Hello Fear, can we be friends?
Eight months ago, I sat in a workshop with my teacher Katie Hendricks and she said, “We are entering a time of a lot of uncertainty. Natural disasters will likely become a normal occurrence in our lifetime. One of the best things we can do to prepare is to become aware of what our relationship with fear is.”
Her words sank in, and at first, I felt sadness. Could it be true that natural disasters would become a normal occurrence not only for me but for my 2-year-old niece? Having studied trauma for a number of years, I am aware of how significant this type of trauma can be for the people it affects. I also felt simultaneous anger that I hadn’t done more to prioritize taking care of the environment and curiosity about her suggestion to explore my relationship with fear.
What was my relationship with fear and how did it show up in my life?
In his book “Fear,” Thich Nhat Hanh explains that when we are born, we leave the womb where someone else is breathing and eating for us and we go out into this cold, uncertain world. This experience creates our original fear and our original desire. Our original fear is uncertainty, and our original desire is to live. Psychologists and movement therapists have linked childhood events such as birth as leaving an imprint in our subconscious. And one way we try and resolve that imprint — or, in some cases, trauma — is by repeating the pattern of it. So how do we unravel these patterns? Thich Nhat Hanh offers a practice of speaking to that small child who lives inside us with that original fear. “Explain to them they no longer need to be afraid. They have all of the comfort and nutrients that they need in the current moment.”
I grew up watching Pippi Longstocking, and as a kid, I considered myself as fearless as her. Pippi fought pirates, danced on ceilings and flew around on her four-poster bed. After watching one of her movies, I would imitate her for hours, going around the house saying, “I’m the strongest girl in the world.” I would convince my brother to climb cliffs by our creek, fly down hills on our go-kart and go head to toe with any adult on just about any subject.
When I was 9 years old, my Sunday school teacher didn’t show up to teach our class, and without hesitation, I opened up to the lesson for that day, stood up and taught the class. The kids didn’t push back; we all just went through the lesson plan as we did each Sunday. An hour later, a parent arrived and looked around for the teacher. “Where’s Mrs. Stevens?” One of the kids answered as he grabbed his coat, “She didn’t come.” He walked over to his mom and took her hand. “What in the world have you been doing here without an adult?” she asked. “Oh, Elizabeth taught the class,” he replied. Later that night, I heard my mom talking about me to my dad. “She’s fearless,” she said.
That same year, I went to Canada with my family. After we visited Niagara Falls, my older sister spotted a haunted house attraction. My dad said my little brother was too young, but I could go with my sister if I wanted to go. I said sure, and we walked up to the entrance, where a guy with a pimply face and backward hat said to my sister, “She’s a little young. If she gets too scared, she just has to say, ‘Don’t come out’ and they’ll ease up.” My sister and I took our tickets and walked down the narrow hallway. As it got darker and darker, my sister took my hand in hers. The first zombie jumped out with a fake knife and I screamed uncontrollably. My sister laughed and told me to calm down. “It’s okay Elizabeth, geez Louise, it’s not real.” I wanted to turn back, but she said no. I was terrified as we walked around the next corner. “Don’t come out,” I called out. “I’m a little girl, don’t come out, don’t come out,” I shouted, tears streaming down my face. Before every corner I’d scream, “Don’t come out, don’t come out,” and no other zombie or monster came out. “How was it?” my dad asked afterward. “Horrible. Elizabeth ruined it.” My sister rolled her eyes as she put her hair up in a ponytail. “She’s such a fraidy cat, scared of seriously everything.”
In business, I’ve taken fearless leaps into new technology, product offerings and re-brands — but then worried obsessively about how it would turn out. When the media industry was changing, I felt a burst of energy around shifting our business model. It was clear to me that we had to make some major changes in order to stay in business, so I went with colleagues to conferences and thought about what would be relevant to our customers in the next chapter of media. I decided to make some pretty radical changes quickly, some of which my colleagues weren’t excited about. But as much as I knew these changes needed to be made, I wasn’t sure how we were going to generate revenue with the new model. I raised some money to fund the transition, took a few steps back and ran as hard and fast as I could to jump over the gap in the ground. And then I worried incessantly about how things would turn out. I was consumed with fear as I navigated shifts with colleagues and partners.
One of my mentors called me “brave and bold,” while another mentor said they thought I was “motivated by fear instead of possibility.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve been told I was both fearless and a big fraidy cat.
Pema Chödrön says the only way to experience fearlessness is to know the nature of fear. She says, “Fear is not something to get rid of, but instead it is something you become very intimate with because the journey of moving closer to fear is the journey of bravery. Without fear being heightened, it just haunts you all the time.” In one of her parables, she tells the story of a young warrior who was told by her teacher she had to do a battle with fear. She didn’t want to battle fear because it seemed too aggressive. It felt scary, and she thought it wasn’t very friendly. But her teacher told her she had to do it.
Then the day arrived, and the student stood across from fear, feeling very small. They both had their weapons. The young warrior asked fear, “May I have permission to go into battle with you?” Fear said, “Thank you for showing me so much respect that you asked my permission.” Then the young warrior asked, “How can I defeat you?” And fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved and do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.” And now the student warrior understood fear.
Recently I asked my dad whether he considered me fearful or fearless as a kid. “You were pretty fearless, but you worried a lot,” he told me. He reminded me that I worried about animals, friends, boys and getting straight As. I worried about the feelings of my doll Pamela when my siblings called her a doll (I wanted them to consider her feelings and call her a baby). I worried about the safety of my cat (my dog killed my first cat). I worried about trees that didn’t look healthy. And by fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be the first female president and became obsessed with getting straight As.
My teacher, Mrs. Meister, did a special Subway lunch once a month with the kids who got straight As and didn’t get their name on the board. One morning, I came in and realized I had forgotten to do a homework assignment. It had been my mom’s 40th birthday party that weekend, and I had helped my dad handle the logistics. As the teacher wrote my name on the board in perfect cursive letters, my body started convulsing. Mrs. Meister took me out in the hall. Snot was running down my face and little red bumps were all over my cheeks. “Elizabeth, breathe,” she said, her voice steady. “Take a deep breath.” My body relaxed a little, but tears were still streaming down my face. “Everyone misses sometimes.” She rubbed my back as she spoke. “I was planning my mom’s birthday party and I forgot,” I wiped my face off with my sleeve, “and now everything is ruined.”
A month later at a parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Meister told my parents that she was a little worried about my reaction. My mom came home and told me I needed to lighten up. “For Pete’s sake Elizabeth, you’ll have an ulcer by the time you’re 20 if you take everything so seriously.” I looked up from my math homework for a moment, told her a presidential candidate had to worry about everything and returned to my work. She kissed me on the top of head and said, “Our little overachiever.”
Jim Dethmer, a cofounder of Conscious Leadership, says, “Our brain can’t always tell the difference between a threat to our physical survival and a threat to our ego identity. As a result, we react from a place of fear. In this place, we are not creative, innovative or collaborative.” In his book “15 Commitments of Conscious Leaders,” Jim and co-author Diana Chapman talk about the importance of leaders knowing when they are operating from a place of fear or a place of curiosity. When we are operating from fear, we are defensive, serious, opinionated, gossipy or overwhelmed. When we are operating from curiosity, we are open, committed to learning, trusting in people and circumstances as our allies for growth, amused by the humor in life, deeply attentive, inquisitive about our own beliefs and playful. When we are acting out of a place of fear, we are not in a state of high creativity, innovation or collaboration.
Several months ago, my coach, had me do an exercise around fear. “Can you imagine fear sitting next to you, outside of you?” I closed my eyes for a moment, let my feet roll onto my tippy toes, and then I nodded yes. “What does fear look like? Do they have a gender?” As she asked the questions, I allowed my imagination to create a fear-like creature. The character looked like Murky Dismal from Rainbow Brite; I named him Oscar. She had me turn away from Oscar and towards him. Each time she asked me what was coming up in my body. “My body is tense when I turn away from him. My stomach, butt, and legs are clenching. And when I turn back towards him, I can actually relax a little.” She asked me what stories popped up as I turned toward and away from Oscar. “When I am turning away from him, the story that comes up is that he’s really big and scary, but when I turn towards him, I see him as sort of silly, like he’s faking being a bad guy.”
A few days later, I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and lay wide awake. My mind was flooded with negative thoughts. What if the money doesn’t come through, what if I can’t make payroll, what if our largest client fires us? The thoughts swirled in my mind. Suddenly it occurred to me: This is fear. “Hello fear,” I said out loud. “I see you. I hear you. I have you. Nothing you can do would make me turn away from you.” I imagined scooping fear up and placing it in my arms. I lay there, spooning fear. “It’s okay fear, I hear, I see you.” We lay there for a while. Then I whispered, “Fear, what do you have to show me? What’s your gift?” And suddenly I shot out of bed. I knew what I had to do. I had to reduce expenses and let go of a product that hadn’t been making money for a while. The last time this had come up, I had so many stories around downsizing that I waited six months too long and ended up in significant debt after a lot of drama. And now, several years later, I was so consumed with worrying about what to do that I had ignored some of the warning signals and we were heading down a similar path.
When I relaxed into fear instead of avoiding, numbing or ignoring the fear, it helped me shake the illusion I was operating in. I realized at this moment that up until this point, my relationship with fear was based on thinking that fear was bad, that it was something to get rid of and resist. I had received so much praise as a child for being fearless that when fear came up instead of utilizing its gifts to see things clearly, I ignored it and created a constant hum of worry. By resisting fear, instead of respecting it, I had unknowingly put it in the driver seat.
“The responses to fear are fight, flight, freeze and faint. And most people have a signature fear,” Katie said at the workshop. Then she acted out the physical responses to fear: fists up in the air; turning away and leaving; standing stuck and frozen; and looking around with fogginess. She explained that when one of these physical responses pops up, we know we have started moving from a place of fear, and we are likely acting out in the grip of that fear.
“One way to get out of the grip of fear is by becoming friendly with it through movement.” Katie swayed back and forth as she spoke. She showed us a way to move through each type of fear with a certain friendliness — a proprietary method she developed based on her extensive years as a movement expert. Here’s a brief overview of the fear signatures (fight, flight, freeze, faint) and the movements that I’ve been experimenting with:
- • Fight (jaw tight, hands clenched) — Make slow, flowing movement in your joints.
- • Flight (want to leave, physically or mentally escape) — Ground your feet on the floor and lower your core into a slight squat.
- • Freeze (hold your breath, freeze up) — Wiggle your body from your head to your toes.
- • Faint (energy drains away, feel stupid) — Welcome, scoop up acceptance and bring your hands to your body to let the acceptance land.
Here is a video that provides visuals.
So far this year, 1 billion animals have died in Australian wildfires, earthquakes in Puerto Rico have threatened the livelihood of my friends and a pandemic has broken out. The reality of moving into the unknown has never felt so real. As my meditation group made decisions around whether or not to meet online or in person, I thought about a conversation my teacher and I had a few weeks back when I told him I had been exploring my relationship with fear. “Fear gets a bad rap, but as a doctor for over 40 years, I consider fear an important ingredient.” He took a bite of his chili. “An important ingredient for being a doctor?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. “I’ve been through enough births to know what goes wrong. Those memories are with me every time I go into the surgical room — and with them comes a certain amount of fear. I lean into that nervousness and use it to my presence myself.” I set down my spoon and jotted down a note. “Oh, so if I listen to fear it becomes friendlier?” He smiled, “I guess you can say when I listen, it doesn’t need to shout so loud.”
Elizabeth is a brand strategist, consultant, and business coach. She combines agile marketing frameworks with mindfulness and somatic exercises to inspire brands and leaders to grow. See examples of her work at Novel.