Choosing Not to Be Defined by Fear

“How many of us are held back by fears that make our lives smaller than they need to be, fears that, before we know it, define who we are?”  Patty Chang Anker

I initially wrote this post in the middle of April, just before my mother-in-law was hospitalized with a series of strokes and then lived out her last days with hospice, back in her long-term care facility. While her death was a well-deserved release from suffering, between trying to support my husband as he processes the loss of his mother and coping with a very busy, stressful time at work, I got derailed and am just now getting back to this post.

The interesting thing is that even without looking at it for several weeks, I knew that it was going to be necessary to revise the post because I could sense an evolution in my relationship with fear. I don’t believe that I have conquered my fears completely, but it is encouraging and empowering to acknowledge that changes have taken place over the past several weeks and to know that my conscious work is responsible for the evolution.

This version of the post is quite different than the original one (which I thought was good, but didn’t feel current anymore). When I wrote it a little over a month ago, I still felt very much a prisoner of my fears. In this revised version, I want to share the strategies that I believe have loosened fear’s hold.

Franklin Roosevelt said, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

When I originally wrote this post, Roosevelt’s quote resonated with me because I realized that I had become increasingly fearful in certain areas of my life, thus limiting myself and making my life smaller than I wanted it to be. Fear had crept into aspects of my life in ways and to degrees that I had not previously experienced, and I also had begun to realize the extent to which fear had influenced my decision making. I was afraid that fear would continue to contract my life in the future.

One disturbing area where fear had begun to limit me to a greater and greater extent was the fear of being chased by dogs on my bike. In the 20 years I have been a road cyclist, I have experienced some scary dog chases, especially in the last few years. It had started to get into my head (Patty Chang Anker calls these “sensitizing events” in Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave.), and I had become more and more reluctant to ride out of my “safe,” well-vetted routes. I was still putting in 4,000 to 4,500 miles a year, but I had become less and less courageous when it came to riding outside of my comfort zone. I was feeling ashamed and very limited, almost paralyzed at times, by this fear.

Because I want my life to keep expanding, not shrinking, I made a commitment to work on facing this fear in a conscious and systematic way. While it is not entirely gone, the fear has become more manageable through three primary strategies.

Susan Jeffers says, “The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it. . .. The ‘doing it’ comes before the fear goes away.”

Stepping (or pedaling) past the paralyzing hold of the fear to venture into areas that had recently become too scary (without necessarily having a good reason why) was hard, and it is still tough at times, but as I have pushed myself to ride more and more routes that I have ridden in the past, but had become afraid to ride, I have grown in courage each time. Sometimes that has been because (happily) the dog that had worried me was not around or was there and did not chase. Sometimes a dog did chase, but I handled the situation well and went on to have a good ride. It was a version of self-administered exposure therapy. It still is because the work is ongoing, but I have noticed a real difference. After each ride where I face my fear, I feel a little stronger, a little braver, a little more successful. I do a lot of self-talk—my own version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—and remind myself that I make good decisions, have solid bike-handling skills and use strong judgment. I also reason with myself (e. g., “I have never had a problem on that route.” Or, “I was chased once there, 11 years ago.” Or, things are almost always fine when I ride.”) I also have some tried-and-true mantras that help me feel braver. I repeat those in my head, when I am in areas where I need a little boost in courage.

The second strategy I have used is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or Tapping). I am still very much a novice with this technique, but I do believe that it has played an important role in loosening fear’s grip. For several weeks, I focused specifically on the fear I felt around being chased by dogs on my bike, and now I have felt the pull to use it in other areas to manage stress, indecision, frustration and other conditions from which I would like to be free.

Another contributing factor (the third strategy) was my participation in a Facebook group consisting of wonderful women who came together to share our pursuit of increased courage. Although the courage challenges in the group officially ended the same week my mother-in-law was buried, the strength I gained from choosing to connect and engage with these women helped to prime me so that the work I was doing on my own was more effective.

In addition to this type of fear (which is not restricted to the fear of being chased by dogs on my bike, but has been most pronounced and constrictive there), I have recognized retrospectively that I have limited some of my major life decisions because of a different type of fear.

The most prominent example of this is my career. I have come to feel in recent years like I have always sold myself short, probably because of fear—of failure, of not being perfect, of making money and seeming shallow, of being considered inadequate for certain positions. Suddenly, I am in my late forties, feeling like I have not lived up to my potential.

I have been working on this with EFT, as well, and I feel a little better about it at the moment. I am releasing some of the regret over the decisions I wish I had made differently, and I feel more empowered to make courageous decisions in the future.

Now, it feels important to me to create a successful coaching business. It also scares me greatly to think about all the risks and challenges of doing so.

I have taken a risk on myself to pay for and complete certification courses in health and life coaching. The investments of time and money were not insignificant. Now, it is time to make the business happen.

I am a good coach. I know that. I have an important message that the world needs. But, the business side of things—and making money—scares me.

Because they scare me, I have tried to break the business details into tiny chunks and take on little bits at a time. I do find this helps. Every time I take a step to do something official, like buy liability insurance, get a business PayPal account or design a logo, I have a moment of fear that threatens to stop me. But, I find that if acknowledge the fear and move forward, I am okay. So, maybe I will get there through this method—just like I feel a little braver with each bike ride outside of my previously narrowing range of options.

It feels super important to keep pushing forward, even if the pace can seem (be!) plodding. I know that I will be sorely disappointed in myself if I don’t go for it with this business. The idea of that disappointment scares me, too. Disappointment and regret around career decisions are part of what I am working to release.

The motto of my coaching practice is “Live and age with power and purpose.”

I want this for myself, as well as for my clients. Living and aging with power and purpose requires facing fear, finding courage and refusing to be defined, limited or contracted by fear.

One of my personal mantras is “Each act is an act of self-definition.” I want to be defined by my courageous, value-aligned actions, not my fears.

It is embarrassing to admit my fears. I feel like I should just be able to get past them and live boldly.

I have been especially ashamed of my dog-chase fears. I am a CYCLIST, for goodness’ sake! I LOVE dogs and have a long history of rescuing and living with them. But, being chased by them is an entirely different story, and the fear of it was creating a huge, embarrassing disruption in my life.

It is my hope that this blog post can help others realize they are not alone and find the courage to step over the threshold of fear. According to Tom Kuegler, “There’s something about showing people your deepest darkest secrets that actually brings others out of the darkness to say, ‘Me too!’”

My courage group helped me own and acknowledge my fears more openly. While I haven’t dispelled my shame of being afraid of certain things, I realize that I am not alone in feeling the need for more courage, and that eases the shame.

Witnessing my mother-in-law’s suffering and decline in the last few years, especially the last several months, has added to the sense of urgency to help people live and age with power and purpose and to do so in my own life. There are no guarantees in life. We don’t know how much time we will have, and, even if it is a long time, we don’t know what it will look like. Ultimately, it is short, in the big picture. So, we have to make the most of right now, each moment, pushing through the fear that threatens to hold us back from living the lives we were meant to live.

“Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.”  Susan Jeffers

Each of us must choose between being limited and defined by our fears or living and aging with power and purpose, even though doing so can be scary. Feeling—and, thus, becoming—helpless ultimately scares me more than taking responsibility for living life to the fullest. So, I am committed to working to push through fear to live the life I want.

Sharing these fears feels like a risk because of what they reveal about me, about my regrets and about my aspirations, but I hope doing so can help others feel less alone and find the courage to dig deeper to live and age with power and purpose.

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