Fear at the Grand Canyon

Chapter 5b of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult

Image by Joe Shlabotnik

It was an ordinary day inside my head. I was relaxed, happy, and had not a care in the world. All the people in my brain were getting along. I couldn’t ask for any better than that.

Outside my head, it was a beautiful February day in Arizona. I was on vacation with my wife, and twin boys, age twelve or so. We had driven up to the Grand Canyon to show it to the boys. I had been there once before and thought it was one of the best places in the world.

When I had been to the Grand Canyon the first time, I did what everyone does. I gasped at the beauty and enormity of the place. Then I stood as close as I dared and leaned over the edge. There is a sheer drop, a mile deep and no fences. As close was a good three feet away. I’m not a daredevil and there was no risk of falling from where I stood, but it was near enough to that chasm to get a thrill. Being on the brink of annihilation is one of the reasons to go to the Grand Canyon, a feeling you will never get from pictures.

On my second visit, I parked the car and began to walk towards the canyon with my family. As it came into sight and the boys ran ahead, a telegram arrived in the boardroom of my brain. A part of me that always sits by the door intercepted it. The name of that part was Fear. It sounded an alarm and ruined everything. I wasn’t afraid of falling into the canyon myself, I was afraid of my sons falling in. I was concerned they would do as I had done, stand as close to the edge as they dared and plummet to their deaths in front of me.

I intercepted them before they could reach it and gave them the rules. No running, no standing closer than ten feet away. They rolled their eyes and agreed, but I knew I was powerless if they disregarded the rules. When they got to the canyon, I was helpless over the panic attack that ensued. My heart began beating wildly and my stomach got sick. I couldn’t get enough air and my hands sweated as if it were not February in Arizona, but July. Here I was, Joe Therapist, who has helped hundreds of people with anxiety, and I was having a full-fledged panic attack. Instead of watching them enjoy the view, I told my wife to go on with without me while I returned to the car. I would wait there while I breathed deeply, struggled with my feelings, reproached myself for my fears, and cried.

The atmosphere inside my brain had certainly changed. Fear had climbed up on the table and was making speeches and shouting orders to any other part that would listen. Many other parts of me were trying to get Fear to calm down, but it’s devoted to keeping me safe. It did me no good to calculate the unlikelihood it would happen. If it could have happened at all, that was enough for Fear to do everything it could. When I tried to calm down, this Fear accused me of not caring for my sons. If I loved my children, it said, I was morally obligated to panic.

Soon, a fight erupted inside my head. Other fears mounted an opposition: the fear of being humiliated, being seen crying in my car, and the fear of missing out on a place I loved and ruining it for myself because of unreasonable anxiety. Strongest was the fear I would ruin everything for my sons. That they’d see me so overcome by anxiety, they’d lose respect for me. That’s when Shame took over. In the end, Shame was the most persuasive and it talked me into staying away from them. One Fear counseled the other, saying that, at least if they did fall to their deaths, I would not be there to see it.

Attempting to calm some fears by evoking others and bringing in Shame is not a strategy that would lower my heart rate. It’s an example of persuasion by force. I went to the canyon alone, preoccupied myself with my camera, and averted my eyes from my family. At one point, I sensed them coming towards me, but I veered off in another direction. In the end, I was able to get through the visit, acquired some excellent photos, and the boys were none the wiser. It wasn’t until later that I was able to tell anyone but my wife about the experience. Now I can say, I’m glad I had it, so that I can better understand clients who have experienced something similar.

Who Was There?

Many inner voices I’ve already described played a part that day. Dominant was the Fear of my boys falling in the canyon, which took action right away by sounding the alarm. As explained in Chapter Five, Fear, like all feelings, is a program set up to preserve what’s most vital. Long ago, I decided the lives of my children were worth protecting at all costs, so I set up a program known as Fear that, before I even have a chance to think, would immediately set me into action when they are threatened.

There was no opportunity to redefine the raw terror I initially felt into something similar, but less horrifying. That’s what I was able to successfully do the first time I visited the Grand Canyon. I felt the fear of death then, too; but was able to modify it into thrill. I couldn’t do it in this case because I knew I had little control over how close to the edge my boys would stand.

The bot versions of my boys played a part that day. Remember, from Chapter Four, these are the mental models I created of all the people in my life that help me predict their behavior. In this instance, they were twelve-year-old boys, given to carelessness, if not recklessness. One of them had ADHD and the other often followed his lead. When I put these models into a simulation, I could easily see them gaping at the Grand Canyon while not paying attention to their footing.

Upon seeing my behavior at the Grand Canyon, Shame took over and was decisive. I was ashamed to be acting this way: crying in the car and behaving like an overprotective father. Shame is a subspecies of Fear, a refined version that took on its own name to distinguish the fear of losing my reputation. I value my reputation almost as much as I value my life, so I set up a program to protect it and gave it a mandate to rule my life. In the end, my fear of losing standing with my children and strangers who might see me crying in the parking lot won out over my fear of them plummeting to their deaths. There’s no good reason why it should do so, except by the supreme authority that Shame possesses.


In the end, I forced myself to stop crying, get out of the car, and act like a normal tourist. Shaming myself, or anyone else, to stop blubbering and suck it up can work, but is not the best way to deal with a panic attack. Remember, there are two ways to exert influence: force and magic. What would have been magic?

When I later thought about the incident, it occurred to me that this particular panic was about the life stage I was in. My sons would soon be teenagers, with all the independence, risk, and strife that entails. Adolescence did not go so well between their older sisters and me, and I knew I’d once again be called upon to do what is hardest for a loving parent: to let go. If I had thought of that at the Grand Canyon, I’m sure I would have been able to take a few deep breaths and say that’s what this is all about. I would have been wary, but not terrified, for I would have been satisfied the real risk was not that that they would step over the edge of the chasm, but what it symbolized. They would soon be stepping into adolescence and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

If I had been a therapist to myself at that moment, I would have been able to see that right away, for I would have had a broader perspective. My initial fear, that I would lose my sons, would have been affirmed, but not so focused on the hazard at hand. There is a much higher risk of losing one’s children in adolescence than there is that they will walk over a cliff. One way to prevent losing one’s children in adolescence is to be the kind of parent they can look up to, not the kind who gets all controlling. It just so happens that my fear of them falling off a cliff and my fear of losing their respect could have been in accord if I had thought of it that way. I had no need to shame myself to stop blubbering.

I wish I could have been a therapist to myself that day. I am generally able to do it for others. A home-grown therapist might be the Inner Adult I’ve been looking for. We’ll have to see about that, but first let’s take a closer look at what this therapist must contend with, the first domesticator of feelings, Shame.

Next: Shame

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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