by Michelle Martin, PhD, MSW
It may come as a surprise to some of you that I struggle with fear, but I do. Let me clarify that—I struggle with irrational fear. Some fear is good. Fear keeps me from taking a shortcut down a dark alley at night, from going into basements when I hear creepy noises, and from jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. Rational fear is not what I’m talking about. No, I’m talking about the what if fears.
The what if I never get tenure and lose my job fear. The what if I run out of money and become homeless fear. The what if I get cancer fear. The what if something bad happens to my son fear. The what if I make another bad decision in a relationship fear (which is closely related to the what if I die alone fear). And my most frequent fear visitor, the what if I take a huge risk in my quest for a meaningful and relevant life and fall squarely on my face fear.
These are the types of fears that I have far too often awakened to , with a rapidly beating heart and quick breath, mind racing, before my logical brain steps in to rationalize them away.
I’m guessing that many people might be surprised to hear that I’ve struggled with irrational fear and anxiety much of my life. What people who don’t know me well are mostly likely to see is the outcome of that secret struggle: the choices I make after all the mental calisthenics I endure that finally push me over the fear and anxiety threshold, enabling me to move forward and create a life of meaning.
The cool thing about having passion is that it will always trump fear, eventually. But what I’m interested in, what I’m determined to master in 2019, is ridding myself of fear altogether. I want to no longer jump through 5000 cognitive hoops to arrive at that place of courage. I want to rid myself of the struggle completely, because it’s far too often the struggle that I remember in my trauma brain, rather than the experience itself and its successful outcome.
There have been periods in my life, particularly when my son was younger, when my fears were so intense that it was difficult for me to have any real quality of life. My fears weren’t necessarily all irrational either, which made them even more poignant (and potent). I was a single parent of a young son. I was working as a social worker making almost no money. I was in graduate school (for what seemed like his entire childhood), with mounting student loan debt and no guarantee that the struggles would pay off in the end. I was locked in a protracted legal battle in family court with my son’s father, who to my detriment was a powerful attorney, and then a powerful Circuit Court judge.
My life had meaning and I had some really incredible experiences, but my life was also punctuated far too often by a string of crises that left me emotionally spent and filled with fear for my son’s and my future.
For example, my financial outgo seemed to always exceed my income, just as my efforts always seemed to exceed any pay off. I lived thousands of miles from my family, so often felt very isolated and alone. I desperately wanted to make wise choices, but when I looked back on my life all I could see was a long trail of seemingly terrible decisions, despite my best efforts, each one feeding into the next life crisis.
I was ill-prepared to manage these challenges, lacking some very basic life skills, such as patience and the ability to self-sooth. I was raised in a home that while providing me with a certain level of privilege and opportunity, did not equip me with the skills necessary to navigate complex life's landscapes—rather, I was (inadvertently) taught how to take cover, run and hope for the best, while expecting the worst, from others and myself.
Those were some dark years, but as I look back and evaluate the true nature of that decade or so of struggle, I am unable to accurately discern whether the experiences themselves were really that traumatic or whether it was the meaning I attached to the experiences that colored my perceptions.
Let me explain what I mean by that. Everyone goes through tough times. We’ve had our hearts broken, come up short financially at the end of the month, faced disappointments in our careers, had health crises in our lives, etc. The meaning we attach to these challenges will have everything to do with how we interpret and experience them. Some people (so I’ve heard) have an amazing ability to take really difficult life challenges in stride. They’re optimists by nature. They’re certain they’ll prevail.
They are the type of people Brené Brown calls “wholehearted.” They believe in themselves and they believe they deserve good things. So a few bumps in the road aren’t experienced as traumatic because they can easily see past them as they set their sights on the inevitable good outcomes.
And then there are the rest of us—what I believe is the majority. People like me, who if I were to be completely honest, especially in my earlier years, did not believe I was worthy of good things. I did not believe good things happened to “people like me.” Rather, I walked around life with a smile on my face, while secretly dealing with a cyclical fear of cataclysmic doom. I walked around life feeling as though I was standing on quick sand with an anvil hanging over my head. One false move and I was certain it would drop from the sky and cause my submersion, with all of my frantic efforts to survive only causing me to sink faster and deeper underground.
So when I had a bad month (or year) financially, when I had a bad outcome in court, when a letter arrived in my mailbox from the IRS, when I hit a wall in school or work or my love life, and I wondered if I was enough (smart enough, competent enough, lovable enough, pretty enough—just enough), I didn’t take it in stride. I didn't tell myself everything would be okay. I cringed in full expectation of impending disaster, and I ducked and ran for cover.
Fast forward to today.
I am no longer gripped in fear on a daily basis. I rarely wake up with my heart racing, wondering what terrible things will beset me that day. I no longer enter a romantic relationship with plans for how I will manage its inevitable ending. I no longer feel as though I’m constantly walking on quick sand with an anvil looming above. And I only sometimes ponder a future of financial catastrophe.
But, I have still experienced far too much fear. I still worry about things over which I have little control. I still attach negative meaning to potentially inert experiences. I still what if far too often. So while I will readily admit that I may be braver than many, I still deal with far too much fear.
And do you know what? I’m really sick of it. I’m sick to death of fearing the worst. I’ve exhausted myself with fear and anxiety about money. I’m (almost) completely over my fear of failure. And I’m at a point in life where I no longer care about personal rejection because I finally (finally) believe I am worthy of good things.
But even though I can now go most days without irrational fear holding me back, I want fear purged from my life completely. I want to live a fearless life; a completely what-if-less existence.
This whole fear thing is far bigger than me though. I believe fear and anxiety is plaguing our country. I believe fear and anxiety is making us fatter and sicker and far more depressed. I believe fear and anxiety are keeping us stuck––in bad relationships, in bad jobs, in lives of mediocrity.
As I’ve struggled to understand what’s going on in our country—what’s driving all the polarization, and as I kept digging deeper—below the anger and outrage, below the commitment to patriotism, below the religion, the love of guns, the unwavering commitment to ideology, I came up with one thing: fear. Fear is the driving force behind it all.
Think about it: what drives political polarization? The fear that one’s way of life is being threatened. The fear that one is being left behind. The fear that while you (or I) struggle, some other group is getting off easy, and unfairly getting a benefit that we deserve more.
Fear is easily manipulated by political leaders because when we’re experiencing fear, our higher level cognitive functioning is over-run by our more base need to survive. If someone makes us afraid, convinces us we're in danger, we’re more likely to give them more control in our lives.
I’ve decided that for the next several months I’m going to be blogging a little less about politics, and a little more about fear. I’ll be blogging about my own personal journey facing down my remaining fear demons, and my struggles to overcome them for good. No longer will I shove down fear with pure will and grit. I am fully committed to eradicating fear and anxiety completely (except my fear of bats and bees, I’m keeping those).
Does sharing all of my fears so publicly scare me a bit? Of course. But I'm committed to facing those fears as well, and I encourage you to do the same. In fact, I’d like to partner with those of you who are equally committed to making 2019 the “Year without Fear,” because I believe we are most likely to succeed in overcoming irrational fear if we do this together, with mutual support and collective encouragement. Fear and anxiety are empowered in secrecy and darkness, and cannot survive in open and shared spaces.
So I'm taking this leap because I want more out of life, and less. More passion, more authenticity, more meaning, more joy, more love. Less fear, less anxiety, less outrage, less discouragement, less mediocrity.
So, are you with me?
Welcome to my Blog!
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer façades, less role-playing and a lot more fun.