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It had been a long time since I’d had a nightmare about him.
But there I was, running on legs of rubber, my lungs gasping, my heart hammering.
He was right behind me, screaming and yelling, describing all of the ways he would hurt me once he caught me. I ran through a doorway into a house and closed the door, but before I could turn the lock he was banging, snarling, and pushing on the door. I desperately tried to hold it closed but it was no use, I was going to have to run again.
I leapt from the door and started to run—and then I suddenly stopped before I reached the next room, empowered with a new realization.
I wasn’t afraid anymore.
I turned around and put my hand on the doorknob. In one swift, powerful motion, I swung it open and there he was in all of his snarling glory.
He gaped at me.
“What do you want?”
He just stared at me in some strange, bug-eyed suspended animation, clearly not knowing what to do now. His face continued to contort. He was laughable, a garish caricature of himself now.
“Who do you think you are? This is my house! You are not welcome here! Go away!” I slammed the door in his face, and then I woke up.
Turning around and facing fear has that kind of power.
The brilliant light of our awareness can neutralize demons in nightmares and the really big fears we face in the world when we’re awake. There have been several times in my life when I’ve had to do something I was terrified of. I’d wake up in a panicked sweat, wishing it would just disappear—until I finally mustered up the guts to do the thing I needed to do, only to find my fears fizzle away like mist in the morning sunlight.
When asked why I was so scared of “The Thing,” I’d have to shrug my shoulders and admit sheepishly that I no longer had any idea.
So, how do I get from avoidance to engagement?
Whether I have to call a big, scary financial institution or I’m standing on a diving board, how do I push through the fear and turn around to face the monster?
I’m not a therapist, but I have been through some scary things in my life, and I have spent quite some time growing as a human—which means compassionately pushing my boundaries and leaving my comfort zone to do the things that scare me the most.
Contemplating the moments from frozen to action, I have found a few things that have helped me, and perhaps they will be helpful for you too:
What happens when we are afraid? We shrink, we breathe too fast, and our breath is shallow. Fear likes to steal our breath. Keep breathing, long and steady and deeply. Allow your breath to soothe your experience; let your breath be your solid ground in the screaming chaos.
I have found yoga practice really helps me learn to keep breathing even when my mind and body are freaking out about the posture I’m in. Feel your fear. Don’t push it away and don’t cling to it. Just let it be and keep breathing.
2. Face it—look right at it.
Are you sure you know what you’re looking at? Fear relies on bravado and distortion. I tend to catastrophize, and I’ve found once I catch my breath, it is helpful to repeat this mantra to myself: “It’s not as bad as I think. It’s not as bad as I think.”
3. Make friends with your fear so you can understand it.
Your fear is you. Fear is a necessary part of our biology so we won’t put ourselves in danger. Your fear is ultimately protective.
Maybe something is off about a situation and your rational mind hasn’t picked up on it, but your limbic system has. So, listen to your fear. What is it trying to tell you? What exactly are you afraid of? Perhaps you’re picking up on subtle cues in your environment or perhaps you’re coming up against a limiting belief that needs to be worked through. Either way, your fear can become a powerful ally if you stop running, listen, and ask questions.
4. Trust yourself. Believe in yourself.
Your fear is your fear, no one else’s. To someone else, what scares you is “no big deal and why can’t you just get over it already?” No one else can tell you what is right in this case. Someone else may tell you it’s time to jump, but really you are the only one who knows if you are ready to jump or if you need to retreat and regroup.
In my experience, I have noticed I may not be completely fearless when I jump, but I am always ready when I do. If it is right, know you will eventually be ready. In time, you will get tired of running away or just standing on the edge. If it’s not right, you’ll abandon it and move on to something better.
5. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Start small—there is no need to traumatize yourself by acting before you’re ready because someone else thinks you should (or you think someone else thinks you should).
Sometimes, scary things happen in a way that requires us to act quickly and we don’t have the luxury of being ready. But if we’ve practiced these five steps, then perhaps we’ll have confidence we’ve never had before and things won’t feel so overwhelming. Maybe they’ll be just a little easier.
Ultimately, I’ve found it all comes down to self-love.
All of these things—listening to yourself, trusting and believing in yourself, and making friends with your fear—are all acts of self-love. I think the path of growth is always going to be a little bit uncomfortable and scary, but for me, so far, it has been worth it.
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