Okay, you’re scared. It’s time to talk about scared.
Fine. I am one to talk. I spent the better part of an hour today freaking out inside and feeling super scared about something that is going on right now in my life. A big something with a capital B-big. After an hour of feeling scared, I thought that was enough. So I decided to do something about it. And I am going to tell you what I did to talk myself through my scaredyness and freaking out-y-ness, because I know that sometimes you feel scared. And it feels terrible. I know it feels terrible. It feels hopeless and terrifying and impossible. You want someone or something to make it all better when it feels like this.
I am going to walk you through your scared place to the other side of it. I can’t make it all better but I can hold your hand and tell you some things that will help change your experience (if you are feeling scared now), or some other day down the road when you need it.
But first, a question.
What is it, exactly, that you are scared of?
I have this hypothetical friend who is a writer. (Okay, it’s me, but let’s pretend it’s not, okay?) She is writing a book and from time to time I lend a willing ear while she talks things through so she can get to the next step of writing her book. One day she told me she felt stuck. Couldn’t write a word, or the words were coming so slowly that snails were racing one another on the pages and were winning.
(small detour while you consider what happens when snails race across the book you’re trying to write)
“Okay, you’re stuck,” I said. “What are you afraid of?”
“I am afraid I will never finish this book, ” she said. “It will never get written. No one will hear my story. If no one hears my story, I am afraid it isn’t important.”
Creative folk have stories to tell. Women who create (that’s you, whether or not you pick up a paintbrush or glue gun — you’re a woman, ergo you create) feel more real and alive when they have a way to express and share their story. It’s like the Zen koan about the tree falling in the forest: if a woman’s story dies inside her and no one hears it, did it really happen? Is she truly alive?
Maybe what you fear isn’t of not being alive. Maybe it’s something else, something closer to home that kicks you in the gut. Like, maybe you want a baby so badly you can taste it but you are afraid you will 1) never find a partner or 2) never feel ready or 3) that you will turn into your mother somehow when you do have a baby. Or, maybe you have 3 kids already and your belly has become a squishy road map and you are afraid you’ll never have a moment’s peace or that you will have to do the raising-kids thing alone or that you will never ever write that novel or paint that picture. Maybe you fear failing, or NOT failing, or that someone long ago was right about you when they said you’d never be happy or amount to much..
Figuring out what you are really scared of isn’t easy
Our minds play tricks on us that make it hard to find out what really scares us. We think we fear one thing but there is almost always, 99 times out of 100, something deeper and darker that we are REALLY scared of.
So, to figure out what to do when you feel scared, first you have to lay all your cards on the table. Get some light on what scares you. When your fears are in the dark, they get stronger. They have more power. Have you noticed that?
Remember years ago when you were checking under your bed for monsters? You just knew that if you dangled a foot over the edge of the bed, or made a run for it to get to the bathroom, you’d be swallowed up by the horrible monster under your bed, right? But did you ever notice that you NEVER SAW THE MONSTER IN DAYLIGHT? That’s because monsters need darkness. So get yours out into the light.
This is how you do that..
Step #1. But first! Breathe!
Our bodies are quite amazing. They protect us from all sorts of threats. This is one reason we have survived so long as a species, because our bodies instinctively knew what to do when there were saber tooth tigers nearby.
The problem is, when we feel scared ALL THE TIME, we forget to tell our hypothalamus to chill out. Hypothalamus? That’s the part of our brain that goes “OMG OMG Tigers!” and then does a fight-flight-or-freeze response so we don’t get eaten by tigers and miss all the episodes of So You Think You Can Dance that we haven’t yet caught up on. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, making us tense and alert. It also tells the adrenal-cortical system to dump a cocktail of hormones into our system. Eeek!
The result of all this (OMG OMG Tigers!) is that we stand ready for fight, flight, or freeze. One way of being ready is by regulating the breath: when we feel scared we take quick little shallow breaths from the top of our chest.
So when you are feeling scared about, say, not finishing the book you are writing, your body is interpreting this as OMG OMG Tigers! And you aren’t breathing.Quickest fix on the planet for being scared: breathe.
Quickest fix on the planet for being scared: breathe.
Slow down your breathing. Freaking out? A little? Right now? Then breathe. Relax your belly. Breathe down into your lower belly. Place your feet flat on the floor. Breathe down into the soles of your feet. Nice, full, deep breaths.
Works like a charm. That is Step #1. Return to Step #1 as often as you need to.
Or! Bonus! Sometimes when you breathe, you get space for Perspective. Which means that the horrible Thing that you were afraid of isn’t that horrible after all. Like in the morning when the monsters go back under the bed where they came from.
However. Still need to carry on? Awesome. Then you are ready for Step #2..
Step #2. Operation Daylight
Ask yourself, What is the worst thing that can happen?
Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that if you think about the worst thing that can happen, that YOU WILL MAKE IT COME TRUE. You will get stuck in suck, an endless whirlpool of What If and Things Gone Horribly Wrong. I am here to tell you that it doesn’t work that way. You have magic superpowers, yes, but making your worst fear come true is not one of them. Not if you do it the way I am going to tell you.
So when you ask yourself What is the worst thing that can happen, really go into it. Don’t hold back. Be ridiculous. If, like my hypothetical writer-friend, you worry that you will never finish your project, then go all the way with it. Don’t stop with, “I have this nameless fear about never finishing this book .” Keep going. Think about what could happen when you do not ever finish your book. Your story stays inside you. No one reads it. No one truly “gets” you. Your story isn’t important.
Still with me?
In your Worst Case Scenario, you live a life that is unimportant. Feel what that feels like for a sec. Stay with it.
Now, go deeper. What does living an unimportant life say about you? Or, rather, what are you afraid it might say about you?
- That you’re a loser?
- That you are invisible?
- That you are a fuck-up?
- That no one likes you?
- That you don’t deserve good things?
- That you are alone?
Chances are, your fear of not finishing your creative project comes from a deeper fear like one of these. These are pretty universal fears.
You can apply Operation Daylight on any fear — deep down, there is always a primal fear (my life is meaningless) that we are touching when we feel into one of our surface fears (I might not finish my book).
Now that you are open and vulnerable and feeling into the Deep Suck of your primal fear, it’s time to throw open the doors and windows and really get into your fear. We are going to play What If.
Step #3. A little game I call What If…?
Playing What If can be amazingly empowering. All sorts of good things open up and appear magically when you LET GO of what you’ve resisted and instead OPEN UP to All That is. There is true gold inside your fear! You just have to get inside it enough to see the gold.
This is how What If works. You try on how it feels to be what you most fear. Try it on and wear it like a really cool and unusual outfit. For instance — don’t think you’re much of a Steampunk girl? You never know until you’ve strapped on a pair of goggles over your top hat — maybe Steampunk really IS you, the You that was deep inside underneath. Try on your fears the way you might a maxi dress, or a thong — you don’t know how it feels until you let yourself FEEL it.
Here we go with an example of how playing What If might go if you apply it to the fear of Being a Loser:
What If… you are a loser?
If I am a loser then no one likes me. No one ever calls me. My clothes probably smell, because I forget to do my laundry. I eat a lot of cookies, because, why not? I watch a lot of TV.
[insert voice of Sigmund Freud, pushing his glasses up on his nose and scribbling notes on a pad while you talk]
Yes, yes…go on…
If I am a loser, I lose my job. I have to get another job. But everyone knows I am a loser, so I can’t get a job in my old field anymore. I have to do something else…. something…
Yes, yes…go on…
I watch a LOT of TV. Boy, do I ever know TV! Huh. I could write way better scripts than they can. With one hand tied behind my back. Hey! Maybe I should! I should write screen plays! That would be…like…fun!
So you have hypothetically let go of your job? Very in-te-res-ting. How does that feel?
It feels…good. I’m a loser. HEY! I’M A LOSER! I have nothing to lose. Because I AM a loser. No one expects anything of me. I can let go of pleasing. I can let go of trying. I can do what I want. Make use of all that TV I’ve watched all these years. I can just be… me.
And… I’m NOT a loser. I was just afraid that I was one, so… I kind of WAS one. Huh.
Next up: firing Dr. Freud, getting off that couch, and turning your frown upside down.
Step #4. Turn That Frown Upside Down
So you touched into your deep fear, and you walked in it. You found out that what scared you wasn’t so scary after all.
Now go tell someone else about it.
There is power in sharing yourself. your story, and your process. There is power in opening a part of yourself to someone else and letting them take you in — the new, bigger You. Once you share your fear with someone, you are ready to take action. You’re no longer reacting to tigers. You can choose wisely and choose well, and from a place that helps you make better and better choices in the future.Congratulations. That’s what “facing your fears” REALLY is.
And the thing I was afraid of? I slayed that bad boy
First I breathed. Then I listened in and deep to my inner voice. I heard what it was I was really afraid of. And I chose to keep the door closed to the Whirlpool of Suck and to instead focus on my Daring Plan of Action. And now I am telling you about it. My fear? A silly thing about money — not having any. My deeper fear was that my work doesn’t matter, that I don’t matter. My way through was to focus on what I know that does matter, and how that feels. And now I have told you. Thanks for listening.
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