San Francisco, CA
This past weekend I was lucky enough to catch up with a good friend who lives on the other side of the world. He mentioned that a friend of his was afraid about many things. Afraid about things happening. Afraid about things not happening. Afraid about being liked. Afraid about not being liked.
When my boyfriend passed away unexpectedly in 2010, I found myself scared of so many things. I was afraid of never falling in love again, afraid I would fall in love again, afraid I would fall in love and then that person would pass away, afraid I would forget him, afraid I would always remember him, afraid of being judged for grieving in my own way, afraid that what I felt was real, afraid that what I felt was false. The list went on for pages in my journal.
Writing down the list of fears helped immensely. I found that the first step in moving through the fear was simply to name it. Give it form and substance. Put words to it. I didn’t worry about the ‘why?’ behind it; tracing each fear back to its psychological source wasn’t the point. The point was getting rid of the fears. And to get rid of them, I needed to know what they were.
My list of fears was very long.
Then, I had to face them. By facing, I do not mean doing the thing you’re afraid of or overcoming it in some forceful way (e.g., intercontinental flights for those afraid of flying). Instead, by facing, I mean just that: turning my face towards the fear. The point was to look at each fear instead of hiding from it. I needed to accept them. And most of all, I needed to say yes to them.
So, for each fear, I just said “yes” to it. This was not a “yes” that I wished the fear would materialize, but instead an acknowledgment of its possibility. “Yes, I might end up alone.” “Yes, people may judge me.” “Yes, I might never be able to move past this.” I just said yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes, that might happen. Yes, this might happen. Yes, yes, yes. I said yes. I cried yes. I kept going with yes until there was nothing left.
And soon, I moved to a place of: “Okay. Yes. But so what? So what if it does happen? If that’s what’s going to happen, then I’ll deal with it.” And at that point the yes turned into a sort of acceptance of possibilities.
What I realized was that before I found yes, I was running from every fear. I was doing whatever I could to escape them. Trying every tactic. (It felt something like this.) I was exhausted.
But when I stopped running, turned to face my fears, and said yes, the fear passed right through me. I always thought that once it caught me (like Coyote catching the Roadrunner), I would be destroyed. But instead, when I stopped and let it catch up with me, it evaporated, ghost-like. It’s almost like my fears passed through straight through me.
When I started saying yes to fear, I also saw that the thing I feared and the fear itself were distinct (FDR got this one right; in the very first paragraph of his First Inaugural Address). If the feared thing happened, whatever it was, I could deal with it. Step-by-step, I would figure it out, because that’s what humans do. But there was no use in being afraid of it. Why work myself up emotionally for a possible situation in the future? Saying yes allowed me to let this go instead of ducking, dodging, hiding, and running to avoid it.
My mental image of running from and then facing fear is that of Bugs Bunny. He runs away from Yosemite Sam, that creepy monster or some other cartoon villain with all his might. But what actually diffuses the situation is stopping and facing the bugaboo. Stopping and facing lets us see that the villain – the fear – is laughable and inept.
If you are looking to let go of fear (or simply anxiety or nervousness), you can take the same approach:
- Make a long list of the things you’re afraid of. It can be anything. Fear of things happening, fear of things not happening, fear of the judgment of others, fear of how you’ll perceive yourself. Keep writing until you have no more fears to share. (“I am afraid of not having enough money,” “I am afraid of my kids not going to the right school,” “I am afraid if I speak up people will think I’m too assertive,” “I am afraid that if I don’t go to PTA meetings, people will think I’m a bad parent.” Whatever it is.)
- Go through the list. Say yes to each one. Keep on saying yes until the fear loses its magnitude
- When you’re feeling afraid again, come back to the list or repeat the exercise anew. Write down your fears, say yes to each one, and let them go
Wishing you all love without fear,