Let’s say I’m afraid of crowds, cows, and people named Ed. Now let’s take out the prepositional phrase, since there’s nothing inherently scary about crowds and cows (sorry, Eds) and it boils down to I’m afraid. Yo tengo fear. I have fear. You have fear. We all have fear. Let’s scream for ice cream.
The trick is not to be afraid of fear. Oh my gosh it just occurred to me – I just changed my mind about the thing that drives everybody (me) crazy about scary movies! You know the scene when the chick who just got the crap scared out of her by the sound in the basement heads TO THE BASEMENT TO INVESTIGATE??? And we’re eating Doritos yelling how we’d already be 14 blocks away, and sorry soon-to-be-hacked-to-death elderly neighbor lady but thanks for the Buick. That scene? Now I get it! It’s a deep metaphor for facing our fears! Only that’s pretty literal now that I’m actually giving it some thought. Wow, hmm. I still don’t like horror movies.
Run into that which you fear. You know, like where angels fear to tread.
Most of fear is The Unknown. There’s also a smart, reasonable part that says, “hey dumbass, that thing could kill you so be careful,” it’s just much quieter than the “THAT’S UNKNOWN!!! RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY! IF YOU CAN KILL IT FIRST AWESOME BUT AVOID IT FOR SURE!” part that gets all the attention. So if instead of telling myself I’m afraid of crowds and to run away from them, maybe I should turn around and discover what’s so scary about them. As long as I don’t get trampled. For instance, I started improv classes when I realized I was fine on stage as long as I had a script but dearsweetbabyjesus don’t deviate from the script. When I told a friend I was so afraid of it that I knew I had to do it, she looked at me like I was knowingly jumping into poo. I really think she saw it as self-punishment. Having personal experience in the self-harm department, I take exception to that. I found then and pretty much ever since, that when I face my fear - even and especially when I have to fake my bravery to get started – that act of looking right at it disempowers it 95%. Look it up. Its strength, or its mass, or whatever it is that fear is when you don’t know what it is yet, dissipates. I can save a whole bunch of energy if I stop for a breath when I feel fear arise, see what’s the actual scary thing happening, and deal with it. What’s left is information, the real deal. Granted that shit’s a horror flick of its own, but nine times out of ten I bet it’s shit you recognize and already have the tools to combat. That one other time though, listen to the part that tells you to run away. We’re not stupid.
Fear’s a huge bucket dinger though, and it spreads like a windshield chip so pretty soon you’re looking at the world through a spider web of limitations. It’s dangerous and obstructs your view, and it makes you old before your time because you’re squinting and hunched over, just trying to see. For a while I can pretend my car runs fine if I turn up the radio but eventually I have to figure out why I can’t get up hills (sorry about jumping between car problems).
So maybe I’m not “afraid of crowds.” I’m merely afraid of people. I kid. I tend to avoid masses of humans - I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. What isn’t so good is that I began making more decisions based on that fear, rather than any specific reasons. Crowds=Bad. Mary=Can’t. I opted out of doing things I wanted to do because they fell under the Scary category and I convinced myself I couldn’t handle….whatever it was. It kinda took on its own power, that “fear of crowds.” When I signed my ass up for Fear 101 and took the time to drill down I finally made connections, especially with my health (my daily pain and brain surprises). I could see the fear was valid once I acknowledged my ability to take care of myself felt compromised because my health was so confusing. When those lightbulbs started going off, I saw the huge roles anxiety and shame were playing but they hid behind anger, probably because that’s what I’ve always had in abundance. Like a little kid hiding behind the aunt with the biggest ass. All this mess was woven up in the fear so it didn’t happen instantly, yet once I committed to The Untangling, things really started to unravel. And yes I chose those words carefully because it’s not always smooth or pretty but it sure feels good to restart from a better spot. I’m not gonna lie, I felt unraveled for quite a while. But you got to be cruel to be kind. Ask anyone who’s waxed. More about kindness later. I’ve already said all I want about waxing.
And wowie, did I unravel. It makes sense. Say Yes To Fear (Yes to the Mess?) and the lessons come in force. Careful what you wish for. Once I pulled off the blindfold of course I’d face a shit ton of other scary stuff. Not fun, especially at first, but it turned out I’d (mostly inadvertently) already acquired a bunch of the tools I needed, and since the fears were coming from the same few cesspools, once that shit got traction I was off and running. I really have to change my imagery.
No, I didn’t start jumping from skyscrapers or tickling policemen. It’s not that. This is not foolhardy. If I may, remember I believe we have access to an inner smartypants kid and the universal brain? Well, how about intuition then? Listen, I already said I’m not into putting myself in harm’s way anymore. What I’m saying is that it turns out my biggest fear was facing who I really am, and that dealing with myself lovingly and realistically is the scariest thing I’ve ever done. Fear taught me to look inside, and where to look. Now, not only can I find where the Fear holes are, but now I know what fixes will probably hold.
When I was seven my mom enrolled me in gymnastics because Olga Korbut had inspired me during the Olympics. During those same games, I was also glued to the television when all the Israeli team were killed. When Jim McKay solemnly said, “They’re all gone,” I retreated to my half of the bedroom closet and cried for hours. Somehow I knew I had to deal with this by myself. Sure, I could attempt double full-twists on Mom and Dad’s king sized bed and it ended me at the YMCA but cry for days over something that happened across that world and I’d be told there was nothing I could do about it and to quit being so sensitive. Too late. So I stuffed it deep because that’s where fear likes to hibernate. It colored every action of my life, not to overstate, because that unaddressed fear and confusion about what I’d watched completely morphed my childhood worldview. It became one based on fear. Namely, if someone didn’t like you, they’d kill you. Ah, the simplicity of childhood. It’s touching, really. I was surrounded by people but not one I could talk to about this or eventually, much of anything. Hey, it cut down on the way up part of, “Mary Dolores it’s either way up or way down with you” that I heard so much back then. That’s a blessing and a curse too because depression is easier to hide than happiness and I was a great child actress. No one can help if no one knows. As I grew up fear made for interesting decisions, which led to interesting situations which led to more fear which eventually led to, you guessed it, a lot of anger. I was afraid of being judged and if I was, which I would be most assuredly, there’s a good chance I’d be mowed down. Later, when anger had taken up a huge space in my life I realized I was mad at all those limits, not so much the people. You know the non-existent ones? Limits and people. Sure, there are real limitations and absolute judgey assholes out there. Judgey assholes are a whole other subject (to ignore). The real limitations I’m learning to discern.
When fear wreaked enough havoc on my life, or maybe I just ran out of people to alienate, I did some spelunking and remembered that childhood messaging. In short, I figured out why I was so scared, literally, IN THE FIRST PLACE. Once I saw the fear I could tend it and start growing something fruitful with all that real estate. Then I caught on to the process of sitting with fear for a time in order to hear what’s going on and I began to do some scary shit that makes me proud, and stronger. For instance, I was in a march with a few other hundred thousand women recently (we wore pink hats, you may have seen pictures). I really wanted to do it but feared the toll it would take so I paused to understand the language of my fear. I wanted not just to hear the noise but also the message. That way I could also address my valid, tangible concerns AND almost immediately envision solutions. There’s information in those emotional tidal waves.
Make the practice of facing fear fun. Do something tiny you’ve always wanted to do but were scairdt.
I’ll admit, I went straight to crime. There’s a long-vacant restaurant space in my neighborhood so I made a fake menu and Coming Soon! sign and taped it to the front. It got torn down within 24 hours but I’m still empowered by GrllBrd, a Toast Café. Or actually make that joke about Brad and Angelina when you’re in the checkout line. Out loud.
Now do something scarier.
Call your doctor about that thing you’ve been avoiding. It’s probably nothing but even so, it’s been exerting as much power over you as if it were something. And if it is something, time to face it, Strong Person.
Speak out for something.
Make yourself proud. You’d be surprised how something as simple as calling your senator’s office about an issue you believe in can fortify a bucket as well as making your community a little bit stronger, too. Everybody’s got a backbone, the trick is to use it. You might just set an example.