I’m not talking about the ‘girl has exited the tv and is puking goo while crab-walking backward down the stairs’ kind of haunted. And I doubt there’s a monster lurking in the darkness with a machete (although tomorrow is Halloween and the universe may still surprise us).
What I find genuinely haunting is the past — and all the painful, upsetting memories that help piece together our understanding of the world. Personal demons, foot-in-mouth moments, ghosts of humiliation; whatever you call them, each of us carries our own baggage lodged deep within our souls. These ghosts alter our perception of the world and often fill us with a super delightful array of emotions: dread. Anxiety. Regret. Shame. And, most often, fear.
Fear has a purpose. It longs to keep us safe, regardless of the cost. It’s main job is to remind us of our vulnerabilities and the need to protect ourselves. What a nifty warning mechanism!
But being safe and feeling safe are two separate things, and sometimes we develop a fear with no discernible difference.
Have you ever been alone at home and unable to sleep, because despite double-checking the locked doors and windows, you were still convinced a stranger could break in? Welcome to my occasional paranoia and our house, just five driveways down from the neighbourhood graveyard!
In moments where we’re actually safe but still feel fear, our fear becomes less helpful and more paralyzing. Irrational, even. (Although we can easily find ways to rationalize why the fear is legit. Like, would Hitchcock really make a movie about birds if he didn’t somewhat believe they were more sentient and potentially murderous than we currently give them credit for?!)
Often, in our quest to feel safe from those less helpful fear responses, we start to avoid anything that may trigger the fear. We miss out on potential opportunities, experiences, and enjoyment to avoid reawakening our ghosts.
I’ve got that t-shirt! My poor daughters… all those years of bouncy castles and carnival rides, and I never went in one. They’d grab me by their eager hands, urging I partake in all the frolic, only to be met with an emphatic, hard pass. See, once upon a time, I was locked in an attic above a garage by some asshole boys. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old? Left alone in that tight, dark space for more than an hour morphed into a classic case of Claustrophobia. Cue the years of avoiding anything I believed I could become trapped in — elevators, roller coasters, caves, and, bouncy castles! To this day, my husband has been dubbed the ‘fun parent’ (since I was too chickenshit to engage in half the things), and I? Well, I’m just the ‘hard worker.’
Skirting past all the uncomfortable feelings that come with being scared can evolve into a fully-bloomed avoidance of living the life you imagine. I think it’s important to know the difference between the healthy fears and those less helpful. It’s good to be frightened of the bear you stumble across on that hike, but you’ll limit your growth if you turn down the chance to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding. The truth is, both situations may be terrifying. But one has the potential to tear you to shreds (unlikely, but possible) while the other is not going to kill you, even though you may feel like you’ll die over the matter!
So how do we go from living in fear to living with or despite the less helpful fear?
Sometimes befriending your ghost is a good option; leaning into the fear and exploring its roots can help you to pursue healing and develop safety. It’s a journey that can be done on your own, with friends, or with a therapist (therapy can be life-changing, I’ve been in and out of it my whole life!). And never forget that you have a choice. Whether you avoid the fear or lean into it, you get to decide how you respond.
Trying to manage your fear doesn’t mean it will completely evaporate — there’s a chance you’ll be somewhat haunted for a long time, and that’s okay. But it may mean that you can co-exist peacefully with your pal Casper instead of constantly waiting for him to pop out and scare you senseless.
We all deserve a life that is the fullest expression of ourselves — unhampered, and free. Not one governed by the things that haunt us. If you find you’re limiting your life to avoid fear, you aren’t alone. Be patient. Be strategic. And most importantly, be kind to yourself. You developed these fears because something scared you enough to feel unsafe; even if it’s worth facing your fears and moving forward, it’s still damn hard. Give yourself space to feel that.
Here’s hoping we’re haunted only by actual ghosts and goblins this Halloween instead of the ones we carry with us! (Just jokes… remember, I live by a graveyard?!)
PS: if you’re a trauma survivor and are able to access resources, please engage with a therapist or professional before you work on any trauma-related fear you have. The Canadian Association for Mental Health has put together an excellent list of resources we’re attaching below. Re-exposure can be triggering and having appropriate support available is important.