Everyone accumulates baggage as they go through life. Everyone deals with love and loss, doubt and pain and regret. And everyone deals with fear.
Ah, fear. Let’s talk about fear.
Everyone knows fear – if you tell me you don’t, you’re probably lying, unless you’ve had some secret revealed to you that remains hidden from the rest of the human race. If this is the case, by all means do share. If not, know you are not alone.
I’ve been dealing with fear for a number of years now, so I am quite familiar with the ways in which he likes to work. He’s got it down to a science – or at least, so he thinks. Brains like to think they know what’s going on. They freak out over subjects that remain beyond their grasp or things they can’t control. I’ve learned that brains can be incredibly valuable tools if used correctly, but they can also be incredibly cruel.
From the time I was young, my brain has always liked to be kept busy. If it felt at anytime that there wasn’t enough to do, it would create tasks for itself, which often lead to my brain getting itself stuck in repetitive feedback loops until something else would drag me out. Fear is a perfectly natural human instinct: it kept creatures alive for thousands of years before you and I arrived. I am aware that there are times it is a very reasonable response to an unknown situation. But I am also aware there are times that fear is entirely irrational, when it sticks its nose into places it has no business being.
I came to experience fear as something very visceral, concrete and real early on. When you are in gymnastics, fear is an every day occurrence. If you aren’t failing and falling regularly, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. When you’re propelling your tiny body several feet in the air, it seems natural to fear injury, but that’s the last thing you need to focus on. No matter how many times your coach tells you that you’ve done the progressions and as long as you follow through, no, you’re not going to land on your head, there is a primal instinct you will be fighting against until you reach a level of comfort with a skill. And fluke accidents just happen sometimes when you’re in such a high pressure sport. My brain knew this, and my coach’s confidence in my abilities didn’t stop my mind from spinning out of control.
There have been several times in my life when fear has felt like an insurmountable wall.
The body has three instinctual responses to fear: fight, flight, or freeze. I can’t count the number of times I’ve brushed up against that wall and been instantly paralyzed, unable to move. I would run at the vault only to slow half way down the runway. I would start into a acrobatic sequence never to get past the first move. Sometimes, the soles of my feel would create pools of sweat as I would stand on the four-inch wide balance beam for twenty minutes at a time, swinging my arms back and forth, unable to go for moves that should have been easy. When I finally managed to get myself to go, I would inevitably fail, just as I’d convinced myself I would. This never helped my confidence, but it did show me the power of the mind.
Fear manifests itself in different ways – gymnastics is just one example. When I was nine, I had the realization my parents would die before me, and I spent the next two months sobbing for hours after I went to bed, until I cried myself to sleep alone or in their company, scared they would be gone the next day. I learned that you can get struck by lightning even within the safety of a building, so during storms, the basement became was the only place I felt remotely safe. There was a time I was terrified I would get cancer, that our house would burn down and I would be stuck inside, or a criminal would break in and stab me in the night, and I would die young, leaving behind two heart broken parents.
I’ve since realized all these things I feared so deeply reside far beyond my control. And I am a person who does not like lack of control. But this is life – it’s uncertain and scary and unknowable, and therein lies its beauty.
These days, fear wears a new face in my life, but his voice sounds very much the same.
I fear I’ll make the wrong decisions, that I’m too much to handle or I’ll never be enough. I fear the same things I value the most: honesty and love, vulnerability and trust. I fear people and their unknowable thoughts and intentions. Most of all, I fear rejection. Speaking my truth can be enough to paralyze me to a point where words refuse to leave my mouth. If people are patient, I can often climb that insurmountable wall, but some days, I can’t. And that’s okay. Rejection is a wound that takes time to heal, and a scar that stubbornly stays.
These days, I am learning the way to work with fear is to break the cycle – when you find your brain stuck on repeat, you have to find ways to pull yourself out. Call a friend. Call your mom. Go for a walk and count the people you pass. Read a book. Meditate. Breathe. Scream and dance. Cry if you must. But never let yourself stay stuck for too long, or you’ll never live your life.
In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert explains the beautiful way she interacts with her fear. Instead of viewing it as something to be conquered, she gives it space to exist. She has a speech she gives this dear old friend anytime she embarks on a new project or endeavour:
“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job very seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting – and, may I say, you are doing superb at your job. So by all means, keep doing your job, if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused… There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are part of this family, and so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still – your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You’re not allowed to touch the road maps; you’re not allowed to suggest detours; you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature. Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive” (25, 26).
Fear is necessary; it’s part of what it means to be human, what it means to be alive. Your fears say something about you, about the places you’ve been and the things you value most. Your fears, however, do not get to define you, so long as you don’t let them take control of your life. Everyone has baggage – it’s how you carry it that counts. Don’t be afraid to make space for your fears.
Know this: you are strong enough to break the cycle. And you are not alone.