Last week I was talking with a client about her sometimes poor self care, specifically an apparent lack of fear regarding negative consequences around food and health areas. Surprisingly, she reported feeling no fear of harmful consequences when she’s about to eat unhealthy food when she’s not even hungry, is “too lazy” to floss her teeth, or fails to sunscreen up though she’s had skin cancer. What she does feel is “self-loathing” because she’s not doing what she should. I got to wondering how many of you have a compromised fear response: not feeling or using fear to assess consequences before making choices, and, instead, berating yourself for not caring for yourself.

Used appropriately, fear is a healthy, adaptive, survival-necessary response to potential or imagined emotional or physical threat to self. An automatic reaction, it occurs when we believe something bad might happen to us. However, if you spent childhood chronically fearing emotional, sexual or physical abuse, you may have unconsciously adapted by shutting off the feeling rather than be overwhelmed by it. Because no one, especially children, can experience ongoing, intense fear and function normally, your body/mind survived by turning fear off—and you got used to functioning without it. You also turned anger at your abusive or ineffective caretakers inward because being angry at yourself for your helplessness was more tolerable than experiencing fruitless rage at people on whom you depended.

Fast forward to today when you continue to replace fearing negative consequences with self-loathing at failing to take care of yourself. Lacking a working fear response, you’re missing one of the essential tools of negotiating through life effectively. You need to experience fear of harmful consequences to make healthy decisions. Lack of fear may also lead to inappropriately seeking thrills and circumstances in which you should feel afraid but don’t, and in which you therefore generally end up getting hurt.

To cultivate an appropriate fear response, you need to recognize that you can handle fear now and that it won’t overwhelm you, that it’s healthy and crucial when you’re making choices that involve potential self-harm, and that self-loathing only perpetuates a cycle of self-destructive behavior. It’s more than okay now to be afraid; it’s part of healthy self-care! Work on experiencing fear by reassuring yourself that you can tolerate it and imagining and acknowledging the destructive consequences of your behavior before making choices. Practice seeking a healthy sense of fear and let it be your guide to keeping you safe around food and in every area of life.