When Fear Takes Hold
It was a Tuesday many years ago when Jane (not her real name) and I met. I was in full-time clinical practice and my schedule was booked solid for this particular day. In between clients, I slipped into the kitchen to make tea. I think it was about 11 am. I glanced down the hall to the reception area as I was taking a breather and waiting for the kettle to boil. I saw Jane outside. We’d never met before, this was to be her first session. She had the most stunning red hair and I wondered why she wasn’t coming in, so I moved to see her more clearly. I could see she’d gripped the railing outside and was doubled over, trembling. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen someone have a panic attack, but it was rare to happen at the front door to my office.
I flew down the hall and out the door to help her. She managed to smile at me through her pain and tried to tell me that she’d ‘be all right in a minute.’ I admired her determination to conquer the panic right then and there. As I offered her water and helped her slow her breathing, we briefly chatted about her earrings. I don’t remember what they looked like, only that I was focused on distracting her away from the discomfort of her chest tightening and racing thoughts.
The distraction worked and Jane stood up straight. I asked if she’d like to do the session outside but she declined, saying she was ‘ready to get this over and done with.’ She wasn’t being rude. She was simply acknowledging that having to talk about the issues that brought her to therapy was going to be a huge deal for her. It is for most people, especially in the first session when you sit stranger to stranger to discuss your deepest vulnerabilities.
I made us both tea and ran through my spiel about confidentiality. And then I asked Jane why she’d come to see me. She started crying immediately. I encouraged her to take her time and distracted her with my dog, Henry, who used to come to work with me at the time.
She took a deep breath and held her mug tighter.
“I’m afraid of spiders.”
Just the thought of saying the word ‘spider’ out loud was enough to trip the fear system in her brain and have her hyperventilating.
She continued between sobs, ‘We’ve moved to our dream house, where I finally have an art studio out the back, but I can’t go out there because we back onto bushland and what if there are spiders?!’
By now she was holding the tissue box and had given up on her tea.
Let me summarise for you where we got to in our first session:
Jane was an artist. She had wanted her own art studio all of her life to take her work to the next level and had finally achieved that space but her paralysing phobia of spiders was, quite literally, keeping her from pursuing her dreams.
Her pain was etched in the lines on her forehead. If you were with us that day, you would have felt the grief for dreams that seemed beyond her grasp fill the room.
We’ve All Been Jane
What has Jane and an eight-legged insect got to do with you, though? Well, you may not have arachnophobia, but I’m betting your brain has tried to trip you up with something equally as paralysing when it comes to following your own dreams.
And maybe your fears weren’t out in the garden but only in your head, yet still they have the power to stop you dead in your tracks.
Over there are your dreams. And over here is you, unable to move in that direction, because your mind is telling you …
- you’re not good enough
- you don’t know the next step
- you don’t even really know if this is your true purpose
- Mum or Dad or your partner or your boss from McDonald’s when you were 14 won’t approve
- you’ll be judged
- no one has given you permission
- you don’t have time
- you can’t possibly spend that time/money/energy on yourself because kids/work/family need you
- you feel like you’re too late/slow/disorganised
- you feel like you’re not ready/prepared/motivated
- change is overwhelming and you can’t do it
- the fear/guilt/effort/uncertainty feels insurmountable
It’s Not Your Fault
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Jeez, minds are fantastic at their jobs. You see, our brains have a warning system that has developed over hundreds of thousands of years to protect us of any potential real or imagined threat. In ancestral times, it was really bloody helpful if you listened to your mind when it noted that there was an approaching clan and they could possibly be rivals and kill you. When it reminded you to stay near known water and food sources in case you starve and die. And when it encouraged you to do whatever it takes to fit in with your clan so they don’t kick you out or kill you.
There’s a pattern here …
Brain software that helps a species survive strengthens over time. While it may not be a question of life and death daily for most of us in 2019, that doesn’t mean our minds have relaxed into the fact that our survival rates as human beings are the highest they’ve ever been. Nope. Instead, we worry more than ever at a more subtle and insidious level. And we listen, automatically, because that’s what our biology says will keep us safe.
It doesn’t have to be a spider (for which there is some logic given we have several species who could take down an adult in a single bite here on Australian shores – but come and visit us because it’s beautiful here, I promise!).
It could simply be facing the unfamiliar. Like putting yourself in a situation without guarantees that things will work out. Or simply having the thought that you’re ‘not good enough’.
The fear doesn’t have to be seen, or even real, to paralyse us.
Where Are You At?
So, what is it that’s keeping you stuck? What are the blocks and thoughts and feelings that are showing up, triggering the fear system in your brain, and stopping you from moving toward your dreams? And what’s it costing you not to take a step in the direction of what you’d really love to be doing?
Ouch. I can feel the heaviness in you from here as you contemplate those questions. Sometimes, it seems impossible, doesn’t it? Fear can be so believable that we become convinced that our imaginary spiders will drop from the sky the minute we attempt to follow the path that inspires us.
in the meantime, your spirit is suffocated, withering away in the depths of your gut as you ignore the call of your intuition. Life is losing its colour, isn’t it?
Here’s some good news: the answer is simple.
Here’s some harder-to-accept news: the answer is not easy.
The antidote to fear is brave action. It doesn’t have to be big. Tiny steps count. It just has to be you doing something on the path to your dreams.
Courage only shows up when fear is already present first. Your dreams are depending on you to take action despite the fear. It’s the only way they are going to meet you!
Let me break this down into a set of steps for you to help you make a start. We’ll call these the steps …
The Staircase to Brave:
- Acknowledge the fearful feelings. Emotions that are acknowledged have far less power than those that are allowed to dwell in the shadows of our minds, eating away at us in secret. Say it out loud: I see you, fear.
- Acknowledge the fearful thoughts. Your mind will be like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar when you actively catch it out trying to trip you up. Say it out loud: Thanks for doing your job, mind, but that’s not helpful for moving forward right now.
- Accept that fear, in the form of thoughts and feelings, will be along for the ride. You can’t switch off your biology so you have a choice: spend your precious time and energy fighting fear or give up the struggle and allow it to sit in the back seat as your drive forward.
- Map out the steps that you know of. Yes, there are many steps that you may not know (and perhaps, can’t know), right now. But write down the ones you do know. Writing it down will give you a sense of empowerment and clarity and reduce the tendency for overanalysis.
- Tell someone you trust about your plans. The key here is it must be someone you trust. There are very few people in the world who deserve to hear about the most precious filaments of stardust residing in you that are waiting to become spectacular constellations. It doesn’t even have to be someone you know, it could be in a supportive chatroom online. But telling someone helps to give your dreams life out in the world rather than just in your head.
- Go back to step 3 and again remind yourself that you will feel uncomfortable through this process because your brain is just doing its job when you traverse unfamiliar territory.
- Seriously, go back to step 3 and really accept the discomfort.
- Take. The. First. Step. Like, now.
Okay, you might be a teensy bit more motivated for Number 8 if I explain what happened to Jane.
With immense courage (that still inspires me to this day), Jane agreed to participate in in vivo exposure therapy. In the space of only four sessions, Jane was “exposed” to spiders in a measured fashion (and with appropriate coping strategies in place and me by her side), starting from least distressing (e.g. the word ‘spider’). We had planned to work towards the goal she had made for home: to be able to approach a spider and use bug spray on it if her husband wasn’t home.
But Jane surprised me (and herself). In our final session, she caught a spider from outside my office in a container, brought it inside, and took the lid off (the spider was harmless and this was all while I was out of the room to mimic a real-world situation). She was supposed to spray it at that point. But instead she opened the door and said she couldn’t kill it ‘because it’s not hurting anyone’. I watched her re-capture it and walk outside and release it! (This still makes me teary because I remain so damn proud of her).
From a panic attack at the thought of saying the word spider to voluntarily sparing that little spider’s life.
And in terms of dreams, the work Jane did on overcoming her fear of spiders translated to brave living in all areas of her life. Not only did she spend every day in her studio, but she started selling her work online and eventually quit her 9 to 5 job to focus on her creativity full-time. She doesn’t love spiders, but she learned that fear quickly loses its power if you take action while it’s trying to tell you otherwise.
This is what happens when we’re brave. Taking the first step inspires the next step and the step after that. Courage holds fear’s hand and shows it how to turn into growth. We have to have both, but your dreams are depending on you to lean toward courage to keep them alive.
The time for your brave is now, lovely one.