Lessons from the School of Fear
by Jennifer Louden
Admitting that we’re afraid is tough, especially when we’ve spent a lot of time getting strong and healthy. But fear is real—and a great teacher if we’re willing to pay attention. In this essay, author of The Women’s Comfort Book Jennifer Louden shares personal insight about a recent experience with fear, offering simple awareness practices that can help us understand what fear is trying to tell us.
I’ve become a student of fear in the last six months. I had never given fear much thought before, which, considering how powerful it is, how it shapes our world and can warp our lives, is kind of embarrassing. My last book was published two years ago, and I haven’t been able to decide what to write next. Even six months ago, if you had said, “You’re not writing because you’re afraid,” I would have scoffed, “No way. My intuition is telling me this isn’t the right project. It’s the Divine telling me it isn’t the right time. I’ll know when it’s right to start a new project.”
This rigid “NO!” appeared every time I got excited about saying “YES!” to a creative idea. When did these “no’s” start? They started around the time my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and continued through my (now former) husband’s diagnosis with leukemia, through my dad’s eventual passing, and through the sudden deaths of two friends—a total of four years. Did the “no’s” start to ease when I fell in love with a wonderful man or worked through my grief and depression? Nope, they got stronger.
Then two things happened. Bob, the wonderful man, pointed out that I’m afraid. Terrified, actually. Then my friend Eric said something about how he’s doubted he’s been doing the right work for 30 years, and he’s heard me voicing the same doubt. And that the fear had to do with my work or its effectiveness.
These two insights hit me right in the heart. It did not fit my picture of who I am, but there it was, panting in my face: fear. The “no” I had felt about my writing project had nothing to do with the Divine or intuition (the truth is that neither the Divine nor intuition speaks in fear-based absolutes) but rather with my unacknowledged package of fears: of not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, of not living up to my potential, of not being creative again, of not having anything new to say, of not being a good enough parent . The doubt I felt about my projects, and my life, was fear’s insidious whisper. So obvious now yet so invisible before.
Here are a few things I’ve learned from my School of Fear curriculum.
A Word about Words
I have had some pretty fierce reactions to the word “fear.” One coaching client said, “But I’m supposed to think positive all the time. I’m not supposed to have bad feelings.” Bad? How about innocent? Feelings arise from thoughts—we don’t cause them to happen. What matters is how we react; if we hide from feelings because they are uncomfortable or not sanctioned as “positive,” we can easily stay stuck and have no idea why. You may call it anxiety, worry, being overwhelmed, when/then (when I get a new job, then I can relax), fretting, stress, nervousness, dread, aversion, procrastination, or even laziness.
I call it fear. And in doing so, I find it easier to stop running from it through busyness, self-cruelty, and what I call shadow comforts (things we do that only pretend to nourish us like playing online solitaire, snacking mindlessly, shopping for things you don’t need—it’s not the thing itself you are doing but how it makes you feel). These make the fear stronger—and make me believe whatever story I’m telling myself, like “I can’t stand to feel this way,” or “Disaster is just around the corner.” Naming my feeling as fear allowed me to realize it was a feeling, not a truth. Fear cannot define me or run my life.
Your Body Wants to Help You
The simplest thing I can do when I am afraid is to move—a little yoga or pranayama or a dance eases me out of my head and loosens the stuck energy. Moving brings me into the present where I can see how my thoughts are creating a big fat story of doom and gloom.
I resist moving—even breathing deeply—because fear tells me it’s a bad idea. It will take too long, I’ll have to feel too much, it will makes things worse, it’s better to stay rigid and shut down.
I’ve learned to recognize my resistance to moving as a sign to ease myself into moving—rather than a sign I should not. I take my resistance as an invitation, right then, to do one round of pranayama at my desk, one Sun Salutation, or one big long sigh. I use my resistance to wake up to the fact that I am shutting down. Then I can do something about it.
It Ain’t Out There
When I am afraid, it is too tempting to believe that if I could just get this or that done and done well (writing, retreat, speech), then I could relax. Then I will feel safe and secure. It’s the classic search for illusory safety—rather than finding ways to be calm(ish) and centered right now, to touch into an ever-present well-being, I focus on the externals. It reminds me of that old story about the drunk who searches for his lost car keys under a lamppost—not because he lost them anywhere near the lamppost but because that’s where the light was.
Feeling safe enough to go forward with life is never dependent on anything outside of us or on knowing the outcome of a relationship, project, or even a diagnosis. That is good, since that dependence would mean we might never, ever get off the couch. Instead, feeling safe resides in developing our trust in ourselves. It resides in growing our ability to return to ourselves, no matter how long we’ve spent searching for our keys under the lamppost. And that’s something we can practice and play with every day.
Finally, I’m learning, yet again, that being harsh on myself, beating myself up for perceived or real mistakes, and especially beating myself up for being afraid, is the best way to feed fear and dig myself in deeper. The same is true for harsh regimens of self-improvement (as in, I will meditate two hours, exercise five, never eat sugar again). Anything that feeds the idea that I am not okay as I am, is fear in another guise.
The best fear dissolver is the ability to take myself by the hand and say, “I may not like how I feel, I may believe I’m totally screwed, but I can still choose to love myself, even if only a tiny tad. I can choose not to be impressed by these feelings and not be defined by them. I choose not to collapse under them or get into an argument with them. I am going to ask myself, ’What is one thing I can do to be kind to myself right now?’”
Love, in tiny, concrete, easy-to-dismiss ways, is truly the great fear dissolver.
In the end, and I gulp as I write this, I’m very grateful I’m afraid. It’s turning into one of the blessings of my life. I feel more willing to create, to admit I know nothing, to jump into the unknown, moment after moment. There are still plenty of days when I wake up with fear bullying me and I forget and get upset and twisted—and sooner or later, I remember to name it, to move my body, to find my center, to treat myself with kindness, and then another lesson unfolds. As I begin my next projects—an online membership community, the Comfort Cafe and Life Spa, and a new book, The Woman’s Mid-Life Comfort Book, I practice noticing what triggers my fears and then ask myself, “What would help me take care of myself and stay in action right now?” I practice cherishing myself as best I can. I won’t let fear rule and constrict me—and I hope you won’t either!
For a PDF of fear resources that Jennifer has compiled for the School of Fear, please e-mail email@example.com.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the March 2009 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.