Fighting fear

Fear is the great paralyzing force of life. For me that’s certainly been true.

Let me count the ways I fear:

I fear death, illness, or injury to people I love.

I fear catastrophe…the unforeseen and unstoppable forces that assault life.

I fear loss…loss of relationships, loss of security, loss of order.

I fear uncertainty. I fear choosing poorly.

I fear my own inadequacies and failings.

Out of all of these, what do I control?

The reality is: not much.

I can do my best to be prepared, to be the person I want to be in any given circumstance.

But so much is beyond me, beyond my reach.

When I accept that, the next step is to look at what I can control.

Fear is never going to completely go away. But I can divide fear into the category of “what can I do about it?” and “I can’t do anything about it.”

Thinking about fear this way helps. Helps me focus on what I can manage, prepare for, guard against. One thing I’ve learned to do: I ask what’s behind the obvious fear. For example, if I’m afraid of losing my job, what’s that really about? The job, or what the job represents? Is it the specific job I want to hold, or the security for my family that the job provides?

If I can break fear down, know what’s really behind it, I know what’s critical. I can plan for the possible loss I see on the horizon, do what I can to brace myself.

The other kind of fear? Well, that I have to set aside. No worrying or planning can prevent natural disasters, accidents, life-threatening disease. I don’t want to lose the best of life worrying about the worst of life. That would be a tragedy in every way.

Fear can be a good thing, a motivating thing, when I know how to manage it. It can be a cautionary response to something dangerous.

I won’t say fear is a friend. But it doesn’t have to be the enemy either.

Fear is just an emotion that can give me information. ~ Ed McClune

When I think of it this way, it’s manageable. Fear no longer controls me. I won’t say I control fear. But at least I’m no longer paralyzed by it.

And that’s a good beginning.

When I’m not paralyzed, I can move, and when I move, I progress.

It’s never going to be easy to beat back fear. It is doable. But you have to be fierce about it…fight it. Grow strong. Become resolved. That only happens with time, and proving to yourself that it’s actually possible to outlive your fears.

Yes, sometimes the worst happens. This is life, and there’s no escaping the realities that cause fear. But somehow, somehow, survival may be possible. And if you can survive, you can find your way through fear. One baby step at a time.

What information is fear giving you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The truth hurts; or…the truth will set you free

Last week was intense. I spent my days at a small retreat center in St. Helena, in Napa Valley, California. Does that sound stressful? No?

I took part in a residential program hosted by The Hoffman Institute.

Forty students and six teachers gathered to spend the week learning, sharing, exploring, and confronting.

Some were there to confront past relationships and family dysfunction. Others were there to discern direction for their lives. Still others were there to change self-image, or overcome fears.

All of us were there to confront ourselves, our patterns of behavior, and to grow in our capacity to love and be loved.

We followed a planned curriculum, working through concepts, tools, and experience.

It was a hard week, for some more than others.

The teachers were kind, the food was great, just as you’d expect from a retreat center in northern California.

No wine though, in case you think about going.

Our focus was on dealing with the past, in whatever form it held us back.

It turns out that a lot of my messages to myself aren’t really very helpful.

I know, it was hard for me to believe, too.

I’m such a positive person, so upbeat, really, so cheerful, so easy-going.

Well, I discovered some of that isn’t really true. I mean, I present it as true. I even live it that way. But it’s not how I really feel.

Example: I give myself, and others, a message that I’m a writer, but I follow that acknowledgement with some self-deprecating comment about “don’t look for me on the NY Times bestseller list any time soon!”

Why do I do that? I think it’s to put out there that I might not be successful…sort of like, if I acknowledge that possibility up front, then when I live up to that low expectation, no one is surprised, least of all me, and no one laughs at me for having grandiose dreams.

Whew! I saved myself from that one, didn’t I?!

Here’s another thing I do.

Sometimes I’m nervous about my relationship. When things feel tense or stressed, I sometimes say, “Are you ok?”

What I really mean is: “Am I ok? Am I safe? Are we ok?”

Funny how we use one set of words to mean something else entirely.

Of course, I don’t intentionally substitute words I say for words I mean. I like to think I’m honest and direct.

Sadly, I have to face the reality that sometimes I’m really not….not clear with myself, or clear with the people around me.

It’s a little disheartening to have your defenses dismantled and have to decide what to do with that information.

Another thing I do…I self-censor. I don’t confront, to the point of limiting potential for intimacy. For how can anyone really know me if I have such high walls that not much can get in, or out? Yes, I’m being polite and kind and easy to get along with. I’m also distant, though most people wouldn’t think that. I am kindness and helpfulness personified.

But steel plated none-the-less.

The teachers were very kind, encouraging, inspiring. They challenged us to live with integrity, to love and allow ourselves to be loved. They challenged us to be big.

Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.  ~ Richard Bach

So what do I do now?

I’m going to enlarge my dreams, quit worrying about what others think so much. No, I’m not going to go to the other extreme. But how did I come to think it’s smart or wise to argue for my limitations? Life will knock me down enough without me adding my own spirit to the process. I know that. And trying to protect myself with some advance notice that I’m not likely to be a best-selling author is not doing me or anyone else any good.

So now…I am a writer. I plan to be successful. I don’t need to project what that will look like. But I can at least forecast something positive and hopeful. Why wouldn’t I? The worst that will happen is that I’m not, in fact, successful, which won’t really matter to anyone else anyway.

And as for other ways I’ve been fearful….I don’t know what’s happened, but I’m not feeling that now. I’ve recognized that fear doesn’t help me avoid the hard things of life…it just prolongs them. It doesn’t save me anything. It makes difficulties harder.

Another side benefit of the week: there are almost 50 people who know a bit about my frailties, and I know something of theirs. That makes us a unique little community, able to support each other from time zones and continents across the world, thanks to email and phones. It’s a rare thing to make even a couple of new friends in a week’s time. But fifty?! That must be some kind of record. At least it is for me.

Well well…maybe it was easy an easy week after all.

Top 10 ways to soothe when you need relief

I know a bit about needing relief. I’ve felt that many days, from different sources of stress: relationships, health, financial pressures, uncertainty over a looming decision, all difficult in different ways. Depending on the weight of the issue, sometimes it feels like I can barely function, other times the worry is like an overlay…or maybe an underlay… on top of everything else going on.

When I’m struggling with something heavy on my heart, I need to cocoon and hide myself. In the hardest moments, I want to sleep. I know that’s a sign of depression, and though I’ve never been clinically depressed, I know sleep is a coping mechanism for dealing with difficult emotional issues.

I also find it hard to stay focused and be productive. I’ve learned that action is a good antidote to feeling sad, but it can be hard to jump-start myself.

My automatic response to distress is to mask what’s bothering me…not sure if somehow I think that will make the situation go away, or if it’s a retreat from confronting what’s painful…if I ignore it, I won’t have to deal with it.

My way of describing this is “putting on the face.” You know, when you act like life is normal, you greet co-workers, go through the motions, even manage to smile and do whatever is on your agenda.

But all the time, inside you’re dying. You’re dying to hear from someone, or about something, or afraid of an approaching deadline.

You’re afraid.

Fear and I are old friends. I can tell the extent of my stress by the persistence of the “engine” of fear I feel running in my stomach. You know when you hear references to the feeling in the pit of your stomach? Yes, that’s the one I mean…fear that is so real you can feel it.

It wakes me up at night, this fear. It rouses me from sound sleep to course through me, my mind moving back to familiar grooves as I think about whatever the issue is, once again.

So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, sometimes there’s not one.

Some fears do come true, and there’s no changing that. Tests come back with scary results. People die. Bad things happen.

Some situations are not about circumstances that are beyond our control, but about people who are beyond control. Wouldn’t life be easy if everyone did what I want them to do? Well, that’s not happening either. Or at least, not in a predictable way.

So, how can you find relief, some measure of peace, some way to cope that’s healthy and sustainable?

Because let’s face it, there are all sorts of answers that are not healthy, not sustainable, not realistic.

I can’t sleep my troubles away, don’t want to medicate to handle life, and living in denial doesn’t help either.

So this is what I do…my top ten ways to comfort and soothe when I’m in the valley:

  1. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I imagine the worst. I just go ahead and get it over with. What if my worst fears come true? What will happen then? Of course I can’t foresee exactly what variables could come into play. But by going to my imagined worst-case scenario, I create a vision of what I would do, what I could do. By facing the worst, I can have at least a minimum plan of response. Maybe I’d need to travel, or consider how a situation would impact financially. I try to think through options in advance. Instead of seeing this as dwelling on the negative, I view this as confronting and planning ahead so I’m prepared, as well as I can be.

  2. Once I’ve imagined the worst and think of how I would address it, I imagine the best. What if the best possible outcome happens? What then? I imagine how that result would impact me…even good outcomes can create change, and I want to be aware so I can be prepared for the good as well as the bad. At least this step is positive and more hopeful than the first, so it’s an easier exercise.

  3. I think about things that I can do to soothe in the moment. Sometimes that means doing something physical, like a work out, or just getting out and going for a drive. Other ideas: clean something, paint something, cook something. Do anything that is a positive physical act that gets me moving and helps me feel productive. Stay on top of day-to-day chores. Nothing is more paralyzing than letting go of your physical environment when you’re mentally stressed…if you’re already fragile, living in chaos will only make it worse. Put your mind on auto-pilot and force yourself to keep a routine going. On the other hand, if you can’t do something active, try being still. Meditate and just breathe.

  4. I have a number of “go to” authors that I read when I need encouragement or comfort, or even a challenge to hold on and breathe and be strong. Knowing whose voices will speak to my heart and mind is a good tool to have in my arsenal to ward off sadness and depression.

  5. I think about who among family and friends I can reach to, not necessarily to talk about what’s troubling me, but just for the connection. When I can have a “normal” conversation about the day-to-day, it reminds me that there are a lot of wonderful people and good things in life beyond the concern of the moment, and it helps to distract me for a while, at least on a surface level.

  6. I talk out loud to myself, usually while I pace, or drive. This one may seem strange, and I don’t do it when I’m with anyone else, but it really helps me to work through my plans, fears, hopes, etc., to hear the words out loud. It’s almost like I can move outside myself and get a little perspective.

  7. I try to get out and meet a friend, have dinner with someone, do something to break my day or evening, change the conversation going on in my mind. That can’t happen every day, but having something on my calendar helps me to look forward to a change of pace, and something that is uplifting. This also includes things like doing something helpful for someone else…anything that gets me out and connecting with other people is a mood lifter, and a distraction, and that’s healthy. I try to do this even if I’m not in the mood to do it at the beginning. Acting my way to feeling better is a positive way to improve my mindset.

  8. I write. I’m a writer, so that’s therapeutic for me. If I can put what bothers me into words, I can get a better grip on the whole thing. I can vent, rant, be sad, talk it all out on paper, and oddly, writing through an issue gives me a different perspective than talking it through out loud or with someone else. It also gives me a record to review down the road. It’s a good check to see if I’ve sorted myself out and resolved what’s troubling me. I don’t try to keep a daily journal when I’m stressed, I write as I feel the need. But I do keep what I write, sometimes just until I have an answer, and sometimes longer if the issue is deeper, and something I may need to visit again.

  9. I talk it out with a trusted soul. Depending on the issue, everyone in my life may know what’s going on, or only a select few. I don’t like to air my issues casually, but being able to open up to the right person or group can do a world of good.

  10. I pray, if possible, out loud, or I sometimes write my prayers. If you’re not a praying person, this one won’t help. For me, there’s relief in taking my heart to God, and believing that he hears and cares about what hurts in my life.

So that’s it. I hope, next time you feel your fear, some of these ideas will help. And if you have a great strategy for dragon-slaying, please share…I can always use another weapon in my arsenal!  ~ Sheila

New skills; or, 50 and fearless!

So, after a bit of agonizing over my inevitable 50th birthday… inevitable since I’ve continued to live…I have come to terms with my new decade. I turned 50 in September, and although I don’t want to seem totally self-absorbed, it gave me a little heartburn to realize that I’m now officially old enough for an AARP membership.

I’ve heard some women speak of being “50 and fabulous,” and while that’s a line I’d love to claim for myself, I can’t honestly say that I’m fabulous on a daily basis. My fabulous moments are somewhat hit and miss. Most of the time I have to categorize myself more in the “doing the best I can” mode.

My new phrase that celebrates turning 50 and showcases the spirit I’m striving for is “50 and fearless.” This is not to say that there are not plenty of things in life worthy of fear. Serious illness, loss, concerns about family, relationship issues, money troubles, the leak in my bathroom…all bring some level of fear to my mind. Some fears are easily calmed, and anything that can be resolved with money, in my opinion, is not too big a problem in the first place. It’s only money, right? But some fears are too real, too big, to gloss over with a pep talk. Some things can’t be bought with money. Some things have to be accepted, acknowledged, lived with.

But the attitude…that’s what I want. The spirit of fearlessness is my goal. The spirit that says “bring it on, I’ll find a way to meet this challenge with grace and dignity.” And if I can nurture that attitude in myself, if I can face life with boldness, then maybe turning 50 will be ok after all. It feels a bit like arriving, although I don’t claim to have everything figured out. But by this point in my life, I’ve lived long enough to know that whatever comes, most likely the process of finding a solution to a problem, or finding the grace to accept, will stretch me in new ways, will broaden my horizons, will bring new insight. And after all, isn’t that valuable in itself? I know more, and less, now than I did at 20. I am more confident and more tolerant, less sure that I have the answers to everything. But I believe I am kinder, gentler, softer, and yet have more ability to endure. And as I take stock of myself at the beginning of this new decade, I’d like to believe I’m progressing, not just aging.

So that’s my goal and challenge to myself: to be 50 and fearless. To be courageous and to embrace whatever comes; to seek the opportunity to grow, to stretch, to find new strengths, new skills, new horizons. And who knows? Maybe one day I will be fabulous as well as fearless…with a lot of effort, and a generous supply of grace.