Embrace the fear

Fear in social work has always been portrayed
as a negative factor. But emergency team manager Martin Smith says
that practitioners need to feel it and learn from it.

The No Fear campaign featured in Community
in 1999 drew attention to the negative aspects and
manifestations of fear for workers who had experienced it. Articles
stated the case against fear strongly: “All staff have a right to
perform their job free from violence or the fear of
violence.”1 Community Care declared “war on
violence”. This opposition to fear and its consequences can be
found in other works such as Living Without Fear, Driving Fear
Out of the Work-Place
and Beyond Fear.

it seems, is something we want as little to do with as possible.
From the manner in which it is sometimes written about and spoken
of one may be forgiven for thinking that we would all be better off
without it. But is this really the case?

along with anger, happiness and sadness, is one of four basic
emotions found across all cultural groups and, as such, is a
fundamental aspect of being human. Opposing fear is like opposing
one of the other basic emotions. It would be difficult to imagine a
No Anger campaign or a book declaring war on grief. These emotions
are seen as integral to being alive. While anger is “managed”,
grief often responded to with sympathy, and happiness encouraged,
fear is often portrayed as the unwelcome guest who nobody wants to

writer advocating the importance and value of fear was the
psychoanalyst W R Bion who wrote: “Anyone who is going to see a
patient tomorrow should, at some point, experience fear. In every
consulting room there ought to be two rather frightened people, the
patient and the psychoanalyst. If they are not one wonders why they
are bothering to find out what everyone

has relevance for social care work and other therapeutic
relationships. Bion claimed that far from impeding the work, fear
enhances it. One social care worker provides an example of this.
She was seeing a service user who quite suddenly became convinced
that the room they were meeting in had been bugged and that their
conversation would be taped. He was agitated and disturbed and this
made her feel unsettled too. After he had satisfied himself that
the room was not bugged they continued their work. The worker
reflected that this session included some of the most valuable work
they had undertaken together and said that she thought this was
because the fear had sharpened their interests, heightened their
sense of involvement, and engaged them both with a keener, more
alert sense of what they were meeting for.

part of my research into experiences of fear in health and social
3 participants were asked what they
thought to be the opposite of fear. Answers included feeling
satisfied, comfortable, relaxed, in control and at peace. One
participant interpreted the question differently and replied: “When
I’m not afraid I’m likely to pay less attention to important
boundaries.” This different response to the question highlights a
valuing of fear – as a vigilant patroller of appropriate
boundaries. Furthermore, is it really in the interests of social
care workers to feel satisfied, comfortable, relaxed and in control
of their work with service users? Such states do not promote
careful thinking and finely tuned assessment. Also social care
workers need to take care in the work they do and an appropriate
valuing of fear is one way of doing this.

In his
book The Gift of Fear, De Becker highlights the importance
of evaluating experiences of fear.
4 He claims they are there to help
us: “Can you imagine an animal reacting to the gift of fear the way
some people do, with annoyance and disdain instead of attention? No
animal in the wild, suddenly overcome with fear, would spend any of
its mental energy thinking, ‘It’s probably nothing’…The intuitive
signal of the highest order, the one with the greatest urgency is
fear; accordingly, it should always be listened to.”

It is
difficult for workers to hear the wisdom that fear may be speaking
to them if fear is demonised or banished on the grounds that it is
not wanted, far less welcomed.

people really were to experience “no fear” they would soon be
seriously injured or even dead. Too little fear can be just as
dangerous as too much. It seems to me to be a more reasonable,
realistic and ultimately constructive response to danger to accept
and listen to fear and attempt to reduce it to an appropriate level
rather than to do away with it altogether. Instead of driving fear
out of the workplace maybe we should feel the fear and do it

open recognition, acknowledgement, and discussion of the impact of
fear in social care work is to be welcomed but it is in the
interests of workers to appreciate that fear can confer gifts and
benefit as well as pain and disadvantage.

Martin Smith is team manager with
Buckinghamshire social services emergency duty team.


1 R Braithwaite, Managing
, London, Routledge/Community Care,

2 W R Bion, Brazilian
, Karnac, 1990

3 M Smith, Unpublished PhD thesis,

4 G De Becker, The Gift of Fear.
Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence
, Bloomsbury,


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