What are you afraid of?

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Jul 21, 2017

Everyone is afraid of something, sometime, aren't they? And mostly we don't like to talk about our fears. For one thing, talking about them makes us relive them, at least in a watered-down version. Describing the spider that creeped you out last week is enough to remind you of just how creepy it was – eewww!

For another, we secretly suspect that we are the only one who is afraid – or the only one who is afraid of such a silly thing – and that we will be ridiculed, made to feel ashamed. Or even if they don't say it, others will think we're wimpy, cowardly, childish, whatever we were accused of being when we were afraid as children. Perhaps we have even leveled such accusations at others who were afraid.

So we do our best to hide our fears and avoid the things that frighten us. Sometimes we even convince ourselves, for a while. Oh, I used to be afraid of spiders. Not anymore. (What's that up there, way in the corner, where the wall and ceiling meet?)

I'm here to tell you, hiding your fears can be a successful strategy. Until it's not. Sooner or later, we find ourselves in a situation where we have to choose between facing our fear – note, this does not necessarily mean getting rid of it – or letting it limit our life.

Fear can be our friend, and some fears we should let limit our lives: the fear of being thrown through a windshield has kept me from riding in a car without a seat belt for many years. The fear of contracting food-borne illness prevents me from refreezing once-thawed meat.

But then there are the fears that just get in the way. I can't go camping because I'm afraid of spiders. I can't travel by air because I'm afraid the plane will crash. I'm claustrophobic in public restrooms. I'm afraid to have my picture taken. I'm afraid of being trapped in an elevator. Though not all of these are my fears, I know people who fear each of these things. You can add your own squirmy, sweaty, stomach-tightening scenarios for whatever you're afraid of.

And the more “normal” the thing or activity we're afraid of, the more embarrassed we are about being afraid of it. It might seem prudent to be afraid of rattlesnakes, but if your particular phobia is butterflies, you may be ashamed to let others know about it.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I drove to Massachusetts to visit a friend from college.

For me, it wasn't easy. I came late to driving, and moreover, I have gotten out of the habit of driving on limited-access highways and in densely populated areas – living in rural Maine will do that. And I've developed a lot of anxiety about driving on big, wide expanses of concrete with lots of vehicles moving very fast. I also tend to be anxious in traffic jams: I feel trapped and struggle to avoid panicking.

I had actually set myself up for this challenge. When my friend was visiting here in June, she mentioned something about having an extra concert ticket for July 2, and, thinking only about the fun it would be, I suggested I could come down and go to the concert with her. Oops! Now I was committed to actually going. Well, not absolutely committed. I could have backed out – in fact, I considered doing so until very shortly before I was supposed to go – and my friend would have understood.

But if I had, I would have cheated myself out of seeing my friend, going to the concert – and finding out that I could still drive the 250 miles, most of it on limited-access highways, to her house. Because here's the thing: being afraid doesn't actually prevent you from doing something, unless you let it. Seems simple, doesn't it?

But there's another thing. The way (or at least, the way that worked for me) to not let fear stop you is to invite it along for the ride. Trying to talk myself out of being afraid didn't work. No amount of rationalizing had any effect on my fear, because it wasn't rational to begin with. No amount of reminding myself of the scores of times I had driven essentially the same route, the hundreds of thousands of miles I've driven in my life, etc., made me any less afraid.

Finally, the morning I was to leave for Massachusetts, I addressed my fear as if it were a person. “Come on, Fear. You can come along, but you're not going to keep me home.” I talked to it like the child-part it is, gently but firmly. “You can keep me from getting into trouble,” I told it, “but I get to decide what trouble is.” Fear has a function. Without it, we might run headlong into danger. But some of the fears that may have served us in the past, or that have resulted from the wounds life has inflicted on us, put us in a straitjacket merely to keep us safe.

I found that by talking to my fear and inviting it along on my trip, I was able to drive with much less anxiety. When I felt fearful about the ride home, I asked my friend to lead me for the first few miles, and found that I was able to get my internal cast of characters on board and calm by the time we parted ways.

I will probably have some anxiety the next time I plan a long highway drive – another thing this trip reminded me of is that my fear is usually much worse when I am anticipating an experience than once there is something to do besides worry. But I will remember that being afraid doesn't mean I can't do it, and welcoming fear as a passenger can make it seem more like a friend than an enemy. Also, doing what scares me is brave, and builds my inner well of courage.

May our inner wells of courage be full to the brim.

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