The other night when I was out for a walk, I passed a man wearing a pair of bright yellow rubber gloves. He was industriously wiping down his garbage bins with spray bleach, giving special attention to the handles. I’m talking Daniel Russo from Karate Kid level “wax on, wax off” scrubbing. He was really into it. My brain immediately defaulted to my two favorite simultaneous responses to any situation.
Response #1, shame: “Is this a thing? Are we supposed to scrub down our garbage bins? Do all the other responsible adults do this and I’ve just never known? OMG, I have never scrubbed my garbage bin handles! I just drag them out to the curb and then wash my hands after. Is that gross? Maybe I’m just a disgusting, repellent, unsanitary human. What is wrong with me!?”
Response #2, fear: “I bet he’s washing off bloodstains and fingerprints. He totally has a body in there. UH OH, HE’S LOOKING AT ME. HE KNOWS I KNOW! Better step it up and start speed walking!”
So. There are a few things here. Not least of which is that apparently my fight or flight response is to speed walk. (Really?) And that my garbage bins might be crawling with Ebola.
This chipper little incident is representative of my psyche as a whole and of the way in which I roll. Basically, it turns out that I’m a fear-based organism. I mostly fear I’m not good enough or that I’m in some kind of danger, and for much of my life, I’ve made fear-based decisions. This isn’t actually a good life strategy. I don’t recommend it. You end up dropping college classes. Or getting into terrible relationships and not knowing how to leave. You miss out on adventures and new tasty foods. You stay in stale friendships and unfulfilling jobs. You force yourself to finish bad books. You can’t walk past a neighbor innocently bleaching his garbage bins without deciding he is probably a serial killer, and you never even consider the possibility that he might just have been teaching himself a new martial arts technique à la Mr. Miyagi. It sucks.
Lately, though, I’ve been stepping outside of my fear. I stick my toe out and when nothing bites it off, I venture a little further. I tell my stories and I reassure myself that they are mine to tell, even if they are small and stupid. I love them the same as I love my cat who can’t figure out how to open a door that has been left ajar specifically so that he doesn’t have to wait on the other side of it, crying – because he’s mine. I accept the love of people who, for unknown reasons, choose to love me. I take on projects I haven’t the foggiest idea of how to complete and trust that I’ll build my parachute on the way down.
When a friend was in a fear spiral (which I happen to think would be a great name for a delicious pastry you comfort yourself with when you are in a panic and must soothe yourself with carbohydrates) I suggested to her one of my favorite strategies. Write down every single fear you can think of. Even, maybe especially, the crazy ones. It’s like brainstorming, but with more adrenaline. Fear-storming. It actually really helps to force yourself to verbalize your worries and put them down on paper. For one thing, the crazy really stands out, and you get to cross off the more unlikely ones right away. This is very satisfying. (“I can probably take ‘eaten by yetis’ off the list, now that I think about it…”) It also helps you focus on the areas that most need work, the parts of you that need nourishing.
Here’s the list I scribbled down after that walk:
I am unloveable.
I am a bad person.
I am incapable.
I am a failure.
I am a fraud.
These are just the highlights. I could go on and on. The quickest way to deal with this list would be to show it to my best friend or husband or some other beloved and watch while they set fire to it. Or, I could recite the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s Dune, which every good nerd has memorized:
“I will not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
The most effective way, though, for me, is to debunk those incorrect thoughts by reminding myself of the ones who love me, the ones who value me, how far I’ve come, etc., and then – here’s the tricky part – I force myself to pretend I am one of those people. What would I say to myself if I were my friend? What comfort would I give? What affirmation?
I’m not saying I don’t feel incredibly goofy doing this, because I do. It works for me, though. It might for you, if you give it a try. One of our biggest tasks as human beings is to walk ourselves through the fear and shame that keep us from growing up and out and toward each other, into the open air and sunlight.