Working on Heavy Fears

Forceful and directive sessions on heavy fear, especially with young people, have sometimes been called “non-permissive” sessions. The term “non-permissive” can suggest that someone is deciding and enforcing what should happen in someone else’s life. I would like to clarify what we are talking about.


As clients we want to become experts at facing our fears and discharging them. We generally work well on light fears that discharge with laughter. And the laughter, and resulting connection with others, can make heavier fears easier to face and more available for discharge.

However, when we feel heavy fear, we often run the other way or attack. Both responses might have made sense in the past, but they don’t work well in a session. They also don’t help us see that our fears are old and that we can handle the present situation.

Almost all of us had frightening experiences in the past—abuse, neglect, scarcity, violence, the threat of violence, sexual exploitation, ridicule, isolation, humiliation, intimidation, pain, injury. No one was present who could listen to us thoughtfully, hold us, help us understand what was happening, and let us discharge. So the fears became recorded and continue to affect our lives. When they’re restimulated, it can feel like the original hurt is happening again and we don’t want to face it. We get lost in the fear and become immobilized. We often act as we did in the original incident.


A number of RCers are getting better at inviting young people (and increasingly adults) to challenge deep fears, to choose to discharge them rather than run from them. It’s possible to not give up and instead fight for ourselves. It’s possible to stay and notice connection even when we feel like we are losing. (Fighting for ourselves is not about winning or losing; it’s about freeing our minds from distress. No one can ever make us give up our minds.)

Working on old fears and defeats is not a passive process. To discharge them, it helps to fight openly and fully use our counselor’s attention and often their physical resistance. This contradicts the passivity that was forced on us.

Our perspective changes most rapidly when we decide for ourselves to not wait and instead go after [pursue] the hurts. Young people often do this when they sense someone has attention and will stay with them.

As clients we need to build confidence that we can make it through [survive] a session on heavy fear. It helps to have several sessions in which we are not in complete control and then find out that we came out of it alive and in better shape [condition].

There are young people who can notice when fear is driving them to be irrational and can say, for example, “I think you need to hold me now and let me fight, even though I don’t like it.”


When fears feel real in the present, it can be difficult for people to initiate their own liberation from them. They often wait for someone to take initiative in their direction. They can’t always give someone verbal permission to come close. They may even run out the door, decide that they can’t do something they were planning to do, say that something is boring and refuse to try it, destroy something, attack someone, hate someone, or try to hurt themselves.

When people are acting out fear in the above ways, they generally need us to move in [interact more closely with them], so that they can feel and use our attention. We can do this in several ways. We can set policy (suggest a rational course of action for them to try instead of continuing the irrational actions they are stuck in). We can gently hold them, and slow them down, so that they can feel and discharge the fear. By being relaxed and confident in our manner, and explaining what we are thinking and why we want them to take on [undertake] what seems like a struggle doomed to fail, we can communicate that this time they are not alone. Sometimes letting them hate us outright can help them discharge feelings of powerlessness. (However, most of us still need their reassurance that we are okay, which can get in the way of this working.)


A group of RC parents have become experts at assisting their children to discharge deep early fears. Many of the children have behavior that singles them out for labeling, drugs, or being picked on [harassed]. They may have major medical struggles. Their lives and options are severely limited unless their parents give them a hand [help them] with their fear.

Often the parents can’t wait for their children to take the initiative or to figure out how to balance their attention so that they can discharge in a manner that is reassuring to the parents. Some of the parents have only reluctantly become more forceful and directive as counselor, and only after they haven’t found an alternative to using RC in this way. They have had many sessions on their fears about being too heavy handed, being wrong, being oppressive, and there is evidence that they have helped their children be more connected and have bigger lives.


As counselor, parent, friend, we often have a choice between moving in and offering a session on fear or shifting someone’s attention to present time so that they can function around the fear. Occasionally we are forced by circumstances to move in even when we would prefer not to.

When big fears surface in someone, other people usually don’t move in thoughtfully. They aren’t thinking like a counselor who wants to help someone access heavy discharge. Instead they bribe, blame, intimidate, isolate, and punish. I prefer moving in as a counselor. It doesn’t have to be oppressive. It can be a gift.

Many of us have not yet worked successfully on our own heavy fear, including letting ourselves get to the edge of where we don’t feel in control. This means that we can’t be fully present when moving in on someone who is acting out heavy fear. We may become confused and get harsh or go away emotionally in the middle of the session, which is confusing to both people. Unless someone can lend perspective on the session, during or after it, the “client” can remain confused about what is a present hurt and what is a past hurt coming up to be discharged.

Most of us should not try to counsel a young person who is in the midst of big feelings unless we are their parent or it is clearly urgent and no one else is available. We need to do considerable work on our own early fears and defeats, and have a lot of RC experience, to be able to stay close and connected enough.

Parents are often required to give big sessions even if they are not fully prepared. They simply have to bring to the sessions as much of themselves as they can. If they give up on trying to help, their child may no longer consider them a resource for working on heavy fears and look elsewhere, which may involve behavior that society will misinterpret and punish.

Our relationships need to be based on caring. If our client can feel that we are on their side, it is much easier for them to work on deep fears. Because of how much parents care, they can often be good counselors for their children on the hardest issues.


Sometimes strange motivations creep into our counseling of others: we want to save them, our ego or insecurity makes us forget the person we are thinking about and pushes us to use techniques, we want them to discharge so that we can feel like we’re making a difference. When adult clients notice these motivations, they may tell us to back off [withdraw] or may even refuse to do more sessions with us.

When this happens with young people—when we focus on ourselves rather than on them—it confuses them about what’s happening and about the relationship. It can make it difficult for them to want to use counseling.

Adult counselors can ask themselves the following questions before initiating a heavy session with a young person: What are my motivations in offering this session? Do I have enough of a relationship with the young person that I can stay connected to them? Is the situation urgent? How can I best communicate, so that the young person and I are doing this together (using both of our intelligences against the distress) rather than my making them work on something I have decided they should work on? Have I communicated how much I care about them, so that they might see I know the difference between them and the pattern? These are also good questions to ask when counseling adults on heavy distress, but they are especially important when counseling young people, because our oppressor distresses push us to think that we know best what a young person needs.


We adults who have been working consistently on our own heavy fears and have been giving such sessions to young people are becoming less confused and confusing. But we still need to explain our thinking to people who observe these sessions, because the sessions seem so odd in a society in which people’s fears are intentionally restimulated and people escape from their feelings with drugs, numbness, other comfort-seeking, and avoidance—all sold as commodities. It is odd being part of a society that punishes, drugs, blames, and isolates people who try to work on heavy fears but recoils when someone interrupts the acting out and stays with the person while they fight the fears and discharge them.

Some RC young people have had enough sessions and information that they look at fears very differently from how most of us have settled for looking at them. They can put their minds fully in the direction of battling fear as an imposter and treat the feelings as merely feelings. They may still not like sessions in which they have to struggle in what feels like a life or death situation. However, they have successfully felt the scariest feelings, survived them, and noticed the difference in what they can do. They’ve done this enough that they are willing to put their mind fully into battling fear. They tend not to settle for things not being right. Some of them, to our great relief, occasionally come to us and tell us that we need to be less permissive with them. I think we all want to develop this attitude about our biggest struggles.

Chuck Esser

International Commonality Reference Person for Family Work

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

(Present Time 191, April 2018)

Last modified: 2021-12-08 03:41:45+00