How Fear Can Push Us in a New & Positive Direction
Fear is no fun, but it can also be a gift. We dislike the feeling of fright when watching a TV show or movie. We want to cover our eyes. But that isn't the kind of fear we're addressing here.
This is fear that lingers and involves major life decisions. It can make us anxious for days, churn our stomachs and cause us to wonder how we'll get through it.
But we do. We can conquer it, or it dissipates. A friend told Margaret when waiting for skin cancer test results, "The only way to deal with fear is to step right into it."
A prime example is the fear we had as first-time mothers about going into labor-or childbirth, since one of us had a C-section and that brought on a different type of fear. We lived through it, conquered it and even had more children. Here fear ended up becoming enduring joy--the birth of healthy, happy children.
St. Louis writer Jeannette Cooperman raised this point in a recent article in the "Common Reader" with her piece titled "We Are Never the Same After-What?" She asks, "What experiences do leave an indelible mark?" But she adds that she has found the challenge also gives us a deeper mark than conventional pleasures. It's an, "I did it" mentality.
We started thinking about our worst frightful moments and agree how they made us stronger. Barbara felt that way when she got divorced, not her choice. How could she move on after being married at age 22 and remaining so for 31 years until age 54? She worried about the enormous challenges of making decisions alone regarding her healthcare, going for medical procedures on her own or asking someone to accompany her, where to live if she sold the family home, buying a new car when she knew little about mechanical things, even things as simple as making a good cup of coffee (her former husband's task) and buying long-term care insurance, which a divorced friend advised doing.
After all, who was going to take care of her if she fell ill? Not her elderly mother or young college-age daughters. She also worried about the financial effects since statistics said women fell way behind their former husbands financially.
She worried again when she broke the two main bones in her dominant right hand and wrist that required two surgeries and two years of therapy. She worried if she'd regain her ability to type again for work, paint, cook, drive, garden, play the piano, and if she'd stop taking pain killers. She did.
And then at one of her happiest moments, the birth of her first grandchild, she was incredibly sad, and the tears streamed down. She wondered if she would live long enough to watch him grow up, get to know him, watch him find passions and fall in love. She also worried that she would give too much advice to her daughter about what she thought were the right and wrong ways to parent.
Margaret had her own scariest moments, too. When her late husband had cancer, waiting for test results was torture. And then her worst fears were realized. In the same year that her husband died, so did her dog and her father. She looked around and thought, "Now what?" She felt unmoored; who would have her back? Her husband had been her rock. She didn't want to burden her three children with her needs.
Following the losses was fear of being alone for the first time, going into a party alone or walking into a dark house at night, selling a car and her family home and buying a condo on her own. Being vulnerable to scam artists was another fear. Having to figure out financial issues; her husband did all the investing. Then came the fear of going on a first date two years after her husband of 42 years died.
Next she faced the fear of downsizing, moving to a new city in her 70s and starting over to make new friends and contacts. And currently, she nurses a looming fear about health concerns since she's of a certain age. She tries to stay on top of these and lead a healthier life.
In the past, there was the fear of getting up that first time in court before a judge to testify when she was a Court Appointed Special Advocate for an abused child. Other fears that have helped her grow and change include the fear of certain writing assignments that made her anxious, but she worked through them and became better at her craft. More recently, was her fear of learning the technology to tutor kids virtually. But she did learn it.
Both of us somehow rose to the various frightening occasions, namely, because in many cases we felt we had no alternative. How could we give up and have that be our legacy? We did so by finding inner strength. We'd tackle the task at hand and learn and grow from it. If things didn't work out, we'd try an alternative.
We laughed at ourselves as we hit milestones--killing a big bug, fixing a toilet, putting together a device, surviving when a bat flew through a bedroom at night, figuring out how to do something new on the computer, deciding on a new healthcare provider or doctor, and so on. Mastering new skills lead us to new kinds of success and happiness, not measured in dollars and cents but huge self-satisfaction. It became empowering.
Along the way, we used our perseverance as good researchers and reporters who dug in to find the best advisors and solutions. We reached out for help without being embarrassed. And we weren't shy about toasting ourselves and each other and our new-found independence.
What are some lessons we learned from working through our fears?
- Ask yourself what's the worst that could happen? Then, make a plan A to overcome that in a realistic way. Think positive that it may work out!
- Make a plan B in case plan A doesn't work, however. If the place to move suddenly seems too expensive or far from home, don't go. Try something else or take more time to lay the groundwork. Need a plan C? Go for that too, it's fine. And be patient.
- Have a confidence buddy and share what you're thinking. Saying it out loud sometimes makes it sound less frightening and asking somehow for advice makes you feel you're not alone. Tell the person, "I really value your advice so don't hold back." Be sure they can keep your confidence. Margaret and Barbara still say to each other, "Promise you won't say anything," even though each know they can be trusted.
- Seek professional help, whether a financial advisor, lawyer, accountant, healthcare specialist, and here too maybe get a second opinion. Maybe, you have a friend who's already a grandmother, or a divorced friend who got through her own hell. Take advice with a grain of salt; things probably won't be the same. Try a self-help group if you've lost a spouse or grief counselor. Take time away from work or family if the problems are severe.
- Think optimistically. Don't assume the worst-that you'll be out on the street or not have friends. Do what you can to make the possibilities happen. Take charge, as Oprah has said in different ways, "Create your own destiny." Worrying is a useless emotion.
- Try to curtail your woe-is-me stories. The late Nora Ephron knew she was over her divorce from Carl Bernstein when she stopped telling her divorce story, she wrote. Same goes for other low points in your life or reserve for your very nearest and dearest. But be patient with yourself if you slip; we all do at times.
- Revisit those scariest times occasionally and note how far you've come. Celebrate your progress. Cheer yourself on if you regress. And go forward with faith you can master your fears.
Finally, accept the fact we all have fears at times, and they are significant to us. In the end, you will emerge stronger once you conquer them. Knowing that you succeeded once, twice or three times will help you when the fourth time rolls around. It may not be a piece of cake but as close to that as you can.