The Buddhist tradition recognizes five great fears: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of dementia, fear of loss of livelihood, and fear of speaking in public. In The Listening Book: Discovering Your Own Music, W. A. Mathieu interprets this fear as fear of our own deep selves, fear that at some level our basic selves are unacceptable. We are afraid that by revealing our true selves, we will see clearly that we are worthy of hatred or isolation. That a major religious tradition recognizes this fear as a “great fear” tells me that this is universal human condition. To suffer from the fear of speaking up is to be human. To speak up any way is courageous.
Where does this fear come from?
I think this fear comes from our deep childhood.
Is there a person alive who has not been told by a trusted caregiver, probably a parent, that what we were doing was wrong? And who has not received such a message in a way that we interpreted as telling us we were unacceptable in some way?
Much as some churches would like to convince us otherwise, it is exceedingly difficult to “hate the sin and love the sinner” in a way the sinner recognizes. All of us bear scars from some moment where we believed who we were was unacceptable to some one whose opinion we prized above all things.
What happens then?
There are two standard responses to this moment.
Some people decide the other person was wrong and their life becomes about proving it. This first group become active doers, thrusting out into the world, often developing a chip on their shoulder and having difficulty seeing the value in other people’s positions.
Others turn inward, seeking to fix themselves, and hide until they are perfect. This second group is less visible in the world because their journey is inward. And this is the group that finds themselves in danger of being paralyzed by fear. Add to this natural psychological development a few cultural heroes who were killed for acting on their deep beliefs and you have a recipe for a mythic fear of speaking out.
How to Proceed?
For those who are held back by their own fear, they must find ways to deprive that fear of its hold over them. But how?
The platitude of “feel the fear and do it anyway” has a lot of truth to it, but isn’t always easy to follow. We must be compassionate with ourselves, understand the fear, teach ourselves that it is fear not a prophecy, and proceed.
For some people, fear must be leaped through. Some people cannot push gently against a fear and wear it down, but can blast right through it with the right support. Others, must dance with their fears, become friends with them, and dissolve them. Some people need different approaches to different fears.
In The Joy Diet, Martha Beck advocates a daily practice of doing something that scares you and that you know is heading towards your goal. For me, the key word in that idea is practice. Moving fearward benefits from practice. As you practice moving fearward, you learn to be comfortable with the feeling of fear; the part of you that observes your life and sees your patterns starts to recognize that fear is not a promise. Just because you fear things will fall apart doesn’t mean they will. And, if they do, you can pick yourself up and try something different. But, without a habit of moving into and through those fears, we never develop the understanding that only comes through experience.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Retraining yourself to move into fear instead of away is a difficult process, but one with huge benefits. Taking the time to practice while holding yourself compassionately if you struggle is a huge gift to your future self.
You might need a support structure, a spouse who nudges you, a mastermind or accountability group, a writers group, networking group, buddy you check in with by phone or email once a day or once a week. You know the way you sabotage your own growth. Can you think of a way to reduce the power of that sabotage by leaning on somebody else?
Is there a fearward step that you could take today? What support would you need to move in that direction?
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~Anais Nin
Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~Gene Fowler
Deep writing is a courageous act.
When we read a book that articulates something we hardly dare to admit to ourselves, let alone to another person, we make a connection; we are given a reprieve from our shame and our solitude. This is a precious gift.
In order to write work that moves readers, we must be courageous on the paper, writing the things we fear to say. We can use fiction and metaphor to protect ourselves partially, but unless we find a way to write those feared depths of our lived experiences, our work will remain shallow and will not touch the depths of our readers.
We must write fearward, into the heart of what troubles us.
Sharon Overend, a writer I met through the Writer’s Community of Durham Region, wrote about struggling with this as she works on her novel:
Anne, I thought, I’m afraid of Anne. After all, she’s living every parent’s worst nightmare—her kid is sick and the family aren’t handling it well.
We aren’t meshing because as her world falls apart, so must I, but I’m not, I’m not letting myself fall apart (figuratively of course).
…Anne scares the bejesus out of me, but I owe it to my readers (and to myself) to push my fears aside and write Anne’s true story.
At the end of her post, Sharon shares an exercise that helped her get closer to her character’s feeling.Copy a strong line from your existing prose onto a clean piece of paper. With that sentence as your guiding light, start writing everything you see, hear, smell, FEEL around that sentence. Keep your hand moving for fifteen minutes.
It is a good exercise, and I used it this week to help me get closer to some truths I need to write as part of my contribution to An Intense Life. Christine Fonseca has asked each of the contributors to the blog to write a letter to our teenage self about growing up gifted. I have been struggling with this letter because writing it honestly is forcing me to face the worst experiences of my life and the short-comings of well-intentioned people who love me deeply.
These issues from my teen years are the reason that I started writing my current novel. My fear of facing them is the cause of the biggest weaknesses in the novel. It is time for me to write into the hard places of my life and bleed all over the page. And I am scared.
Do you have tips, tricks, exercises, etc. that you use to help you work through your fears. Please leave them in the comments. I need all the help I can get.