Uncertain times can bring fear, worry, anxiety and overwhelm with them. They seem to walk hand-in-hand. Not knowing what’s going to happen stirs a prehistoric fear in most of us and has since the beginning of humanity.
On the many occasions when I felt paralyzed by uncertainty and fear and worry, I remember saying to myself,
I’ve got to get moving, got to get writing, but first I have to stop feeling afraid. I can’t do anything while I’m afraid.”
So I folded a lot of laundry, checked a lot of email, posted to Twitter, walked the dogs, checked email again, whined to wise friends, started projects that fizzled because they “didn’t feel right,” (which really meant I was too afraid to keep going), ate a lot of chocolate, and felt more and more frantic and paralyzed.
When you are fearful (or anxious, overwhelmed, worried, fretful), even if you don’t know you are, it’s pretty automatic to interpret your body’s natural fear response as a call to action – a directive to “Get busy! Do something to save us.”
But random action doesn’t take care of your real needs
The problem with trying to “busy” your way out of paralysis is that you don’t really know what’s the right thing to do because you haven’t addressed the real issue yet-you haven’t sat down with your fear so that you can learn what you really need.
You may not even know you’re afraid! I didn’t.
It wasn’t until my boyfriend Bob gently pointed out I was afraid that I began to see the role fear was playing in my stuckness. In fact, my paralysis was a direct result of my fear. I’ve since talked with wise people about this – especially the Comfort Conversations I had with Molly Gordon and Pam Slim (by the way, five of these fear-breaking Comfort Conversations are part of my upcoming Virtual Retreat)- and these talks explored how avoiding feeling our fear is often the real reason we stay stuck – not whatever it is we’re afraid of but our running away from the scary feelings.
Who can blame us?
And sometimes, we get stuck because we think we shouldn’t be afraid as in, “I have a roof over my head, enough to eat, a toilet that flushes, others are so much worse off, what do I have to be afraid of? It’s just silly I can’t get going on marketing my business or meeting someone new or getting in shape, it’s just silly.” When we don’t allow ourselves to feel what we are feeling, the feeling grows, like a tired two-year-old who wants some attention.
Don’t overlook the biology of fear
When you feel the fear response in your body- the cascade of stress hormones, popularly called fight or flight — you automatically want to do something – anything. It doesn’t matter if it’s moving you toward your dreams or moving you sideways or even backwards. The key is to keep moving. Moving at least discharges some of your anxious energy and you feel like you are doing “something.”
The only problem is that this running can become habitual, creating a sort of anxiety fog that makes it very difficult to identify your next true step, so you become lost in a haze of inconsequential yet obviously very important actions. In other words – in a haze of procrastination, self-blame and general guilty “shoulding on yourself” (yuck).
My client Amy, a coach working with nurses in upper management, described her haze this way:
When my business was still pretty new, I fell into a good year of procrastination. It started when I had two major clients quit in one week. This was the first time I had been fired – I was mortified and certain I would have to go back to my previous job as a hospital administrator, which felt like dying to me. I began avoiding actual marketing in the most creative ways.
I got very busy drafting intricate plans. I signed up for a million how-to-market-yourself classes. I attended networking conferences. I even learned how to build my own website. Then there were the causes I volunteered for – I don’t think I said no once that year. It wasn’t until I saw the connection between my fear of being a failure and my lack of action that I was able to see how fast I was running away from my self and my business.
When I was able to start to taking care of the fearful part of me, able to sit down with the fear, rather than all my stories about the future, I was, slowly, able to move into action and save my business. When I look back, there was this underlying feeling of not being okay and trying to get away from that feeling as fast I could that I kept trying to distract myself from. It seems so simple and obvious now.”
What Amy discovered is that often the only way to dissolve fear (and fear’s toxic hand-maidens, shame, guilt and self-loathing) is to be with it, to see it, to sit with it, even to talk to it to discover what emotional needs are hiding within it, instead of trying to outrun it.
Acknowledge your fear. Like you, it wants to be listened to.
The first step is to acknowledge fear’s presence and give yourself time and space to be with fear. The Sufi mystic poet Rumi said it best,
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
Treating fear as, if not a welcome guest, a guest who is, without question, here, shifts you out of running and into the present. Allowing fear to come in temporarily does not mean you must give it the run of your house or that it gets to run your life. The exact opposite is true: when you can see your fear and put your focus on the fear itself rather than your story (how badly you screwed up or unlovable you are or that you can’t get a job that pays as much as your old job, etc), fear, like pain, moves and shifts and even dissolves.
Fear will always visit and it can teach you but it does not ever get to rule you
Several of the Virtual Retreat sessions deal with exactly this topic, as it is so central to dealing with uncertainty, especially Emergency Calming Techniques and Dissolving Procrastination with Havi Brooks and Emotional Freedom with Judith Orloff and Healthy Comfort and Heart Felt Permission with me.
A little audio love with Jen (click to listen, right-click to download)
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post: What to Do when you Feel Alone and Scared.