I have a beach cove I go to when I need some Zen time or a quiet place to write. It’s a beautiful part of Laguna Beach, my home for the past two years. It’s generally unknown to tourists, hidden away down a long path and a steep flight of stairs. There are shallow caves along the back of the cove that provide some protection from the sun in the summer, and in the winter make for some great little writing spots.
That’s where I am right now—tucked away in a shallow beach cave, writing, listening to the crashing waves inch closer to me as the tide creeps in. I have other favorite writing spots too, but I come here when I’m having an off day, which for me means a day dealing with unchecked fear and anxiety.
I never know when fear and anxiety will hit me. I wouldn’t actually call them panic attacks, more like periodic spells of dread mixed with a dash of foreboding. Waking up with fear is the worst because my brain tends to wake up about an hour or so after my body, which means I walk around that first hour raw and unprotected.
My higher self is tempted to write about all the blessings this rawness affords, but truthfully, I hate waking up gripped in fear. I hate wracking my brain trying to find a home for my feelings. I hate the what-if-ing that whips around in my brain seemingly unimpressed by the years of work I’ve done to keep irrational feelings at bay. I hate it all.
I’m down to experiencing these fear-filled mornings only about once or twice a week, but that’s once or twice a week too many for me. I have many methods for coping with my overactive brain—meditation, deep breathing exercises, a few downward facing dogs, journaling, tortilla chips. I have a big comfy chair where I do a lot of my writing. It sits adjacent to a built-in bookshelf with stones and sea glass I’ve collected from all over the world, along with a few other props I use to center myself. My toy poodle often perches behind me, nestling into my neck while I do my best to still my mind. Twenty minutes later and I’m usually ready to take on the world (or at least the laundry).
Fear is a tricky emotion because it serves multiple purposes, some of which are pretty adaptive. Fear tells us to “RUN!” when we’re in danger, and keeps us from taking stupid risks we’ll later regret. Fear is often the first presenting emotion when our intuition that something is wrong kicks in. But I know of no people who proudly cite fear as one of their favorite emotions, or being fearful as one of their best character traits. Why? Probably because fear also keeps us from taking risks in life (fear of failure), from putting ourselves ‘out there’ (fear of rejection), or from standing on our own two feet when we need to (fear of being alone).
Also, fear tends to be stigmatized in our culture, which can make it difficult to share our angst with others. We live in a pleasure-seeking society that far too often values happiness over authenticity, so it’s not surprising that most of us get platitudes when we share our deepest fears. You know, like “when-you’re-in-gratitude-you-can’t-feel-fear-just-get-over-it." Or "God/the-universe-will-supply-all-of-your-needs-but-fear-and-anxiety-block-abundance." Or "our-greatest-lessons-come-from-overcoming-our-fears."
Guess what? All true. Guess what else? Not very helpful.
This is particularly true if our fears are rooted in past traumatic experiences. These types of fears will only subside when we get really honest with ourselves, say our fears out loud to demystify them, and then take the time to lovingly face their roots and embark on a healing journey.
But first, before I touch on my own healing journey, I want to say one more thing about fear. The whole notion that our what if fears are completely irrational (what if I lose my job, what if I fall into financial ruin, what if my partner leaves me, what if I get cancer, what if I lose my child) is kinda bullshit.
I mean, people lose their jobs every day, often through no fault of their own. And when 75% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s some scary shit. And a lost job coupled with a sluggish economy can spiral anyone into financial ruin—a type of financial disaster that we may not be able to recover from, particularly for those of us over the age of 55.
And couples break up all the time. People treat their partners poorly after being together for years, they have affairs, they lie, and every once in a while one kills the other.
People get cancer too. Healthy people. Vegetarians and joggers (of which I am neither), people who have never smoked and always worn sunscreen. Yes, sometimes people get cancer. And while many survive, some don’t. And that’s scary as hell.
And here’s another fact that most of us prefer to avoid thinking about, let alone saying out loud. Kids die too. They get hit by cars, they get sick, or worse, they get kidnapped and killed. I have a son, so this last one was particularly difficult for me to write. But do you know why I wrote it anyway? Because it’s real and every single parent has this fear, and sometimes it can paralyze us. And if we let it, our fears can paralyze our kids too when we try to control every aspect of their lives to assure their safety.
Here’s my point. I don’t think there is any fear we are capable of feeling that is completely irrational. Even the what if fears that seem highly unlikely are still a possibility. The world can be a very scary place and bad things happen every single day, and it's unrealistic to think we can completely rid ourselves of the what if fears (although 2019 is still the “year without fear”!). But it is possible to learn how to live without letting our fears and anxieties get in the way of our joy and fully manifesting our life purpose.
How can we assess and then navigate risk realistically? How can we distinguish between Level 1 risk and Level 10 risk? How do we create lives of joy and meaning amidst our fears and anxieties, without ignoring them, trying to will them away, projecting them onto others, becoming overly controlling, or succumbing and becoming emotionally crippled?
I believe it’s completely possible to live a life where we’re unencumbered by soul-crushing and joy-snatching fear. But this isn't possible without a whole lot of honest self-reflection, healing and authenticity. I also believe this isn’t something we can muscle through on our own. Secrecy is every bit a soul killer as unchecked fear and anxiety.
I believe the first step in any healing journey is to take a risk and come clean with a few trusted friends (and if you can afford it, a good therapist).
This morning, after waking up in a cloud of fear and prying myself from bed, making some coffee and meditating for a few monkey-mind minutes in my overstuffed blue chair, I put a name to this morning’s fear. l have a fear of losing my home.
Actually, I have a fear of becoming homeless in the future. I’ll write about the reasons in a future blog post, but for now it’s enough to say that this fear has roots not only in a troubled adolescence, but in my post-divorce years when I did lose my home, and my years as a single parent where I was often one paycheck away from losing my home again.
The fear of future homelessness is rooted in these earlier traumas and not necessarily in anything happening in my life right now. But, despite my fears not being concrete, they aren't completely irrational either. I'm a single woman in my late 50s living life without a 401K or a safety net. So homelessness is something that might happen, some day, maybe. And that's enough to cause a little panic from time to time, particularly if I have some other unsettling things going on in my life that have me feeing a bit off balance.
I know that if I let this fear just sit there unattended, ruining my mornings and covertly influencing my future goals, I'm rendering myself powerless. But I haven’t been all that successful in managing this fear in a higher level “Zen” sort of way because this fear is visceral, residing on the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
This fear isn’t soothed by a long list of practical ways I can avoid homelessness in the future. It doesn't abate when I consider my career accomplishments. And, I find little comfort the the “let go and let universe" talk. No, this what if fear needed a what if, then this plan. So I texted this to one of my favorite fear-soul-sisters:
Will this pact completely eradicate my intermittent fear of potential future homeless? I’ll let you know in a future blog post because I’m not sure. But what I am sure of is that I immediately felt better after this text exchange. I shared my what if fear that some might consider silly, and I created a mutual pact with a dear friend if the what if ever does become a reality.
Don’t have a fear-soul sister (or brother)? Get one. Take a risk, let your guard down and share your what if fears to someone. And if you’re saying to yourself right now “what if I get a negative or shaming response?” You very well might. People who aren’t ready to face down their own what if fears will likely be threatened by yours. Just remember that a shut-down response from a trusted friend says far more about their journey than it says about the validity of your fears.
And if someone shares their deepest what if fears with you, remember that these types of fears are often deeply rooted and cannot be always be managed with reason and rational thought until healing has occurred. So try to avoid the temptation to talk them out of their feelings. Instead, let their disclosures begin a journey—one filled with listening, understanding, validating, empathizing, sometimes advice-giving, and always a whole lot of unconditional acceptance and love.
In my next blog post I’ll share my fear of mail.
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 masks and a lot more fun.