How to Tell Your Fear to Shut the F*CK Up -- Without Running Away
Yesterday, I freaked out for an entire hour because I realized that my upcoming vacation was two days longer than I originally thought. (I'm the worst.) I panicked about the dog babysitter, and traveling to the airport, and where to park the car. I thought, smugly, well if I had handled the flights, we wouldn't HAVE THIS PROBLEM. I got really pissed off and worried and frustrated all at once, and vented to a dear friend immediately about how stupid and annoying the whole situation was. (Again. I'm the worst.)
Her compassionate response: "It's so hard to relinquish control."
Ding! Ding! Ding! I thought.
I struggle with this nonstop, and lately, while considering new year's resolutions, and how I envisioned my 2015 playing out, I kept circling back to one thing: fear. Namely, I wanted to be afraid.
Wait. Why would anyone want to be afraid? Isn't that the exact opposite of what we strive for? Don't we want to be fearless and strong and powerful and all-knowing and take chances and run risks? Being fearful is for the weak and the petty and the small. Right?
Here's the secret: we are all frightened, most of the time. But we pretend like we aren't, because we like to be in control ALWAYS.
I asked my yoga students recently, "How does it feel to be in control?"
The answers came slowly. "Safe," someone offered, after a moment. "Strong," another piped up. "And capable."
I asked another question. "How does it feel to be out of control?"
The answers arrived much faster, piling on top of one another. Scary. Vulnerable. Overwhelming. Small. Alone.
This desire for control, in my opinion, is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. We do not like to be scared. We do not like to be vulnerable. We do not like to feel small. We do not want to be alone. We want to be completely protected, 100% proficient, and invincible. Because then nothing bad will ever happen to us. We will not lose people we love, or our jobs, or our health. We will not feel ambushed by the universe. We think that if we manage it, if we expect it, then we are prepared and know what will happen next.
This is clearly untrue. Terrible things happen every day, in our lives and out in our communities and on the news. We feel loneliness even in a crowded room. We don't get things or people we want. We are scared all.the.time.
And to combat this deep-seated fear, we hand the reins over to Ego. My Ego is sort of like a very bitchy Lucille Bluth, ten martinis in.
On a daily basis, here's what Ego tells me.
If you made more money, you wouldn't have to worry so much. You should get another part-time job. You should've never gone to graduate school; you'll never pay these loans off. You will never be able to be a writer because you will never have the time to write because you will always have to work. You should look in that cookbook and make dinner tonight. Or just make tacos; you're not very good at cooking. He probably got your email and just doesn't care. He's not going to respond. Aren't you going to respond to her about that meeting? You are so lazy. Remember your deadline tomorrow. You don't deserve a good night's sleep. That situation wasn't your fault. She wronged YOU. She's so sensitive. Just text your mother; calling is a waste of time. She probably calls your sister every day though because she likes her more. You should work out today. You should run 5 miles if you want to wear that dress this weekend. What are you missing on Instagram? Your desk is pretty ugly compared to that photo. No wonder she's a professional writer and you're not. You better smile at that person if you want a favor later. Are you ever going to learn more Photoshop, or just settle for being mediocre? You deserve a drink, or three drinks. Just stay home and watch Netflix. You don't fit in with that crowd.
Me to my brain: OH MY GOD SHUT UP I AM SO TIRED. (Maybe your brain is quieter and nicer. Mine is not.)
My brain, Ego, never stops. It never stops talking. Ever. And all it wants is to distract me. Forever. Ego is the biggest control freak, on an endless story loop, always seeking an audience. I am held captive by her stories multiple times a day.
Here's what I've learned from that:
If I am distracted, I am not feeling. Anything. I am numb.
If I am thinking about other people, what they want and how they feel and if they'll respond to me, I'm not thinking about myself, what I want, how I feel, what I want to put out into the world.
If I am thinking about to-do lists and tasks, then I feel important, needed, useful, busy, special.
If I am constantly thinking about "should," then I can't feel the vibrations at the base of my heart that thump, "must."
If I let Ego run the show, then I am untouchable. This is when I am also usually critical, mean, self-serving, dishonest. I devote all my energy to what should have happened, what I think really happened, what will happen next, why it happened to me, how I can get out of it, what I don't deserve.
And when that's happening, sometimes (by the grace of God), my older, wiser self walks up behind Ego, taps her on the shoulder, and is like, "Hey. You. Shut the fuck up for a second."
Then my heart sighs with relief. I can breathe again.
Which is usually when Ego starts right back up again.
However, discovering that internal pause button is the single most effective tool in my emotional arsenal. Knowing that I can press pause, anytime, even if Ego is talking extremely loud and waving her hands all over the place, gives me great comfort. It's like I can, just for a moment, step outside of myself with empathy, and say, "Hold up. Is this true? Is this helpful? What exactly is this all about?"
Because it's usually not about the other person or the dress or the workout or the money or the job. It's about fear. It's about feeling out of control.
That's why I want to be afraid this year. I want to BE afraid. Every time I feel afraid, I want to notice it, and hit pause. I want to linger in the fear, the troubles, the anxiety. Instead of running away, of shutting down, of choosing paralysis, of handing things back over to my rambling brain, I want to stay put. I want to feel the discomfort, and wait it out. I want to give myself permission to be afraid of Big Things -- success, commitment, love, security -- and then pursue them anyway, with fear right by my side.
The bravest people I know are the ones who say, "Oof, this is terrifying. Ow. This is really hard." Yet they keep going.
Acknowledging your fear is the most powerful thing you can do. When fears show up, it doesn't work to say, Go away! I don't want you! The fears, and your Ego, only get bigger and louder. I know. I've learned this, especially last year. When you try to escape your fears, or silence them, all they do is wait for you around the corner. And then you spend the rest of your life peering around those corners, wondering when it will be safe to cross the street.
Here's the thing: it is never quite safe. There is no perfect moment. Fear will never go away completely. In small doses, fear is quite useful -- it does protect us and keep us safe and connect us to our intuition. Especially that last part: for me, a lot of the time, fear indicates some sort of a desire.**
I'm afraid of commitment because I'm afraid of real, lasting love -- what it will require of me, how much of a long-term relationship I can't predict.
I'm afraid of writing because I'm afraid of getting too personal -- if it will hurt feelings or cross a line somewhere or sound too glib.
I'm afraid of staying in one place because I'm afraid of getting too comfortable as well as feeling too invested.
I'm afraid of making money because I'm afraid of taking it for granted and then losing it all one day.
My fears tell me that I am not, nor will ever be, enough. My fears tell me that I don't deserve what I want . . . But they also point to what I want.
That's why the pause button is so crucial; it gives you control in a productive way. You need a moment to discover what the fear is really about. For me, I want commitment and love and a writing career and roots. It's okay that I am afraid, so long as I keep moving. So long as I understand that what I'm really afraid of is love, and acceptance, and true community, and success. Those are Big Things. I can't control a lot about those Big Things. I can be scared of Big Things, but I know I can also do and face Big Things.
And so can you.
Your list of desires and fears, your Big Things, may be very different than mine, but chances are you know what they are. Maybe you are running away from them. Maybe you are letting Ego control the music at the party. So acknowledge your fears. Say hello. Ask Ego to turn down the volume. Let your mind spin out and then, like a good friend would, ask yourself to pause, to dance with the fear, and figure out what comes next.
Because for all of us, the choice to BE afraid, to actually feel our fears and desires, to pause and breathe and ask questions, is the bravest thing we can do.
**Obviously, I am not talking about the kind of fear related to situations involving death, or abuse, or neglect, etc. I am mostly talking about fear in context to creativity and connection.