Three years ago I began the daunting process of learning to dance with my fear, not so much to conquer it, but at the very least to identify it, to learn to work with it. Because in many ways I had cement blocks for shoes and it became increasingly difficult to move in any direction. I thought life had managed to box me in but the truth was that I was paralyzed by my own fear, the “what if’s” and the “it won’t work” and the myriad road blocks I saw in my head were enough that the end result was total inaction.
Faced with a profound unhappiness with myself and exposed to friends and new ideas, I started pushing up against the fear, naming it, recognizing it, learning to believe in myself, to accept and perhaps even celebrate failure, and ultimately to choose myself.
An impactful workshop, a big move, a lot of loss, and a coached business group later, I was running a non-profit and copyediting for a scholarly publication. Not too shabby, but I had used up all my courage to leap and had nothing in the tank for after the landing. So the fear crept in without my noticing, I felt heavy again, I wasn’t moving things, they were moving me. I was being pushed by life rather than carving out my own path. Something was off, I just didn’t know what it was.
And then I got hit over the head with reality in a way that was so crystal clear it was undeniable. Here’s how it happened…
I was given the opportunity to play a video game, one I’d enjoyed in childhood (Super Metroid, for the curious gamers). Honestly, I’m not much for video games, but seeing as how this one brought back fond memories, I thought, why not? Lucky for me the game was set up for unpracticed individuals (i.e. incompetent) and had a training piece at the beginning to orient the player to all that your character can do. I was quickly reminded why I don’t like these games, I suck at them. Training advanced far more quickly than I wanted, and my pissyness and feeling of ineptitude grew in tandem. Suddenly training was over and the game was to begin. I panicked, I was no where near ready to play, I wanted to start the whole thing over and do the training again. What kind of shitty game gives you a 5 minute tutorial and expects you to be ready! Finally, the patience of my very experienced game partner who had been encouraging me to just play the game and not worry so much, ran out. He said, “This is how you approach life, alway wanting to be prepared, practicing, talking, and rethinking, but you’re never ready, and you don’t actually do anything! It’s just a tutorial, you have to play the game to really learn it! Just play it, you’ll screw it up and then do it again, that’s how you get better at it.”
And there it was, the brutal unmasking of my fear. It was true, my approach to life had become the same timid approach that I was taking with this game. Always looking to feel prepared, to calm the fear and ultimately taking action only when pushed. I felt exposed and hurt but yet oddly relieved because I was face to face with it, there was no guessing, or hiding from it, I knew my foe now. I was upset with myself for having come full circle in letting my fears hold me back again, but there was at least the satisfaction of knowing that I’d danced this dance before.
Seth Godin uses a great metaphor with athletes to deconstruct how to handle our fears. He explains “Consider our avoidance of feeling tired. If you’re unwilling to be tired, unwilling to feel fatigue in your legs, you can’t run a marathon. Successful marathon runners haven’t figured out how to avoid being tired, they’ve figured out where to put the tired when it arrives. If you’re not willing to be tired, you can’t run.”
The same goes for fear. It’s not about making it go away, it’s about knowing where to put it so you can keep on doing your best work. So I have my work cut out for me, but at least I know what I’m dealing with.
Is your fear holding you back? If you’re given the gift of having that fear unmasked, will you take it?