everyone tells you to use it, but no one can say much else about it, specifically, where it comes from and why its so simplistically powerful. I’m going to try and connect the dots here, by talking about what clowns know.

Clowning is a very old profession, and it has taken a lot of forms throughout the years. The current incarnation is really the stand-up comic. They make us laugh, usually by either saying something or doing something that is socially taboo but commonly thought or considered by everyone (stretching the comfort zone without breaking it), or by exaggeration in some way — taking a common experience and blowing it out of porportion. If we go back into history we find the court jesters — wearing bells on their clothing, bright colors, exaggerated movements. Or, we could encounter the Harlequin in ancient theater, who always entered from the “wrong direction” and acted as a foil to the Hero through self-mockery.

The most interesting, and possibly oldest form is the Native American Heyokah, who contrasts from other points in clown history by holding a revered place in society. They usually wore contrasting white-and-black paint, often in disorderly patterns, and are most noted for doing everything backwards. Crazy Horse was a Heyokah, he would sit backwards in the saddle when riding a horse, he would walk counter-clockwise when entering a lodge (you’re supposed to go clockwise), and he would bathe with his clothes on. And, like other clowns the Heyokah was somewhat feared by being so eccentric, but invaluable, as he was the first stop if the medicine man couldn’t figure out what was wrong with someone — just like when your doctor sends you to a psychiatrist when they can’t find a medical cause for your symptoms. More importantly, his social role was to make fun of everything sacred and holy (so people wouldn’t take things so seriously), and to show people their flaws and limited concepts by mocking himself (for example, doing a comic routine about hoarding all the buffalo meat in front of someone who is perhaps being too greedy at home).

Yeah, that’s right — the US Calvalry got their asses owned by a clown.

Now, can you see the pattern here? The strange colors, the weird clothes, the backwards behavior? Any time you see a pattern through history, its a good idea to stop and examine it, because there is potential power in that lesson. The lesson here, of course, is that the Clowns understood our primal brains.

In nature, bright, loud, contrasting colors are a warning — a signal to stay away. Most animals who have this trait are either poisinous, or trying to fake being poisinous. In this way, the clown brings your primal brain online, so to speak — by painting itself as a threat, and then disarming your conscious brain by acting harmless and goofy. The loose fitting clothes are meant to disarm your conscious mind (which thinks them just silly), but further agitate your primal brain. This works because there is a part of your primal brain that sits there and projects movement. Its the part of you that, when someone at bat in baseball smacks the pitch deep into the outfield, automatically projects where the ball is going to land. This is essential to not getting your ass dined on by a predator, and survival goes to whomever can do this best. Its one reason why women are hard- wired to dig guys with good hand-eye skills (athletes), even if the sport is something lame, like ping-pong — they know this critical part of the brain is well-developed and gonna be passed on to the offspring.

So they’re freaking you out by sending you mixed messages — they’re telling your conscious brain that they’re harmless, but your primal brain that they’re a threat. All this confusion is creating a window into something deeper, and the bridge is through laughter.

There are lots of theories on laughter, but one that gets the most acceptance (even if its not true for all jokes) is that its a social “all-clear” mechanism. So, lets say you and your friends decide to go out skateboarding. One of your friends decides he’s going to ride a stairway rail down to the bottum of the stairs. He slips in the middle and racks himself, killing any future chance at children. When you first percieve that he racks himself, in that split second your brain realises their is a chance for serious injury and amps up your adrenal glands so you can help your tribe-mate. Your primal brain does this before your conscious brain can analyze the situation — seconds count, that’s why its closer to your spine than your cerebrum, sometimes it pays to react before you can consider. A few nanoseconds later, you realise that he has racked himself, and while in serious pain and not likely to have to change diapers anytime soon, he’s going to be okay. Your conscious brain cuts off the adrenaline, and then sends out a signal to everyone else to do the same — we call it laughter. In this theory, laughter is how you say, “its allright everyone, its all okay”. This is why slapstick humor works, and will never die, it plays on this mechanism.

If you’ve been watching monkies, you will see this at work when another monkey falls out of a tree. Everyone gets quiet for a second, and when the other monkey gets up and doesn’t seem too hurt, the other monkies will point and well, start “laughing” until the alpha gets annoyed and tells them to can it.

This is why the clown’s jokes work on the principle of unexpected behavior, or unexpected outcomes, like the flower that squirts water. The primal brain is all amped-up, so every time your conscious brain realises everything is okay, you laugh even if uneasy to send out the all-clear and bring yourself back down. By doing this over and over, the clown is trying to show you something deeper about your fear.

Your primal brain came first. Before you could do math, you knew heights were dangerous (in fact, you were born with this knowledge, babies who have just started crawling won’t crawl across a table with a glass insert). Nature didn’t rewire your primal brain when your cerebrum came along (the saying “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” was coined by evolutionary processes), it just slapped that puppy right on top of the primal brain. Most issues which limit your growth as a human being happen because your primal brain and your conscious brain weren’t designed from the get-go to work together.

Like your conscious brain, your primal brain was designed to learn, but at a very simple level. It learns on an association matrix — meaning, bright flash of light (lightning), then unsettling thunder. So, next bright flash of light, and you anticipate and react to the thunder before it arrives. It doesn’t understand cause and effect, it only knows that one thing is associated with another thing. For example, when you look at an erotic image, your conscious brain knows its just an image — the sexy person isn’t about to climb out of the picture and start getting you off. Your primal brain, however, does not — it just sees boobs/six-pack abs and starts giving you stiffy/getting you wet. This also is why I could, for example, strap you in a chair and show you a TV screen with images of Dick Cheney, then, standing behind you, hit you on the head with a frying pan. Your conscious brain will think I’m a dick. Your primal brain will think Dick is a Dick. If I do this enough times, you will probably break free from the chair and murder me. But, long after I am gone, you will wince whenever you see Dick Cheney on the TV, and your conscious brain won’t understand why, it will assume Dick is a bad, bad man.

Your conscious brain, however, also learns, but at a higher level, it learns at a relational level. In other words — it doesn’t just associate the pain to you putting your hand on a hot stove, it can associate pain to the stove when it sees someone else doing it. This is why social mammals develop intelligence earlier and grow more saavy to things at a quicker rate. As a species, it allows us to pass on associations through the generations, because it can do the same thing from stories. From stories? Of course. You didn’t see it. You didn’t see someone else do it. But, with an ingenious mechanism of imagination, it can create pictures of an expeirence it has never had but only encountered through description, and build the association. This even includes picking up on associations from others — when you’re a kid, you see dad getting mad whenever the mailman comes around. You log this in memory, and extrapolate a bad association. As an adult you see mail carriers and become hostile — you come up with some rationalization, but its really just stored relational experience. Your mind has projected hostility onto the mail carriers. Odds are, your mom was banging the mail guy, and odds are, you will never have the same issue. It doesn’t matter — your conscious mind simply projects likely outcomes based on its relational data. In fact, this is its entire purpose, when any action is considered, the conscious mind runs through all “data” at its disposal — your expierience, the experiences of others, and all those stories you heard, etc and presents you a list of possibilities.

Enter the primal brain again — this is where the train wreck happens. A stimulus happens. Your conscious brain brings up all outcomes. Your primal brain recieves all these imagination snippets and doesn’t know that they are hypotheticals. It cannot tell the difference between imagined and real stimuli. It attaches pain to bad outcomes, and pleasure to good ones. The bitch of it is, the more emotions that are tied to a given memory (real or associated), the higher the weight it will get when your conscious mind runs through likely outcomes. Thus, negative potentials, no matter how irrational or unlikely, will get more attention than any others.

This is why you can’t think your way out of these fears. You can’t do some tapdance about how “we are all one” or “all life is a learning game”, and get around it. Your conscious brain already knows that the plane crashing is unlikely, or that success, even if you fall from grace, won’t kill you. It doesn’t control your fear center — your primal brain does, and its whole job is to keep you away from the “worst outcomes”. Knowing this mechanism, what you have to do is build a new set of associations to the stimulus that is causing your fear. You can visualize over and over, but without any emotional content — it will be so slow going as to be ineffective.

The clown is trying to show you the way — you have to laugh your way out of limiting fears.

This technique works like this — when you have discovered a stimulus that gives you a limiting fear, smile, because you’re close to freeing yourself from it. Expose yourself to that stimulus on purpose. If you have a fear of failure, fail at something small on purpose. If you’re afraid of success because you don’t want to loose it, make some small gain, like going and buying a candy bar and then dropping it on the ground. Or work hard on a project at work, then be a little late to the meeting when you show up to present it. I’m not asking you to confront your fear directly, or screw up your life, just get as close as you can to start to get uncomfortable without it being overwhelming. Now, when your brain starts to send you the slight fear impulse I want you to grab it and give in to it, and have the most overstated, dramatic fear reaction possible. If you’re afriad of being embarassed in front of people, then walk down the street and stumble. When you start to feel the fear, turn to the people around you and scream a little, say “Oh my god, I must look like an idiot to you!”. Now, they will laugh and you will too — and that’s really important.

What happens with the overstated reaction is that it sends your brain into “crisis” mode, just like it did with your hypothetical friend who racked himself on the railing, remember him? Your conscious brain evaluates the situation, realises its no big deal, and sends the primal brain the “all clear” in the form of laughter. This is so powerful it gets logged into your bank of experiences as having a very high weight. Do this enough, and your fear will be eradicated, because you will associate the stimulus with an “all clear” state. This is the way you look at your primal brain and say, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself”, in a language that it UNDERSTANDS.

I do use this technique whenever I find a limiting belief — but I’d like to give you a specific example to demonstrate everything we’ve just talked about. When I was a kid, I was like Cinderella, but with a penis — evil step-father and all. One of the few people who was nice to me was this guy, I’ll call him Slim, he worked in my step-dad’s garage. Slim had a heard of gold, but he was really shy and kinda soft on the inside. The neighborhood was fully of hard, angry people, so he just didn’t fit — didn’t have any real friends. But, he would always come by and talk to me — he got my my first batch of dippin-dots ice cream, I still remember that. Anyway, one day Slim’s mom went to the dentist, and I don’t know the specifics, but she had some kind of reaction to the anesthetic, and had a heart attack and died right there in the chair. Slim responded to that by hanging himself in the basement of his house. My mother made the (unknowingly) mistake of telling me all this at once. So, conscious brain imagines the events, and primal brain associates the pain of his loss with the dentist, and the conscious brain associates sudden death with the dentist.

Thus, did I have a psycho fear of the dentist — especially the gas. Unfortunately, in my early twenties I developed fluorosis, and if you don’t know, its not pretty. When I eventually overcame my fears, the x-rays of my teeth looked like I had a mouthfull of snowflakes from all the cavities. Now, the condition onset rapidly, and if you don’t know, it causes some serious pain — and those who love themself don’t like pain that serves no higher purpose — so I had no choice but to confront the fear. I tried everything for the better part of a year, though, and couldn’t find any way to get myself to walk in and sit down in the chair. I even went so far as to read through dental journals, which point-blank showed evidence that modern techniques have eliminated this risk from dental procedures. It didn’t matter, my conscious brain knew the fear was irrational…

The problem was I wasn’t talking to my primal brain about the whole mess.

It wasn’t until I started to clown the fear — by freaking out each time I heard a drill like sound. Or screaming anytime someone got gassed on TV, that I was able to build new associations and sit down and get what I needed with no worries. Once I started mocking the fear, it was only a little over a month before it was gone.

So Clown it, people. It might seem a little strange — but so was Crazy Horse. Do you want normal people results? Of course not. You want Crazy Horse results. Then go ahead and shower with your clothes on. Have someone drive you to work while you ride in the trunk. And more importantly, laugh your fears away.