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If I wasn’t afraid, I would ask myself why.
For the longest time—ever since I realized how big of a role it plays in my life—I’ve been working toward freeing myself from fear and anxiety.
Anxiety runs in my family. My grandma has an anxiety disorder and has been on medication most of her life, including a few hospitalizations when she was younger. According to my grandpa’s Stasi file, even the Ministry of State Security during the GDR times knew about this.
For my mother, fear has always been a huge part of her life, influencing her actions and how she approaches life in more or less severe ways. Learning that there are potential dangers everywhere we turn, my brother and I bore the repercussions when growing up.
While I see that both my neurobiology and my upbringing wired me to be prone to anxiety, what always felt more interesting to me was to differentiate what was my fear and what were the fears I carried from my maternal ancestors.
Trying to free myself from these fears took different turns in my life.
The partner I chose for 10 years of my life fell on the opposite spectrum as I—never being afraid of anything to the point it wasn’t safe anymore. This made it hard for me to feel what was risky, acceptable, or safe to me.
In my early 20s, I actively sought out the things I was afraid of, just so I could face the fear and be done with it—like scuba diving and skydiving.
But now, as a psychologist, I see that the self-improvement, personal development, and growth industry has a crucial flaw:
We forget to accept ourselves.
While it’s important to challenge our patterns and the way we’re wired, I now believe it’s just as important to meet ourselves with kindness and compassion. Fear is a basic and universal human emotion for a reason; it has a purpose. It wants to protect us from threats and for us to be safe.
There’s no need to compartmentalize our fears, put them in a box that we hide underneath our beds, where perhaps they’ll come out as monsters that visit our dreams. If we’re on the path of self-awareness and healing, there are ways to help our brains differentiate between actual threats and perceived ones.
A lot of people in my life say that I’m brave, and perhaps they are right. I still face my fears when I encounter them, but something has changed.
Today, freeing myself from my fear means finding a balance between accepting that they’re a part of me and stretching their boundaries kindly, so much so that I can breathe a little more freely.
Learning to acknowledge fear as a part of life, as something that belongs to the human experience, can be a crucial step on our healing journey.
In his book Fear, late Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells us how to begin this important process:
“The first part of looking at our fear is just inviting it into our awareness without judgement. We just acknowledge gently that it is there. This brings a lot of relief already. Then, once our fear has calmed down, we can embrace it tenderly and look deeply into its roots, its sources. Understanding the origins of our anxieties and fears will help us let go of them. Is our fear coming from something that is happening right now, or is it an old fear, a fear from when we were small, that we’ve kept inside? When we practice inviting all our fears up, we become aware that we are still alive, that we still have many things to treasure and enjoy. If we are not busy pushing down and managing our fear, we can enjoy the sunshine, the fog, the air, and the water. If you can look deeply into your fear and have a clear vision of it, then you really can live a life that is worthwhile.”
So, if I wasn’t afraid, I’d ask myself why that is. I’d inquire if I have hidden my fears in a box and if they’re just waiting for me to let them out. I’d gently invite them to show themselves, and try to meet them without judgement or criticism.
How are you meeting your fears? What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Feel free to share your insights in the comments.
*This piece was inspired by a writing prompt in a Small Group Meeting of the Find Your Voice course. If you’re looking to write your heart out, consider signing up for Elephant Academy this fall.
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