This post is Part Two of a seven-part series on Creative Living. To catch up, or understand the context, read “Get a (Creative) Life!” , which I posted just a couple weeks ago.
In her last book, Big Magic, Liz Gilbert tackled the very uncomfortable subject of FEAR – what it is, what it does and how to handle it.
Some of us walk around all day, every day, on the edge of FEAR. We are intimately familiar with what it feels like to swim in the warm bath of constant anxiety, always teetering on the edge of panic and overreaction to everything that might go wrong.
Others of us walk around completely unaware of our FEAR, confident that everything will turn out okay and taking risks that others might call foolish.
Most of us walk the line somewhere in the middle, complacent in our patterns, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got our bases covered, until, that is, we decide to do something new. That’s when FEAR gets us. In any endeavor, which takes us beyond our comfort zone, FEAR is our most ready companion.
But the funny thing about FEAR, LG observed, is that it doesn’t always show up in its most obvious form – the racing heart and sweaty pits. Most of the time FEAR arrives in a fantabulous disguise. It walks into our psyche dressed up like reasonableness, maturity, cynicism, depression, or my FEAR’s personal favorite, perfectionism, which LG calls, “FEAR in high heels.”
While the cultural narrative about FEAR is that we have to “kick its ass,” and “shut it down,” LG takes a kinder, gentler approach. She thinks we should welcome FEAR and appreciate all that it’s done for us over the years, all the ways it’s kept us safe from muggers and rapists and getting into cars with drunk drivers. Our FEAR is the reason we’re alive. But, and this is a BIG but, FEAR is one voice in our head – not the only one and so we shouldn’t give it exclusive decision-making power. LG clarifies that “Fear gives us information; not orders. It is there for risk assessment; not project management.” When her FEAR gets bossy, LG gently reminds it: “No one is going to die if I write a bad poem.” Truer words were never spoken and it applies to 90% of the things we’d try if we weren’t so damn afraid.
According to Rob Bell and Liz Gilbert, the antidote to FEAR is COURAGE.
When they mentioned that word, I cringed. “Darn,” I thought. “I don’t have that. I guess FEAR will be making the decisions forever.” I think of COURAGE as a big, showy virtue, something that manifests itself as you ride into battle, or fight cancer, or save someone from a burning building. There are not a lot of threats waiting behind bushes in suburban San Diego.
But, as RB pointed out, COURAGE can be a little thing too. It shows up in the way we just keep going amidst all the daily failures that take place in our lives and work and family. If we haven’t quit and run by this point, we have manifested COURAGE. “Courage is the thousand little steps you took to get here” – to this moment (RB). The lives we have took COURAGE to achieve, so the least we can do is give ourselves some grace for just getting up off the floor.
I liked that and sat up a little bit straighter in my chair.
LG talked more about BIG COURAGE – about making changes, taking risks, living creatively, more beholden to our dreams more than our fear. “Creative living,” she said, “is any time you make decisions more out of curiosity than fear. Then your life becomes your work of art. You are co-creating with the universe.” The universe is essentially creative – new things are always coming up, growing, arising. Having steadfast COURAGE means you live that way daily – choosing curiosity, possibility, and Love over FEAR.
If that sounded like something we’d like to do, a way we’d like to live, then LG had a task for us – to write a letter to ourselves from our FEAR. What if, instead of denying, or suppressing it, we just said to our FEAR: “What is it that you’d like to tell me? If I promise to listen without freaking out, or shutting you down, what would you like me to know?”
Feeling a little stuck in my creative process, I decided I’d take the challenge and ask my FEAR the question.
And with great vulnerability (and FEAR), I’m sharing (most of) its response here. Remember, this wasn’t an exercise in rationality, or objective truth. This was an exercise in uncovering the subconscious narrative that dominates our psyches and shapes our lives in ways we aren’t even aware of.
I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you:
From the time you were small, you were afraid of being rejected. You felt dorky, unaccepted, unwanted and “less than” in so many ways – mostly from your peers, but maybe even sometimes from your super-sporty dad. But when you approached your late teens and early twenties, you started to come out of that phase and find some acceptance. You felt like the ugly duckling that became the swan. And yet, this is our problem! I am afraid of you being unmasked and being seen as the ugly – stupid, failing, out-of-place, desperate – duckling again. When you send out those query letters to agents and publishers, I can’t stand it. It’s like you are begging for acceptance and affirmation from the “cool kids” again. And so every bit of failure, of non-response, or not being chosen, or being ignored, makes me terrified that the mask is being stripped away and you will end up the ugly duckling again.
All of life these days – the getting older, gaining weight, trying to write a book, get published, get speaking jobs, self-marketing, all the ways you aren’t succeeding, tells me that I’m right. I know deep down that the swan is just a façade and the ugly duckling is the ultimate truth of who you are and I want to protect you from figuring that out! What if you really are the sum total of your failures?
Ali, when you are centered in your silence and stillness, when you stay in your lane, the places where you know you belong and shine – like being a mom, a wife, or even a blog writer at this point – I can calm down. In fact, I hardly notice any danger at all, so I don’t need to act up, but you trying to publish a book, or expand your dreams makes me crazy! Terrified! Please, stop all this striving nonsense and let me go back to napping in the corner! We both liked it so much better when you could just ignore me!
Sigh. I hated sharing that letter here. It feels absolutely humiliating. As a matter of fact, I asked Tim to read the post and tell me if he thought I absolutely had to include it. He rolled his eyes at me and said, “Who am I talking to? Ali, or her FEAR? Because the letter’s where it actually gets interesting.” To be fair, he wasn’t trying to be mean; he had just already heard the set-up in person.
Damn, FEAR’s sneaky ways! It manifests beautifully in the editorial process, encouraging me to remove any signs of weakness.
But after I wrote the letter and reviewed what my FEAR wanted me to know, I understood something new. I hadn’t thought about “The Ugly Duckling” story in years, though I had always loved it. Apparently my subconscious had been waiting for just the right moment to bring it up. The story of “The Ugly Duckling” isn’t just about becoming beautiful. In fact, beauty is never really the issue. The story is about trying to fit in, be accepted and affirmed for who you are; it’s about finding your tribe. No matter where the ugly duckling went, no matter what he looked like, he was ostracized.
Friends who have only known me as an adult frequently express surprise, or disbelief over my insecurities, so here’s a picture. It’s a great snapshot of my “ugly duckling” days in more ways than one.
In this photo, circa 1980, I am nine years old and seated next to Anne Ketchersid, the prettiest girl in our age group, which was a real confidence booster. Check out the pale, freckled skin, mousy brown hair and gap-toothed grin. If that visage weren’t enough, I was also figuring out who I was, which turned out to be smart, religious, and overly eager to please my teachers. Those traits earned me all sorts of unpleasant nicknames from my classmates, mostly the obvious ones like Freckle Face, Skinny Bones Jones, Teacher’s Pet, Narc, Goody-Two-Shoes, or Goody Good, (to which my sweet, but utterly unhelpful teacher, Ms. Hobbs, said I should reply with “Well, you’re a baddy-bad!” As unsavvy as I was, even I knew that retort was a terrible idea).
Even though I might have been unhappy with the way I looked, I wasn’t uncomfortable with who I was and I honestly had no idea how to be otherwise. I had no appreciable qualities that a wider swathe of the student body would have found attractive. I wasn’t funny, sporty, musical, theatrical, stylish, or even simply rich, which left me with a quite small, eclectic tribe of other ugly ducklings. (Hi Mary Beth and Jenny T!) In sixth grade, we spent most of our lunches in the library, reading the Little House on the Prairie series over and over again until the librarian, Mrs. Deakers, told us that we weren’t allowed to come in any more. The principal had decided it wasn’t healthy for us and we needed to spend at least some time outdoors.
We outsmarted her though. Instead of embarrassing ourselves by attempting to do something athletic, or foolishly trying to join the scary flock of junior high girls, only to be shooed away, we moved to the outdoor lunch tables out of sight of the office and founded the Uno Club. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds and no, we never got anyone else to join. For months on end, we played Uno against each other, handing out prizes to the high-point winner when the bell rang. The lucky girl might walk away with a mini-sewing kit, a stick of gum, or stale Tootsie Pop. While our peers hung out in co-ed groups, listening to Spandau Ballet on their boom boxes, we perfected the art of “otherness,” one that has stayed with me to this day, even as I “fit in” more easily.
I will admit, I blossomed, physically and socially, but it was a gradual process. This is one of the first pictures taken of me when I felt confident in my own skin. I was a senior in high school. I was still smart, still religious and still managed to make friends with all my teachers, but I had learned to camouflage those qualities behind a curtain of long blonde hair and a love of laughter. I was funny, it turns out, in a Lucille Ball kind of way. Pratfalls came naturally to me, since I had so many years of practice, tripping and falling over my own feet. If people are going to laugh at you anyway, you might as well seem like you’re in on the joke. I became a good swimmer, got a job as a lifeguard in Huntington Beach, and began to date regularly, though never anyone for very long. It was too hard to keep up the pretense that my insides matched my outsides.
I am coming to grips with the fact that the feeling of “otherness” that my FEAR so desperately wants me to avoid is, in fact, unavoidable. If I want to live authentically, then I’ve got to admit that I am both the swan and the ugly duckling. I can’t separate the two and I can’t control how people perceive me. My FEAR is always going to want to protect me from pain, but it’s just not possible. That is what I need to remind my FEAR: “It’s okay if it hurts. I’m not nine years old any more. I can take it.”
But my FEAR keeps talking, keeps begging me to hit delete, especially on a blog like this one. It is supremely aware that each time I post, especially something like this, I run the risk of “fitting in” a little less. And each time I ask an agent, or a publisher to accept my work, and am told, “You’re not our tribe,” the ugly duckling in me feels pecked away yet again. I get why my FEAR wants to protect me from those feelings, but I have to keep pressing forward.
So, where does that leave me? Where does that leave any of us who hear our FEAR’s impassioned pleas to play it safe and make “good” decisions?
Here’s my take, based on some sage advice from RB and LG:
First, acknowledge your FEAR, the what and why it’s trying to communicate to you. Once you recognize where its coming from, you can feel sympathy towards it and yourself, instead of confusion and shame. Then kindly ask your FEAR to ‘stand down.’ Our lives are not in danger, only our egos and they can take a few more lumps than we’d like to admit.
Then, remind your FEAR that everything is a risk, and NOTHING good comes if we risk nothing at all. You wouldn’t be married, have a child, a job, or even know how to ride a bike if you never risked being rejected, ridiculed, or run off the road. Remember, COURAGE has been present in your journey all along! Give yourself all the credit you need for making it this far.
Finally, remember that FEAR only works in advance. And so, while it’s true that to act is a risk, doing nothing is risky too. As RB so eloquently put it: “There is a risk in denying your True Self, a risk in dying to your dreams and future plans.” Ironically, your FEAR won’t tell you about those risks. It isn’t able to look back and see all the things that went wrong by staying the same, or staying in the same place for too long. FEAR loves the comfort zone, even as it becomes more cramped, less honest and emotionally available. How many dramas and divorces and deaths occur, because we’re too afraid to have the conversations we must and take the actions we can that will lead to greater health and wholeness? Good luck ever getting FEAR to admit when it’s been wrong, but keep pointing it out, because you never know…
When I stand in this place as a woman, a writer, a wife and mother, I have to honor my FEAR. I have to admit how badly I want to listen to it, and then I have to write anyway! I have to live and Love anyway, even as I do it imperfectly. I have to set a good example for my children that FEAR should never have the last word about who you are, or what you do. FEAR is one voice in our heads, but thank God, not the only one and hopefully, not always the loudest.
So, there you go, the first word: FEAR, or rather COURAGE, which is what we’re striving for.
If you are up for it, may I share Liz Gilbert’s prompt for starting the letter from your FEAR?
I am your FEAR and this is what I want to tell you:
I hope you’ll find the time and the COURAGE to hear what it has to say!