My kids and I just recently returned from a week long road trip to Texas to my family ranch. Being that it is wicked hot this time of year in Texas, we made sure to hit up the best swimming hole of my childhood. It’s one of those great swimming holes that is fed by underground springs, so even when it hasn’t rained much in recent months, the water in that particular spot still flows with chilly currents and stays about 9 to 10 feet deep. It just so happens that this particular swimming paradise is bordered by a couple of great rocks for jumping off. And like I loved to do when I was a kid, my boys saw them and immediately wanted to jump off them, too.
There’s something about jumping off a rock or high dive, as a kid, the first time after having not done if for a long time. You remember doing it before, maybe the previous summer, but once again, the first jump of this season is scary. And even though you “know” you’re really only jumping a few feet into water, it takes a while to build up the courage to just go ahead and take the plunge. But then, once you finally do it, you remember that the jumping was totally worth the risk, and so you keep coming back for more.
One of my boys really struggled with that first jump into the swimming hole in Texas. He would just about convince himself to do it, and then shy away from the edge right before he was going to leap off. He wavered back and forth for a while before he finally worked up the nerve to do it. The whole time, as I watched him, I could see his mind working…trying to get rid of the fear so that he could jump. If he could just convince himself that everything would be fine, before he jumped, then the jumping would be easy. But he could clearly never talk himself out of not being afraid. Eventually, he committed, still scared, and half actively, half passively, fell off the rock. But the point is, he did it. And that changed everything.
I’ve been having alot of conversations with multiple people lately about fear, and the incessant inner urge to people please, and the self doubt that can really hold us back in life…from showing up fully, from becoming who we really want to be, all of that. As a recovering people pleaser, I am so intimately acquainted with these dynamics. The first several decades of my life were motivated so strongly by fear and the angst caused by disapproving comments or looks from people . Making decisions out of fear, constantly wondering if you’re measuring up, and incessantly calculating your risk of being abandoned by people….Is. So. Freaking. Exhausting. It is NOT a good way to live and I highly recommend against it. Do whatever you have to do…all the shadow work, the expensive therapy, cutting ties with specific people in your life, scrutinizing healthy people in your life to learn from them…..all the things that you must and have the resources to do to escape as much of that driving fear as possible.
Maybe I should back up a little and lay some groundwork before I start my pontificating so early on. I mentioned a while back in a different post that there are two types of pain. The first is wisdom pain, or the kind of pain that becomes the vehicle that will take you where you want to go. It is transformative and refining. The second type of pain is the pain that comes from avoiding difficult things, repeating the same defeating patterns in your life, allowing the same kinds of toxic people to manipulate and use you, and the kind of pain that convinces you that life is simply being done to you and you have no say-so about anything all that significant.
I also think that there are two kinds of fear that are directly related to these types of pain. Now, I’m not a therapist or psychologist, so I’m sure my thoughts here will be woefully simplistic, but they make sense to me so we’ll go with it. I also realize there’s a ton of nuance to fear, especially as it relates to trauma in one’s past, or histories of traumatic brain injuries. I”m not going down those complicated paths today.
The first type of fear is healthy fear. This is the fear that is rooted in our prefrontal cortexes, where we can logic out common sense and determine generally what kind of consequences might await us if we make certain choices. This fear is what keeps us safe and alive, generally. It tells us not to do certain stupid things because there will be unfavorable outcomes. I’m reticent to actually list examples here, because every example I”m thinking of…I’m like…nope, I know someone who chose to do that…with varying results. (Not everyone has a healthy sense of “this is what you do to stay alive” kind of fear). But I think you get my point.
The other type of fear is the one that isn’t rooted in lack of common sense or having an underdeveloped frontal lobe in your brain (aka, teenagers and young adults). It’s the fear that comes from deeply rooted beliefs about yourself that usually began to take hold during childhood…that you don’t belong in the world, that you aren’t enough, that you are too much, that you aren’t worthy, that no one will appreciate the authentic you, that you are inherently broken….all the beliefs that make you feel like the problem with the world is YOU.
This second type of fear is the most paralyzing, immobilizing fear. Or at least, it can be, when you identify way too strongly with it. Actually, I think we get into SO much trouble anytime we take on one of our emotions as who we are as a person, even if we do so unconsciously. A scared person. An angry person. A depressed person. A crazy person. I don’t like these at all. Because each of us, at our core, are so much more than our emotions or the things that happen to us.
The thing is, this kind of fear can be overcome. Maybe not all at once, maybe not to the nth degree in its entirety, but it is workable fear. It is not absolute, it is so very often based on subjective data and misinformation, and more importantly, it is not WHO WE ARE as our truest selves. Sometimes it takes years or decades to separate from the fear. This is where the writing of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie have been so invaluable to me. Once I learned that all the thoughts that pass through my brain are NOT ME, and all the feelings that I feel at any particular moment are NOT ME, then I could see how the fear was workable. Because I could watch, as an observer of myself, the fear within myself and how it influenced my thoughts and emotions, and vice versa.
This all may sound nuts to you….the idea that there is a real, unmovable, true, healthy YOU behind the you that you have known your whole life. Give it time. Sit with it. Question everything that comes into your mind. Make friends with the fear that is there.
The Fear Behind the Fear: As a short side note, I want to mention the problem of having fear behind the fear, or fear of the fear of something. This fear is the worst, mainly because it’s a ghost, an illusion, but it sure can be paralyzing.
Fear behind the fear happens when you know you’re afraid of something, and then when you think of that particular something, you become afraid of the fear you know you’ll experience when trying to do or confront that something.
Here’s an example: when I was about 9 years old, my dad was teaching me how to shoot rifles because I wanted to join him deer hunting. Up until that time I had learned how shoot a short, little .22 rifle and had no problems with it. It wasn’t that powerful and didn’t produce much of a kick when it was fired. However, in order to hit a deer at 50 to 100 yards, my dad wanted me to learn to shoot his .44 magnum rifle. He took me to the shooting range that was on our ranch, out on the edge of a hay field, that had targets set up on a wire fence about 50 yards away, backed up by a brushline. The first few times I shot the rifle, I was shocked by the powerful kick it gave to my right shoulder, but because of the adrenaline from getting to shoot, I didn’t pay it too much mind. But, pretty quickly, something in me began to fear that reaction kick…I’m assuming this happened because during one of my shots I likely didn’t have the butt of the rifle firmly enough up against my shoulder and it probably whacked me in the side of the face or something. Either way, I suddenly became afraid to shoot the rifle and would refuse to. No matter how much my dad reminded me that it wasn’t hurting me, or showed me once more how to properly hold the rifle to minimize the kick, I just wasn’t having it. I would sit there holding the gun, aimed at the target, trying so hard to work up the courage to pull the trigger. And then I would start shaking….that relentless, uncontrollable shaking that is seen by people going into shock or whose sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive for whatever reason. With that shaking I felt shame and frustration with myself for not being able to just shoot the damn gun, when I wanted to so badly and knew at a superficial level that I would be just fine.
And then…I began to fear the fear of shooting the gun…It was as though shooting the gun was scary, but being afraid to shoot the gun, and all the physical symptoms that came with that, was actually worse than the actual shooting of the gun. So, I finally refused to have anything to do with that rifle and I haven’t shot it since. Fortunately, my dad had mercy on me and went and bought me a little 223 single shot that had a minimal kick and was a reliable hunting rifle.
Here’s a second example: I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I struggle with a bizarre fear of eternity. If you want to know more about the strange inner workings of my psyche, you can read about it here. If you don’t want to, I can’t blame you. Anyway, I’ve had this fear of eternity and living forever since I was about seven years old. Since then, I’ve had periodic panic attacks….horrible terror-filled minutes of the worst imaginable fear….that grip me at night, usually when I wake up after a deep sleep and am still disoriented. When I was a teenager and in my 20s, I used to struggle frequently with these panic attacks, and I felt so alone in them because almost no one I knew could understand them or why the idea of living forever would be so troubling to me.
These attacks would usually last no more than 5 to 10 minutes, but they are the worst things I have ever experienced in life. Like….they are so bad you literally want to die to escape them, but then dying would just accelerate you straight toward the thing you’re panicking about. As a kid, I very quickly became afraid of the fear surrounding these attacks. I would be so terrified of my brain slipping and thinking about thinking about having a panic attack.
I call this kind of fear anticipatory fear. (Actually, I’m sure someone brilliant out there has already named this the same thing, but I haven’t read it yet so I’m claiming originality.) Anticipatory fear gets us into so much trouble because it frequently assumes that the future will always be like the past, which is certainly not true. It keeps us from being able to more objectively evaluate situations that we are in and make different choices than we did in the past.
That was an unbelievably verbose side note.
Risk assessments. These are a big part of my job in infection prevention and control. On at least a yearly basis, I have to look at data from the previous years, our community demographics, hospital resources, etc, and determine our risk for things like tuberculosis cases showing up in the hospital ( or other potential epidemics/pandemics), issues related to possibly having too much cardboard in various areas of the hospital, etc, as well as our overall ability to mitigate these and handle infection-contributing factors.
While these risk assessments are somewhat subjective, they are put together by combing through data and our environment and critically thinking about our resources and what is in our power and control to change. Clearly, no healthcare facility can rid itself of all risk entirely, but we can definitely help ourselves by carefully examining data, best practices, and learning from other organizations.
The thing about risk assessments is that they only give helpful output if the data and facts you use to compile them are reasonable. For example, if I just wrote one up on tuberculosis based on my daily experiences, my risk assessment would be completely flawed. This is because I don’t typically interact with people who are at high risk for tuberculosis to being with. If I determined that the hospital was at a super low risk of having TB cases because I don’t personally interact with people that tend to fall into TB populations, then my conclusions would be all wrong. So, to create a more well-balanced, accurate picture, I pull TB data from the facility over previous years, I look at Indiana-wide TB data, I run reports in the medical records to see how many people were tested for TB by our organization during certain timeframes. And then I come away with a much better understanding of TB prevalence in the county, and the ability to make much better recommendations about how to move forward.
I have a point with this medical analogy, I promise.
I think we make unconscious risk assessments about our lives on a daily basis. And, if you’re anything like me, which I know some of you are, your risk assessments about your life or things that you really badly want to attempt, might sometimes be faulty. I’ve become much more intentional about my life risk assessments, and have learned to start asking myself questions to gather accurate data for making decisions, even if I don’t do so in a formal way.
Random Questions to Ask Yourself When Fear is Holding You Back:
- Am I actually going to die from this?
This is not really meant to be a sarcastic question. It’s legit. Because, so many times we really FEEL like doing a particular thing, or talking to a particular person, or going to a particular place may actually kill us, even if we know on a cognitive level that it most certainly won’t. I’ve told my therapist on more than one occasion of scenarios in life where I literally would actually rather die than have to do a particular thing. And, fortunately, because I have an awesome therapist, she reminds me this is a trauma response, we work through it, and I eventually come to the conclusion that there are better, more workable alternatives than dying over something that I’m afraid to confront.
But this is an important question to ask, and sit with. Is this “thing” really….really….as bad or threatening as how it appears in this moment?
2. If I survive, what will the outcome be? Will this take me closer to where I want to end up?
Related to the last question, this is an important one to ask in a personal life risk assessment. Because just like hospitals know, you can’t mitigate all risk, and you always have to weigh in a cost-benefit analysis. Will the outcome you get outweigh the discomfort you have to endure right now?
I asked this question ALOT before I decided to move forward with a divorce years ago. I was so freaking terrified, and really couldn’t know what life would look like on the other side. But I could IMAGINE positive scenarios containing outcomes I wanted, and I could calculate that there was a reasonable chance that some of those scenarios might actually be able to come to fruition. I knew if I survived the divorce and the rebuilding time afterwards, that I might actually have a shot at getting to where I wanted to be…and that shot was so important to me.
3. Who or what am I most afraid of right now?
My problem in life is that I have mostly been afraid of hypothetical people that I haven’t even met yet, or I am afraid of people who had a really loud bark and not much bite. Or, they were people that I was told I should be afraid of or intimidated by. Fortunately I’m learning that hypothetical people are like anticipatory fear….they are illusions. They don’t exist in the now.
If you can pinpoint exactly what or who it is you’re afraid of, without ambiguity, the situation also becomes more workable. Usually because by concretely defining the problem, you can ask yourself super direct questions to get to the bottom of why you’re afraid of that person/thing.
4. What do I believe about the Universe, ultimately? Is it benevolent, ambivalent, or malevolent?
I will also insist that what one believes about the Universe will directly influence how live your life. It wasn’t until I made the conscious choice to believe that the Universe is benevolent did my responses to things and ways of living life changed. Making this choice didn’t suddenly erase all of my deep seated fears, and it has definitely been a process to peel away lingering harmful beliefs steeped in bad religion and toxic people, but when you start believing that an energetic life force is on your side, possibilities and hope burst forth.
5. If I get to the end of my life, whenever that is, and die without trying “…fill in blank….”, will I really be OK with that?
I used to believe in an evangelical Christian version of heaven. Now….meh…I don’t know. I think reincarnation is more likely than that small view of heaven. I’m pretty sure I don’t buy the idea of nihilism. Maybe we all just merge back into a great Cosmic oneness. Who knows?
All I know for sure is that we live this life and then we die. And I sure as hell do not want to waste this shot at this great and wonderful life. Because as much horror and poverty and hate and hopelessness as I’ve seen, I’ve also seen elegance, and tremendous hope, and undeniable mercy and grace, and exquisite beauty, and extravagance, and joy….and I want to keep getting and giving out as much of that as possible until I pass on into whatever comes next. I may fuck it all up in the end, but I’m going to do my best to heal my wounds and pursue life with abandon, and be able to die with as few regrets as possible. I DO NOT want to skimp on this life because I am afraid of the unknown that comes next.
6. If I could suddenly let go of my fear and voices yelling “should” in my head, what would my life look like?
My current therapist has asked me this question alot. I remember the very first time she asked me, and I was stunned into silence. All I could eventually say in response was that, if this was truly possible, it would be the most amazing freedom and liberation I had ever known….and it sounded like JOY. To just life my life….doing the next thing, and living out of my authentic self, and not having to apologize for taking up space in the world.
I’ve got a very long ways to go with this, but I’ve managed to tamp down many of the voices in my head, and I can say with certainty that I’m finally, finally, after four decades, starting to show the REAL Julie to the world again.
7. What are the small things that I’m afraid of that could be baby steps to propel me forward into tackling those bigger fears?
I’ve had a couple of people in my life over the years who have made comments to me that are similar to this: “I can’t do that like you, Julie, because I’m not brave enough, or I had this terrible thing happen, or because I have this situation in my life, or….”
I get it…I’ve done this to other people in my life, too. But, when people say things like this to me, I have to chuckle on the inside because they are accidentally making HUGE assumptions about me, and that I must have just been born into the world in the same package as I present now. SO. NOT. TRUE.
Which is probably why I’m too transparent sometimes, and tell people way too much about the shit I’ve struggled with or still struggle with. Because I want them to know and remember that it’s all a journey, and we are all at different places.
Here’s an example. I frequently have people tell me that they aren’t as brave as me to get up and talk to people in public, and that they could never do it. They just assume I was born with the confidence to gab away in the front of a room before strangers.
Learning to be comfortable with public speaking has been the longest journey EVER for me, and it was full of fear and pain along the way. I still don’t consider myself all that dynamic or charismatic of a speaker, either, so there’s more road here to travel down.
So I tell these people who think that they could never get to a place of comfort in front of crowds:
I used to tremble, literally, with fear, year after year during every piano recital; I was coerced into playing piano every single Sunday at church for over 5 years and I was terrified every week for the first four of those years; I was the worst debater in high school, but half chose to keep doing it and was half manipulated into doing it…even though I was nauseated before every single debate competition; In college I made myself try debate, and even though I sucked at it and probably lost every round, I learned a few things and knew I wanted to become as good at public speaking as some of my friends on the team. In college I had a great research professor who pushed me to give presentations of my research, and I gradually gained more confidence. I also had a great communications professor whose class taught me alot, even though my speeches that semester were so amazingly awful. Along the way I had jobs where I was forced to cold call strangers on the phone, and times when I had to make presentations before the higher ups.
The point is….it was a long hard journey to get to this place of being comfortable. I didn’t just wake up overnight, suddenly loving being in front of people. It took ALOT of baby steps, alot of failure, alot of really looking stupid and sounding incompetent, alot of boxes of Immodium, etc, to get to where I am now.
The absolute same happened with my writing and freelance success. I had to bomb really badly many times before I finally started trending upwards.
But I did it….and I did it everytime, scared.
And so now, after all of that rambling, I finally arrive at my overall point.
Scott Jurek, the great ultramarathoner, wrote that sometimes in life you just do things.
I will add to that idea: sometimes in life, you just do stuff scared.
You do it because there is no way to make everything completely safe before you move forward, there will never be sure fire guarantees about everything, and because the most important lessons in life are learned when we come to the edge of ourselves and we choose to not let that be a boundary even if we don’t know if we’ll survive moving past it.
Doing stuff scared is usually (in my humble opinion) where you find the best stuff. The most meaningful stuff. The realest, truest stuff. The growth and progression that you want. The life without regrets.
I found a lyric the other day, from the band Colony House, that really resonated with me: “I found a life that gave me a reason to live.”
For me, personally, I didn’t discover this life until I started, in earnest, going after what I wanted even while still being terrified and very unsure of myself. Then I realized that attempting certain things, with the possibility of achieving them, might actually be more important than to me than worrying that I might die in the process.
I’m still scared of SO MUCH. But its way less than the number of fears that used to keep me small, and quiet, and so very apologetic, and mousey.
To answer Mary Oliver, and her poetic question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I’m going to keep showing up for people. I’m going to keep pursuing authenticity in how I show up. I’m going to insist on laughter all the time, and pursuing what brings me joy. I’m going to keep learning about all the things that fascinate me, and keep digging away and healing the old wounds that still need tended to. I’m going to go places, and meet people, and do all the things.
Imma do stuff, scared.