“There is no illusion greater than fear.” – Lao Tzu
I was introduced to the book penned by Susan Jeffers back in the 1980s, called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It was a revelation for me in my early adulthood that the two states didn’t need to exist independent of each other. I was not a particularly shy or fearful child, partly as a result of feeling secure in my home, surrounded by the love of immediate and extended family. I was reminded that I could do anything I wanted professionally as long as I enjoyed it and could support myself.
I was diagnosed with asthma at four years old and on occasion would wonder if I would be able to keep breathing when the lung compressing and heaving symptoms were in full force. Despite that, I remained physically active, climbing, running around, bicycling and swimming. My parents didn’t coddle me, but instead, encouraged me to be as active as I could be.
One fear that I recall happened in a place where I felt safe otherwise. I had been taking swimming lessons since I was four or five years old, so I was at home in the water. Our community pool had a high dive over a 12-foot diving well and it was a goal to take a leap off of it. If memory serves, I was seven (the same year I rode my bike sans training wheels) when I climbed the ladder, heart pounding. I walked to the end of the diving board. As I am writing this, I can feel the rough sensation of the surface under my feet. Standing at the very edge, I looked down into the water that lapped up against the turquoise painted walls and floor. Uh oh… I began to have doubts that I could actually follow through. The only thing that kept me from turning around was that there was a line of other kids behind me, some with their feet already on the ladder. I had to save face. My mother stood eagerly/anxiously on the side of the pool and the lifeguard gazed with a watchful eye, as I jumped into the air and plunged into the cool depths. A moment later, I emerged triumphantly, droplets shaking off my hair. My mother smiled, I smiled and got back in line to do it again. Never again was I afraid to take that kind of leap.
Many years later, in the presence of a friend who is a performance diver, I climbed up on the platform around the pool into which he was about to plunge from an 82-foot tower. Once again, I was certain of my safety, despite my pounding heart. My friend Dan held my hand as we walked around the catwalk and out on to the diving board 20 feet above the parking lot at the New Jersey State Fair. No problem climbing back down the ladder this time, since I wasn’t expected to leap into the water.
These days my fears fall into a different category as I have now crossed the line into the seventh decade of my life. I turned 60 on October 13th, 2018, and although I consider myself adventurous (I traveled to Ireland with a group of people I had never met, six weeks after a nasty bout with pneumonia), I have become more cautious with physical stretches. Stiff knees and hips that call for The Tin Man’s oil can at times, fatigued more easily since a heart attack at age 55, not being as flexible as once I was.
The most daunting challenges are what I call ‘memory blips.’ Those middle age moments that have me forgetting names, directions, tasks and words that I mean to write or say. I can laugh it away, when I am not terrified that it heralds a cognitive downturn. I am doing memory strengthening exercises, taking time to breathe and relax rather than worry. I fear incapacity and needing others to provide care for me. Far easier to be on the giving end of such care as I have done both personally and professionally. Another come clean is the fear of expressing a full range of human emotions. I tell myself that as a clinician who guides others in their expression, I “should know how to do it myself.” It is then that I remember that I don’t need to have all the answers for myself or anyone else. As we all are, I am a work in progress.
That echoes some of the fears that many of my clients face. In any given week, I hear stories about social anxiety to the extent that they can’t even look people in the eye for fear of being thought lacking in some way, and that those who look back at them will be able to see through their skull into their mind. The fear deceives them into believing they will never be enough. Other fears roar at them that their desires will not come to fruition, since they were told by less than well meaning adults that they will fail at everything they attempt. Some don’t even bother as a result of that belief and further, convince themselves that they don’t want it.
I have heard clients tell me that they are afraid to drive since it takes so much attention to details and they don’t feel they are ready to take it on. In that case, I would encourage waiting and learning how to be fully prepared before taking to the road.
Some absorb the fears of their parents who never moved off dead center since it seemed safer. Many grew up in families steeped in ancestral terror of obliteration. I know people whose families were in concentration camps, who lived in violent neighborhoods, who survived bombings.
There are moments when the inner tectonic plate shifts turn to outer tremors and they are incapacitated. Getting out from under the covers is a monumental task. Fear of abandonment looms large as love seems evasive. Some people are pulled under the waves by wondering when the next mood swing will occur and send them reeling. Others are scared of becoming like their mentally ill parent whose unpredictable behavior kept them on their toes.
With all of these courageous people (and indeed they are, since they got themselves out of bed, into their cars and managed to arrive for our session) I encourage looking the fear square in the face I ask them to see the fear as a person, animal or object and have a conversation in which they set the tone and agenda. What does the fear want them to learn? Once that lesson is integrated, fear has no hold on them. That is what freedom tastes like.
What would you do if you were brave?