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Posts Tagged ‘fear’

This summer I went to a workshop about dealing with fear, and I left it feeling disappointed. The teachers didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already known. They kept using examples that either weren’t really about fear or that were about being afraid of public speaking. So it wasn’t a talk geared for me.

Apparently fear of public speaking is the second most common fear in the United States. But to me, it just doesn’t seem like a big deal. I get nervous ahead of time, and I over-prepare, and I don’t always do a good job with it. But it’s so much better than having to sing operatic arias in a foreign language I don’t actually speak that contain high notes I can’t actually hit from memory and then have my performance critiqued in front of a group of fellow singers. That’s what I spent my college years doing. Which was still better than actual auditions.

So one way to manage fear is to do something a lot harder, and then easier things might not seem so bad. Another way is to do whatever you’re afraid to do A LOT. So basically you’re practicing your way out of fear.

But really I was disappointed in the talk because there is no easy answer. Whether you’re afraid of speaking in public or dying, uncertainty or being treated poorly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And I wish there was. Fear is such an uncomfortable emotion. It can both hold us back and make things a lot more miserable even as we trudge forward. It can warp the nature of reality itself, making things that might be true seem like they are actually true. And it can make us physically ill in a variety of ways.

I have spent a lot of time being afraid. And ultimately it’s always the same thing that pushes me through.

Belief.

I remember once as a student, I was walking towards the music building where I had an audition. I think I was sick (I was almost always sick), and I already knew I wasn’t going to get the part. I thought to myself, Why are you even bothering? Why don’t you just go home? Why are you doing this to yourself?

But the answer was clear. I had decided to do this. I believed this was what I should be doing, even though I felt awful and I was really nervous and I knew I wouldn’t get the part. I had a vision of what I wanted my life to be, and this crappy audition experience was a part of that. So I went, and I did the audition, and I didn’t get the part, and I moved on.

Belief is still what gets me through fear. I fix my eyes on my idea of the future, and I clench my jaw, and I do what needs to be done to give myself a chance of getting there. The fear is still there, making things harder, making me pause and ask myself why I am putting myself through such difficulty. But I believe in my vision, and I hold onto that belief as if my life depends on it.

So I guess if I were to give a workshop on overcoming fear, I’d explore how to create a vision strong enough to withstand whatever fear can throw at us. I’d look for some exercises to promote self esteem, because in order to believe in a vision, I think we also have to believe in ourselves. And I’d talk about how to take care of ourselves and handle rejection and disappointment and failure and other obstacles in a resilient way that allows us to keep moving forward.

How do you overcome fear?

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“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating – in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.” – Anne Morriss

My friend posted this quotation on Facebook the other day, and I’ve been thinking ever since about the relationship between commitment, fear, and change.

Commitment is, in a way, about leaning into the fear. Because once we become wholly committed to something, then we have something to lose in a way we didn’t before, and that can be really freaking scary. And commitment is about change, because even if it doesn’t cause any outward differences, it transforms what’s going on inside our minds and hearts. It alters our personal stories.

To commit fully is to feel naked and exposed. It is to drop any facade of insouciance or nonchalance. It is almost a confession, that this, this is something I’ve chosen to pour my heart, my energy, my time, and my passion into.

Commitment doesn’t come with any guarantees of success. If it did, it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting, so raw, so immersive in that which is vulnerable. But it does, as Anne Morriss says, remove our heads as barriers. It allows us to throw ourselves completely into our lives. It allows us to choose the kind of lives about which we can later sit down and write memoirs.

Photo Credit: thomas_sly via Compfight cc

When I think about my life, I realize that I couldn’t have followed through on the really hard things I’ve done without deep commitment. I couldn’t have gotten my college degree or had a senior recital. I couldn’t have moved to London. I couldn’t have started my own business. I couldn’t have become a writer. I couldn’t have engaged on a personal and emotional level with the people who are important to me. And I couldn’t have changed who I am and how I relate to the world.

All of those things involved risk and the chance of failure. All of them allowed the possibility of someone saying no, of things going wrong, of heartache and disappointment and mistakes, of me wimping out. All of them scared me.

When I arrived in London with my two gigantic suitcases, just out of college and with a freshly broken heart, a friend met me at the airport and helped me get to the place I was staying. And then he left, and I sat there, and I thought, “Oh my god, what have I done?” And then I cried. But the next morning I got out of bed and I left my flat and I explored London. Because I was committed to being there and having the richest experience I could, even though I was lonely and scared and didn’t know what I was doing.

There are so many times when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Commitment helps me lean into the fear and discomfort of that feeling, and do it anyway. If we want to put ourselves out there in the world, if we want to try to do amazing things, I think that kind of commitment is necessary. The commitment gives us the permission we need to really go for it.

Commit and be free. I like that. It’s the kind of complex idea that requires a lot of thought to see the layers of truth it contains.

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I’d been wanting to write that post on forgiveness I published last week for a long time. But I kept punting it for other ideas because I was afraid to write about it. I was convinced the ENTIRE WORLD would disagree with me and be horribly upset that I didn’t think of forgiveness as something that can be forced, and somehow this would be an awful thing for me.

The longer I write for this blog, though, the more I realize that really, the world doesn’t care. Most people will never read my essay on forgiveness. And most of the people who did read my essay recognized something in it that resonated with them. So when I think the entire world will disagree, that is some bizarre thought process I am better off ignoring.

My friend Ferrett wrote some excellent blogging advice, where one of his main points was: “No, Seriously. Haters Are Going to Hate.” As a blogger or someone who is interested in maintaining a public example, this will inevitably be an issue at some point. Ferrett says that once you become sufficiently popular, there will always be people who hate you, and he’s completely right. It is amazingly hard to be sufficiently wishy washy to keep everyone happy. I don’t even know if it’s possible, although I suspect it isn’t. There will always be people out there disagreeing loudly, people looking for an argument, or people wanting to tear other people down.

Photo Credit: HeyThereSpaceman. via Compfight cc

For example, it is always amazing to me how angry people have gotten over my essay about intelligent women. They are upset because they don’t think women can possibly be as intelligent as men (seriously, what century are we living in?) or because they don’t think smart women ever encounter anything I mention so therefore I must be old and bitter (because only old and bitter people can engage with ideas about sexism?) or because of course all intelligent people must make loads of money because that’s the way intelligence should be measured in our society (I guess most artists and academics are just pretty stupid since they don’t prioritize making large amounts of money). But what is more interesting to me than the actual arguments is the amount of anger expressed because there are different opinions in the world. Opinions, it seems, can be very scary things.

But as strange as it seems to me that people can get so worked up over my six hundred word essays, this doesn’t change the fact that the world is largely indifferent. And in fact, as a writer, if my words cause anyone to feel angry or scared or hopeful or inspired or any emotion at all, then that means I’ve done my job. In the grand scheme of things, obscurity is more an artist’s enemy than controversy, however safe the obscurity might feel and however challenging the controversy might be. (And of course, how challenging the controversy feels will vary wildly from person to person.)

I think part of becoming an artist is learning to be comfortable with controversy. Not because it is bound to be necessary, but because part of an artist’s job is to express their perception of the truth. And if you are afraid of what the world is going to think about your truth, then maybe you won’t dig as deep as you can and maybe you won’t take the risks you need to take and maybe you’ll choose the easy way instead of the raw way. Creating art is a commitment to your own vision of reality.

So I wrote that essay on forgiveness anyway, even though it scared me. I was scared to write The Academy of Forgetting. I’m about to start a new novel, and even though I’m excited about it, I occasionally feel sudden spasms of anxiety when I think about sitting down and typing “Chapter 1.” I feel a tightness in my stomach and a sudden strong desire to do anything else.

But I’m glad I feel the fear. It’s like a compass, letting me know I’m going the right direction. It means I’m not taking the easy way. It means I’m challenging myself, and my writing is better because of it.

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“I aspire to eccentricity,” I said recently at a party. “By the time I reach my sixties, I want to claim it completely. I want to be a full-blown eccentric.”

It takes a special kind of strength to claim our eccentricity, to go against social norms and expectations, to wave the weird flag. There’s a subculture in the US, consisting of artistic types, unconventional types, adventurous types, and free spirits, who consider the statement “You’re weird” to be one of the highest compliments. It’s a reclamation of words that cut to the bone on the elementary school playground.

What’s interesting about being a free spirit, or a rebel, or any of these other labels, is that there isn’t one way to do it. We talked a couple of years ago about Hollywood’s depictions of free spirits as spacy, often irresponsible, Bohemian, manic pixie dream girls. But allowing ourselves to fit into these pre-constructed molds is an inherent act of conformity. In order to truly be a free spirit, to claim that eccentricity within, we do ourselves a disservice if we follow the map society hands us. “Here’s what you’re supposed to be if you’re a free spirit.” Ha! When the whole point is to decide for yourself.

We are held back by these maps, by these preconceptions. The well-honed ability of human beings to practice self-deception will never cease to amaze me. I am so good at it, I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It is only when these maps, these boundaries, and these assumptions are challenged that we can begin to truly cultivate ourselves, eccentricities and all. Otherwise, not only do we limit the choices in our stories to a much more narrow band than necessary, but we fail to know ourselves.

Photo by H Koppdelaney

If we look at what lurks underneath this disconnect, we’ll often find fear. Fear of being different. Fear of not being loved. Fear of change. Fear of loss of safety. Fear of having to confront hard truths, of being stuck into the red hot forge until we become malleable enough to be re-shaped and see more clearly.

In order to know ourselves, in order to discover what shape our eccentricities will take, we have to walk into the fear. We have to gently nudge ourselves forward, and we have to experience the pain that comes with seeing that reality does not always conform with our expectations, our beliefs, and our desires. Claiming eccentricity fully means spending our lives exploring, both what it means to be us and how that intersects with the rest of the world. It means ignoring that innate desire to mirror what and who is around us. It means thinking instead of automatically agreeing. It means creating a ripple of discomfort around ourselves, and perhaps learning to defuse it somewhat with humor, charisma, and tact (and sometimes choosing purposefully to let the discomfort stand). It means choosing how we express ourselves.

What we find when we strip ourselves down, layer by layer, is true eccentricity. A lot of people call this authenticity. I think maybe it’s the same thing, only authenticity sounds more noble. It’s simultaneously a loss of innocence and a rebirth of innocence. Nothing is the way it seemed–not society, not the people we know, not even ourselves. (Get stuck here and you achieve bitterness, disillusionment, cynicism.)

Beyond it, though, lies the innocence of being connected to ourselves in the moment. The innocence of “I am.” The innocence of the joy that is generated by living in harmony with who we are.

I made a joke at a party. But this is really what I meant. There’s something a little eccentric about that, don’t you think?

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“Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

Dune, by Frank Herbert

I am afraid of so many things.

I am afraid of death, my own and others’. I am afraid of incompletion. I am afraid of bad health. I am afraid one day I’ll try to get out of bed and my knees will hurt so badly I won’t be able to leave the room. I am afraid I’ll crack more teeth and end up subsisting on gruel; forever, because most of my fears don’t allow room for the possibility of change. That’s what makes them extra scary.

I am afraid of being deeply alone. I am afraid I will discover a massive regret too late to do anything about it. I am afraid I’ll go crazy. I am afraid I will lose my sight or my hearing. I am afraid I’ll be attacked by a giant swarm of angry wasps. I am afraid of pain and grief and loss. I am afraid of the necessity of being brave.

I am afraid to fail. I am even more afraid to fail over and over and over.

Last week I had a particular scenario in my head that was causing me large amounts of worry (something that hadn’t even happened yet). This weekend, I read a blog post that talked about another person who was in a similar scenario, and how she was crippled with worry. The way it was written up, my first instinct was to think, oh, that’s silly, she’s not so badly off. It took a couple more beats for me to realize that meant my hypothetical wasn’t so bad either.

Because Frank Herbert got it right. Fear makes us stupid. It clouds our judgment. It squeezes us so we can’t breathe, can’t reason, can’t accept what’s happening. It transports us to fictional futures and makes them real in our minds, even though those futures may never become true in reality. It causes us to give up or settle or take the easy answer, even if it’s not the best answer.

Of course, we put ourselves in danger anyway. We become police officers and firefighters. We join the military. We bare our souls as artists, even while we’re embracing rejection. We fight to save lives. We deal with the up-and-down uncertainties of being entrepreneurs. We give away our hearts. We jump from airplanes, walk home in the dark, and swim deep underwater. We sing challenging arias in Italian in front of other people. Risk-taking is woven into the fabric of living.

Fear is difficult. Sometimes we face it and emerge stronger. Sometimes we become paralyzed and cannot move past it. Sometimes we don’t even realize what it is that we’re really afraid of.

I am afraid of so many things. All I can do is remind myself that in this present moment, I am okay. And if I am ever faced with a killer swarm of furious wasps, I’ll deal with that then.

What are you afraid of?

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What subjects do you avoid? What don’t you like to admit? What topics do you not talk about because they feel somehow inappropriate?

Theodora Goss’s recent blog post Telling the Truthis an excellent and thought-provoking essay well worth a read: “And this got me thinking about all the things we don’t talk about,” she says. “There are so many of them!”I think a lot about all the things we don’t talk about. In fact, that was one of the reasons I wanted to start a blog, because I wanted to have a platform from which to speak about some of these things. But of course, I still carefully write around so many of these things of which we never speak.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine who revealed that he used to have crushes on girls starting in third grade. He had never told anyone else about this because he was embarrassed because he thought it was out of the ordinary. Can you imagine? I had crushes in elementary school, and some people in my classes even had “boyfriends” and “girlfriends” (although of course it meant something slightly different back then). But you know what? I never talked about my crushes. And apparently no one else talked about them to my friend either, so he’s spent all this time secretly thinking that he’s different, that something was wrong with him, because he failed to pick up the social cues that would have informed him that crushes aren’t so unusual after all.

I wonder how many things we are all secretly embarrassed about or ashamed of that are, in reality, very common. Only we never find this out because we’re all busy feeling like outsiders together.

I think many of us are ashamed of failure, like Dora says in her essay. I know I am, and being a perfectionist doesn’t help out with this. And yet, failure is essential for those of us with ambitious dreams. Most people don’t succeed with huge dreams right away. I listened to an interview with Seth Godin the other day in which he bemoaned how afraid so many people are of failure. This fear holds us back. It makes us unwilling to take the risks we need to take to learn, to grow, and to achieve something truly great. And yet, even though I understand the need for failure intellectually, it doesn’t take away the fear.

But on the other hand, the more I fail, the more I know that I am living an interesting and daring life. Failure is taking your life and seeing what you can wring from it instead of coasting along and choosing the safest route. Failure is pursuing lofty goals and pushing back against the fear. Failure is exposing yourself to the world and teaching yourself to believe in the you of possibilities instead of the you of limitations. Failure is the strength to believe in yourself so much that you can rise above your worries (or the reality) of what other people think about you.

Failure is saying, “This is my life, and I’m going to make every inch of it mine.”
Maybe if we can reclaim failure, it won’t be so scary after all. Or at least maybe it can become a badge of courage instead of one of shame.

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