I was recently listening to Rachel Hollis’ podcast, Rise, and she had author Elizabeth Gilbert on to talk about fear.
If you’ve been around this blog before, you’ll know that fear is a pretty common topic, as it is a very prominent part of my life—though not always in a negative way. I find that while my fear can often hold me back, it has also driven me towards some of my favorite projects (like this blog) and greatest accomplishments (like running the LA Marathon).
Having seen both the positive and negative consequences of fear, I sometimes find myself obsessing over it. I am always trying to see it from a new perspective, or trying to overcome it with a different mindset, or trying to find a new way to talk about it so it can loosen its grip on a specific situation in my life.
Thus, when two of my favorite ladies sat down to talk about fear, you better believe they had my full attention and I had my pen and paper ready to take notes. But as I sat waiting for these two successful, inspirational women to tell me how to overcome my fear, how to leave it behind and live what I can only assume would be an easier, barrier free life, I was again hit with a new perspective.
“Your fear has one job,” Elizabeth Gilbert said, “to keep you safe. To keep you alive by preventing you from doing new things. Thus, if it doesn’t know what something is, it triggers something in your brain. It says, ‘I don’t know what that thing is and I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, so in order to keep you safe, I have to keep you from doing it.”
I’d like to think I’ve always known that my fear tries to protect me, I mean, I am afraid to cliff jump because I think I might get hurt (or die), I am afraid of holding short stem matches because I think I might get burned, but I think over time I forgot that part of growing up is learning the many ways we can get hurt, and thus our minds learn the many things it needs to protect us from. Things like embarrassment, heartbreak, failure, rejection, grief, etc. So when I’m angry at my fear for holding me back, I am essentially mad it for doing exactly what I’ve taught it to do: keep me safe.
Elizabeth Gilbert went on to explain that when we try to throw fear out the window and move on without it, rather than giving in, it tends to send extra fight into a situation because it feels like something really bad is happening.
Think about a time when you set out to do something that scared you, and how in the moments right before doing it, you feel that overwhelming desire to quit and go home. This might be the moment you feel nauseous or shaky or unable to move. That is your fear doing everything it can to keep you from stepping into this unpredictable situation where you might possibly get hurt, and sometimes that last push is so strong that some of us do turn around and go home.
I know I’ve done it.
I’ve thrown up my hands and said, “you’re right, I shouldn’t do this.” Even when “this” is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
But there have also been times when I’ve pushed through, when I’ve demanded that my fear give me a chance. For me, this is when I’m taking deep breaths, praying, pacing up and down a hallway, and sometimes, in the case of my college self studying abroad in Australia, not giving myself enough time to say no, and tip toeing up to the ledge that I’d just seen my friends bungee jump from and jumping.
And that, Elizabeth Gilbert explained, is called talking to your fear. That is taking the time to say, “I respect why you are trying to protect me but I feel like this is something I have to do.”
And so, the next time you feel afraid, dig into the reasons why, and talk it out. Be open and honest with yourself (and your fear), and unpack why you do or do not want to do something—and don’t be ashamed if your fear wins out in the end sometimes. Take each situation as it comes, and give yourself grace in figuring out where you’re willing to step into the unknown. Work with your fear and give it a greater understanding of what you are capable of. Thank it for keeping you safe, and use it to push you forward.