Fear…Friend or Foe?

I don’t know if there was ever a time in my life that I wasn’t fearful. I think my fears shifted in different ways throughout my life. As a kid, I did things that I should have been afraid of. But I still remember fear being a constant theme. I was afraid to swim, until a friend taught me how during a school field trip. Then swimming became one of my favorite past-times. Not afraid of the water now. I was also afraid of things I don’t think most kids worried about. Like my house burning down in a fire because of the Christmas tree or being kidnapped out of my window or any other manner of awful things I probably saw from watching too much Rescue 911 and Unsolved Mysteries as a kid. Ironically though, I was not afraid of horror movies. In fact, I loved (and still do) horror movies. The only thing I can assume is, I knew they weren’t real. That was a fear I could control. So instead of being terrified, I was exhilarated.
The fear grew into a paralyzing fear of public speaking and that included just raising my hand in class to answer a question. Fear of being laughed at during basketball that I didn’t try out for the High School basketball team because I knew there would be more people watching those games. I was pretty good at basketball too. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of ridicule, fear of rejection, fear of not being able to live up to expectations, fear of disappointment. You name it, I was probably afraid of it. I changed majors in college almost half a dozen times because I was afraid I’d be stuck in a career I didn’t like. As if I wasn’t allowed to seek a career in a field not related to my degree. It took me 11 years to graduate from college and that was because I settled on a degree in General Studies.
So many times in my life, I stayed stagnant and played small due to fear. And I was miserable. Worse still, I didn’t understand why I was miserable. I looked around at my life and I had everything I thought I was supposed to want, but I was miserable. Miserable with myself, of course. But I managed to find a partner that didn’t think I was miserable. I had lots of friends and my co-workers loved me. By all accounts, the outside world seemed at worst to approve of me, at best adore me. But I couldn’t see any of that. I was so blinded by my own negative self talk and distorted view of myself, that I dismissed all of that out of hand. “They are just being nice,” I would tell myself whenever someone paid me a compliment.
Afraid of appearing conceited or smug and also afraid of not appearing grateful. I felt like I was literally walking a tight-rope between who I thought I was supposed to be and who I really was and who I really was, was never good enough. Think of the torture I was putting myself through! I didn’t see it then, but I see it now. And I see when others are stuck in that same miserable vortex. Alcohol made me blind. Fear and alcohol. They are poor mixed company. Fear kept me small and alcohol helped me numb the feelings lying dormant inside that were trying to wake me up. Trying to make me see that if I could just let go of fear and trust that everything would be ok, that I would always land on my feet. I didn’t trust myself. I clung to fear, thinking it was keeping me safe. But it was the very thing causing my pain. And the alcohol numbed the pain and masked the cause of that pain. It wasn’t until I gave up the alcohol, very reluctantly at first, that I finally saw the truth. Once I stepped out of that dark cloud of misery; the fear and the numbing, I could see so clearly what was causing all of my pain. I did have everything I needed. I was standing in my own way. I am finally learning to trust myself. I am finally learning that fear is a compass. For me, I use fear to gauge what step I should take next. I know the difference between real and imagined fear now. I am not, nor have I really ever been in mortal danger. But you wouldn’t know it if you looked inside my brain. My brain was convinced that danger and even death lurked around every corner. I mean, how many sexual predators are living in my neighborhood? I’m not trying to downplay sexual violence and the reality of it. But when you were living in a state of fear like I was, everyone was capable and had the potential to be a predator of some kind. I didn’t trust people. I didn’t trust the world. I thought I was being smart. Being a good mother. Protecting everyone I love from the dangers in the world. But in this, mostly entitled and wealthy world that is the suburban US, there is not much danger. I’m a white female, educated, well-fed and privileged by all accounts, even if I am still middle to lower-middle class. There are people in other countries that live in real, mortal danger every single day. People that send their kids off to school and never really know if they’ll see them again. People that are more than worried about what to make for dinner, they’re just worried about finding their next meal. Here I am, soaking up all the fear for the people that really have things to be fearful about. When I thought about that, I felt a bit ashamed. But rather than get stuck in another blame and shame cycle, I took stock of what was true for me. I didn’t know any better. I learned that it was better to be safe than sorry and that at any moment the world could collapse and I better be prepared. The scarcity mindset ran deep in my family. And for someone who battled anxiety their whole life that scarcity mindset manifested into a prison of my own making. I don’t blame anyone, but I think I understand why and how I ended up there. That knowledge has helped me understand how to get myself out of it. And, helped me realize that I don’t have to ever go back there. It’s a choice to live in fear like that. Do you think that people in third-world, war-torn countries get paralyzed with fear. No, they adapt to fear in way that pushes them to survive. I wasn’t surviving; only just. I certainly wasn’t living. I’m wasting a life that those who are truly suffering would give everything dear to them to have. Or, maybe they wouldn’t because they are grateful for what they do have.
So what did all of this awareness about fear teach me? That fear is there; period. But, I have a choice to let that fear hold me down or I can use it, harness it, to propel me forward. Now when I notice one of my irrational fears popping up, I get curious. I lean into it. I learned to get comfortable with discomfort. And every time I’ve faced a fear head on, I’ve proven to myself that I can do anything I set my mind to. The fear was just a trick of my mind. An attempt to keep me safe at all costs. But now that I see the trick as more harmful that helpful, I channel it to help me grow. When I feel the fear, I do it anyway. When I normally would run away from something, I run towards it. And every single time I have, I have grown. I have grown by leaps and bounds. I am finally stepping into who I really am; who I was meant to be if not for fear keeping me down. Fear is my compass. It is an opportunity to grow and to show myself what I can do. To show myself that I can do hard things and survive. That I can fail, and fail miserably, and survive. Not just survive though, I thrive because each thing I do pushes me to a better version of myself. I’ve made a commitment to myself, to never let fear stand in my way again. Fear is my friend and it walks beside me now. It tells me I should run, but I tell it, “It’s ok, I got this. Watch me.”

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