Giving Fear the Middle Finger
Over the last several years I've learned some lessons of monumental proportions. But none have been as powerful as learning to live in fear. I don't define "living in fear" the way you might think of it--running scared, denial, victimhood and maladapting. I mean learning to live with fear inside of me, crawling all over me, invading every thought, action, and cell in my body...and doing everything I choose in spite of it.
This isn't living WITH fear. Living with fear indicates that it's separate from me, a part of my environment, like a roommate. I live with Julie. I live with two dogs. I live with fear. That's not the relationship I'm talking about. I'm talking about fear being all up in my space, squeezing my heart in its giant hands, pushing my stomach up into my throat, pulling panic-riddled thoughts from my strangled mind. IN fear. It's not down the hall, it's not even in the room with me. It's IN me, part of me, rattling my bones with its screeching, howling from the depths of my own brain, force feeding me ideas about how I should move through this world.
Learning to live in fear means that, in the midst of this maelstrom, I'm looking right at that ugly SOB, right into the heart of darkness that's inside of me, raising both of my shaking hands, and giving it the double bird. F you, fear. Stick around as long as you'd like, today is not your day. Tomorrow is not looking good, either.
This is a major shift for a woman with a risk tolerance best suited to investing in government bonds. I admire all of you adrenaline junkies, truly I do. Me? Adrenaline makes me nauseous. Literally. Get me too agitated and I puke. The idea of leaning into fear was as foreign to me as camels to Antarctica. For about four decades.
I never saw that as a problem; I assumed risk aversion was a personality trait. I figured avoiding fear was akin to being an extrovert or a Questioner, just part of my personality. Until I started taking a closer look at the relationship between failure and success. Ever the personal development junkie, I spent those same four decades reading volume after volume and eventually found myself unable to ignore the need to embrace failure in order to create greater success. I set out to make friends with failure, never considering that I'd soon be cultivating a relationship with fear.
As I heartily embraced the concept of failing forward, it became evident that it wasn't failure itself that was holding me (or any of my clients) back. It was the FEAR of how the failure felt, what the failure meant. Failure is just a word. Until it's a word defined by how utterly and completely terrifying it is. In the sentence "I am afraid to fail," fail is not the operative word. Afraid is.
Fear is a part of the human condition, a power the mind uses to keep us safe. There is a sound reason why so many people have fears of things that are deadly--snakes, spiders, heights. It's your brain's way of saying "hey, let's not get dead today." As the human environment has evolved (fewer deadly snakes, more nuanced social contracts), the brain has fallen behind. The brain is still working tirelessly to ensure your survival...but it's protecting you from things that will never kill you. Case(s) in point:
Fear kept me from taking risks in my career. I had a business for four years, while still clinging to my job. Fear told me I couldn't live without that steady paycheck, and I wasn't willing to live IN that fear so I could kiss the time clock goodbye and follow my soul. Later, after my husband held my financial hand and allowed me to detour around fear, I was fully self-employed but committed to a professional path that limited my growth. I desired time and schedule freedom, greater earning power, but to create those things I'd have to change the structure of my business. I dabbled, never fully committing to the changes, because fear whispered it wouldn't work and I'd lose the business I already had. You'll end up with nothing, said fear, and I listened. I wasn't willing to live IN fear, to take the risks necessary to achieve my true dreams.
Fear kept me in hell for the year I described to you in my last post. When my husband left and I knew the truth, that there was another woman, fear climbed on my back like a demented monkey and started shrieking in my ear. I'd never live the life I wanted without him, I couldn't make it in a new state on my own, I had no life in Montana alone and I'd left my life in Washington behind. I would be alone and I would die. I wasn't willing to live IN that fear, so I lied to myself.
I've let fear stop me from investing my own money, making overtures of friendship to people I admire, showing up for opportunities in my community, saying the words that are on my heart, and expanding to my full personal and professional capacity. Make no mistake, I was successful. But only as successful as I could be while scrupulously avoiding anything that might result in feeling fear. No risk, no discomfort, nothing too far outside my current self-definition. I learned and experienced growth, because these things are within my comfort zone. (Read: not scary.) But anything outside that space, beyond the edges with which I was familiar? Anything that created FEAR? Hard pass.
As I came to realize this truth and the limits it was creating for me, I made a commitment to live IN fear, to feel fear like a cyclone tearing through my soul and consciously choose to take action in the heart of the storm. As is always the case when you fully commit, the Universe stepped in to answer my call. Within a few weeks of making this determination, my husband walked into the kitchen while I was cooking dinner one evening and announced that our daughter would be coming home for a visit the following month and they were planning to go skydiving. "Do you want to go?"
His query was 90% joke and 10% polite invitation, offered with a full expectation of being turned down. You know the ask: I know what you're going to say, I'm just asking so you feel included. I am publicly, unabashedly, and thoroughly afraid of heights. The topic of skydiving had been bouncing around our friend circle for about a year and I'd already expressed my opinion--only crazy people jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Or maybe that was fear's opinion?
He'd already turned away, thinking he knew the answer. Fear was crouched over the cutting board, neck cords straining, both hands around my throat, shaking me like a dog shakes an unstuffed toy, bellowing NO!!! Ears ringing from the noise within, I firmly clamped my lips shut for the space of a few breaths, until I could be sure that when I opened my mouth that word would not come out. I couldn't manage a "yes" right out of the gate. But I knew this was a chance to practice what I'd been preaching to myself. I have played this game with the Universe often enough to recognize being handed what I have asked for. So I said, maybe, give me a minute to think about it.
Thus commenced a vociferous argument between my habits and intentions, my conscious and subconscious minds. Fear released the chokehold on my throat so that it could climb deep down inside of me and commence tearing my innards asunder. That adrenaline rush I mentioned earlier? Who needs a plane?! The mere thought of jumping out of one was enough to send my adrenals into overdrive. I was no longer hungry for dinner. Fear was rampaging inside of me, a frenzied gorilla in a human cage, shaking the bars of my ribs and pulverizing my organs with its giant, stomping feet. Thus commenced my first opportunity to practice living IN fear.
I said yes. I said yes that night. I said yes again when it was time to pony up the cash. And again when I signed the waiver that said I might literally die today. I said yes when it was time to get into the plane. Every single one of these moments I was IN fear, practicing what it means to live fully, to carry fear with me any damned where I want to go. (For the record, I did not say yes as I was being scooted towards the open door...you can clearly see what I was saying over and over as the instructor moved us forward...oh $#!+!!!)
It was hands down the most petrifying thing I've ever done. But I did it. My family thought it was fun. I thought it was terrifying. But I did it. I did it because it was terrifying. Because if I can jump out of a plane, I can buy stock. If I can jump out of plane, I can ask someone who's ahead of me on their professional journey to collaborate on a project. If I can jump out of a plane, I can show up in this world as anyone I want to be, thank you very much. If I can fly through the air with the greatest of dis-ease, I CAN live in fear.
And so I can. Since taking my commitment to live in fear to 10,000 feet, I've shown up on social media (and on these pages) in a more authentic way. Fear said people would judge and reject me. I said shove it. I accepted a nomination for president of a local business networking group that I felt utterly unqualified for. The following month I sat at an in-person meeting of the same group and shared that I was going to serve in the role to the best of my abilities, in spite of being in the midst of a crippling depression flare. Fear said I was barely capable of getting out of bed, much less running a community organization. I said, who asked you?
Living in fear has allowed me to take the bold, beautiful, and deeply satisfying step in my business and community of creating a 3-day retreat for women. It's called FEnomenon, and you can check it out here. Fear has been with me every step of the way on this one, tap dancing on my heart to all of the classics: You Know Nothing About Creating Events, No One is Going to Come, What Makes You Think Your Message is Worthy, and everyone's favorite, You'll Lose Thousands of Dollars. A poorly tuned Kaliope with the volume cranked to the max and the knob snapped off, fear has been jangling away in my head and heart non-stop since planning began in January. Full of useless advice, dire predictions, and cheap shots, fear is my ever-present co-pilot. But I'm not listening. I keep repeating one of my favorite sayings: it's OK for fear to be in the car; just don't let it drive.
Just today, living in fear allowed me to connect with someone on a deeper level. I was talking to my networking group about the event, which I introduced as "mine." I spoke about it as if I had created it singlehandedly...but I didn't. The retreat came about from me reaching out to another business owner. It's been a collaboration from Day 1. It's not "mine;" it's "ours." I started speaking about the event in answer to the opening question, share one personal and one professional win you've had lately. Thinking in the first person led to speaking in the first person, but after the meeting I realized I'd not said a single word about the other woman who created this opportunity with me (who is also a member of the group but was not in attendance). I was riddled with guilt and so fearful that she would think me selfish, arrogant, thoughtless. Fear slipped the seatbelt and climbed over the console, greasy hands all over the wheel.
But I took a deep breath and committed, once again, to living IN fear. I reached out to my co-creator, told her what I had said, and shared the guilt I was feeling for failing to give her credit in her role. I apologized simply, without justification, letting fear burst my eardrums with excuses I should make, bring tears to my eyes with visions of her telling me she was done with me and "our" event. I said these simple words with fear bouncing in my lap like a miniature Pennywise the clown, smeared lipstick, crypt breath, and razor teeth in my face.
I honored the woman I want to be, IN fear. I spoke my truth completely and succinctly, IN fear. I asked for what I wanted, IN fear. And do you know what she said? That sharing my feelings with her in an open and honest way was more valuable to her than any public nod could ever be.
Take that, fear [holds up both middle fingers defiantly].
I'm not above fear, beyond fear, or immune to fear. No, no; I am IN fear. I've embraced this skill so fully that I now do things on the regular that feed fear, super-sized meals. I take that screaming idiot to the drive-through all the time, giving it ever increasing amounts of fuel. I say yes when I want to, no when I want to, here's what I think any time I'm asked (and sometimes when I'm not!). I dream huge dreams, and update them regularly, creating greater risk for a greater reward. I try things I've never done, and I often do them badly. I fail forward with great enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, fear is here. It's always here, willing to play gruesome vignettes of the worst possible outcomes on the screen of my mind, compose soundtracks of horror to play in my heart. I'm not living with fear. It's not down the hall, in the spare bedroom, using the good towels in the guest bath. I'm living in fear. It's right here with me, in the master suite. Closer than the down comforter, cuddled up REAL close, breathing my air, squeezing me so tight it's hard to breathe. And I'm laying there, giving it the bird. F you, fear. Today is not your day. Tomorrow's not looking good, either.