I stood on a beach. Dogs galumphed and trotted, wagging tails and lolling tongues. Blissfully enjoying the freedom of an off-leash frolic with their human companions. Not so long ago, this scene would have had me in a state of fear. Near panic and disbelief would have overcome me, and I would not have stepped foot on that beach.
I existed in a fearful Stage of Being for nearly 30 years. The source of this fear was a dog named Vada. My earliest memory haunting me, this black dog looming over me. But I married a dog person. Who decided the time had come, and Mr Pooey Doddy Jet Houdini Englebert Sprocket Donkey came to live with us. This rescue bitzer was a good dog. My rational brain knew this. but there was no telling my fearful being. I was angry, so very angry.
In this stage, you will experience a heart rate rising and physical reactions. You will be wary, anxious and angry. Your flight/fight/freeze response will be activated because your fear tells you that you are facing a threat. At its extreme, your fear will be experienced as hate.
Hate strips us of our humanity and eliminates the ability to show empathy.
Feelings of contempt and disgust have us instinctively recoiling and avoiding the source of our fear.
I enlisted the help of a very dear friend – my dog doula. She owned a terrifying (to me) Doberman-rottweiler cross, who was a pet as therapy dog. My Advance Care Directive stated that if I were in a place where Pets as Therapy was visiting, it would be best to stay away from me. Rationally I knew this was sad; I was missing something everyone else seemed to find wonderful. But it was too much. But I was cohabiting with a dog. I needed to know how to be an Alpha. And it was my dog-doula that showed me how. I learned how to feed Sprocket and instruct him. I learned why he behaved as he did and why it was important to be the alpha. A shift occurred. I did not enjoy living with a dog. But I could Tolerate it. I could manage it. AND I was not fearful of our dog or other dogs. At this point, the dog was still ‘pixilated’ in my mind. I could not look directly at the dog; wherever the dog was, my vision was blurred. My heart was still closed to him, even though I tolerated him. There were no-dog zones in my yard, which he obeyed.
To be tolerant is to choose a non-aggressive, though still avoidant, approach to the source of our fear. In this stage, we no longer fear (that is, we no longer have a physical reaction) but still do not compromise. In this stage, we will not seek to be with the source, our anger is abated, but we will not go out of our way to help or accommodate the source. Empathy appears in this stage as a niggle rather than an overwhelming feeling. An awareness of the source is awakened, which is no longer objectified.
Time passed. A LOT of time. I lived in the tolerance zone for many years. An ‘understanding’ existed between me and the dog. The other family members ‘protected’ me from having to interact. I knew how. But chose not to interact.
Then another shift occurred. My heart opened a little. I observed the love for ‘fur babies’ others experienced and could see the dogs relied on and welcomed human interaction. This shift took me into Acceptance. My heart was opening, and the pixilation was gone. I could see the dog. After ten years of cohabitation, Mr Pooey Doddy Jett Houdini Englebert Sprocket Donkey was not merely tolerated but a part of my life.
In this stage of being, we can let go of our feelings of superiority and start feeling real empathy. We are beginning to understand and are now open to learning more. We may be willing to support or compromise and no longer avoid the source.
Around this time, another dog-loving friend invited me to support her at her birth. This great honour is not something one accepts lightly anytime, but for this particular invite, my primary role was to support her fur babies. BIG ASK. I agreed to meet her fur babies to see how it might go, and something extraordinary began. With my open heart of acceptance, I greeted these delightful creatures. I petted the black dog. So like the one from my childhood. And felt only calm. Peace. No threat. and I shifted again. This time it was a huge leap. This was the Stage of Understanding.
This joyous stage sees mutual recognition. Differences are agreed upon, and no judgement passes. We can see the other point of view and live side by side in harmony. Sharing our differences to enrich society, a sense of peace and wellness settles over us. No longer living in an anxious state, on alert or ready to defend. We can see we have more to learn and seek to fill our knowledge gaps.
My journey was not quite over, but standing on that beach among the frolicking dogs, I could see I was close. On returning home from that day at the beach, I sat next to Mr Pooey Doddy Jett Houdini Englebert Sprocket Donkey and stroked his head. He looked at me as if to say, “It’s about time”. Over the next two years, Sprocket entered my heart. As he started to grey around his muzzle and slow down, I realised I saw him as family. He had been so patient with me, and so I was glad to give him my time in his final days. As he slipped away, we quietly watched and gave him comfort. I could see and respond to his needs, so when he asked me to take him outside to lie on the grass, I did. It had been raining for days, and he had always been an outside dog. I carried his tired old body and gently lowered him onto the grass. He sank into it, relieved and blissed. After a few minutes, he asked me to take him back inside; it was an urgent request. We had just reached the shelter of the veranda when the skies opened up, and rain hammered down. He sighed…but was glad for those minutes of bliss. A few hours later, a final breath escaped him in a song of farewell. That tears fall, even a year later, in his memory, show the gift that comes. To grieve is to have loved, and this is a gift. This final stage is Celebration.
Focusing on similarities, celebrating differences, sharing experiences and seeking connection. This is where Love lives.
This Journey of nearly 40 years has shown me that overcoming fear is far more intricate than ‘get over it’ or self-talk to motivate you past it. You can’t go from fear directly to celebration. To shift through the stages takes time, support and empathy.
My dog-loving friends NEVER belittled my fear. They NEVER shamed me or laughed at me. What they did do was love me. And SHOW me. My knowledge gaps were filled, and this aided my heart to open. They held me. And never pushed. Now that I understand, I can look back and see how restrictive my response to this fear was. It robbed me of an opportunity to experience life fully.
To shift away from fear, one must first acknowledge the fear and commit to moving away from it. This means being able to identify the fear and who can support you. This is a person with knowledge who can empathetically support your journey. From tolerance, growth can happen. Dwelling in fear is not healthy and can be destructive. Justifying fear prevents others from moving away from fear. Social Media can cause fears to fester; if you find yourself in an echo chamber of justification and validation of fear-based attitudes (such as racism, sexism or other extremist behaviours), it can be very hard to see beyond fear.
Understanding the Five Stages of Being helps you to make an active decision:
Which Stage of Being are you in now?
Which stage would you like to be in?
How can you get there?
At first, I was afraid; I was petrified. The dogs, of any size or breed, had me terrified. But I learned how to move away and, supported by my friends; I grew strong. And now I can get along. No dogs scare me. No dog scares me! I learned how to understand and no longer live with fear; I feel strong, and it has no hold on me.
But it took time.
So much time.
And I could not have gotten here without friends by my side. They showed me how. They did not jest. They were never cruel or put me to the test. They showed me love, and I learned how to move away. Away from fear, I found I could tolerate and then accept, and now I understand. There is still room. Room to grow, I can see the possibility. So THANK YOU! To my friends. Thank you to my friends for helping me.