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What We Fear The Most

by Dorothy Rowe - Deceased(more info)

listed in depression, originally published in issue 86 - March 2003

We all want to be healthy because we fear being ill and dying. Most of us do what we can to keep ourselves healthy. However, quite often our desire to be healthy goes beyond simply keeping sickness and death at bay. We can feel that by becoming very knowledgeable about health matters and by being very diligent in promoting and maintaining our health we can somehow get control of our life by being able to predict the future and thus prevent the noxious and the unpredictable from harming us. When we do this, we are using our interest in our health to defend us against our greatest fear, not our fear of death but our fear of being annihilated as a person.

We can deal with our fear of death by assuring ourselves that when we die some important part of us will continue on, be it our soul or spirit, or our children, our work, or in the way people remember us. However, being annihilated as a person means that we vanish like a puff of smoke in the wind, never to have existed. We feel the fear of annihilation whenever we are faced with the loss of those aspects of our life which maintain our sense of being a person. Often we do not know that something is an integral part of our sense of being a person until we lose it, or nearly lose it.

An example of this is given by Sue Townsend in her wickedly funny political satire Number 10. Here Sue describes how Edward Clare, the Prime Minister, had been taught by his mother never to touch his penis when urinating lest he be damaged by noxious substances, so as a child he developed a way of protecting himself. As an adult he created 'New Labour', an idea with which he identified.

Consequently, when his advisers told him that the name of his party 'New Labour' was no longer a vote winner and would have to change, Edward, "felt himself to begin to disintegrate and dislocate. He excused himself and went into his private bathroom, where he locked the door then sat on the side of the bath before taking two sheets of Bronco toilet paper from a packet he kept in a cupboard under the washbasin and wrapping them expertly around his penis. After a few moments of stillness he flushed the paper away, washed his hands and smiled into the convex shaving mirror, which hugely magnified his face and reassured him that he was still there."

Not many people would choose such a peculiar defence. However, had Edward Clare understood what the feeling of impending annihilation as a person really is he would not have had to protect himself against it with such extreme measures. We feel this fear whenever we discover that the person we are, the world we live in, and our future are not what we thought they were. We make such a discovery when the people we trust betray, humiliate or leave us, or when some disaster robs us of something of supreme importance to us. We all have such an experience at least once in our life, and then we find ourselves disintegrating, shattering, even, like Edward Clare, disappearing.

We find this utterly terrifying – unless we understand what is actually happening.

To do this we need to understand how our brain operates. As we look around, the world seems to be solid and real, but what we are experiencing is a picture in our heads which our brain has created. Our brain plays a clever trick on us, persuading us that the picture is not in our heads but all around us. This picture is not an exact replica of our surroundings but is made up of guesses about what might be going on. These guesses are constructed from our past experience. In effect, we see what we have learned to see. As no two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two people ever see anything in exactly the same way.

These guesses are interpretations or meanings, and they coalesce into a structure of meaning, which is what we call 'I', 'me', 'myself'.

Thus, your sense of being a person is a set of ideas about who you are, what the world is like, and what your future will be. When your life is going well and you feel confident in yourself, your set of ideas is proving to be a fairly good picture of you, the world and your future. However, when you discover that you have made a major error of judgement you find that your set of ideas does not fit what is going on. You may lose confidence in yourself and feel that you are disintegrating, but this will not happen if you know that some of your ideas have to fall apart so that you can construct new ideas which give a better picture of what is going on. It's not you that's disappearing but your ideas.

If we understand this, when we discover a major discrepancy between what we thought our life is and what it actually is, we know that we have to go through a period of almost complete uncertainty while old ideas are discarded and new ones created. To do this we have to learn to tolerate uncertainty by accepting the fact that everything that exists is constantly changing. If we try to keep our ideas intact and try to force the world to be what we want it to be we suffer and we make other people suffer.

We can try to create something that is secure and permanent to keep ourselves safe, but, if we have not accepted that everything changes, that nothing stays the same, when our ideas fail we become terrified. Only by finding security in insecurity can we become hopeful, free, and happy.


Townsend Sue. Number 10. Penguin. 2002.
Rowe Dorothy. Beyond Fear. HarperCollins. 2002.


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About Dorothy Rowe - Deceased

Dorothy Rowe was a clinical psychologist, well known for her work on depression. She was the author of 12 books, each concerned with how we create meaning, and was a frequent contributor to newspapers, magazines, television and radio. She died in 25 March 2019. Her website is


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