Fear Isn’t the Problem

I was raised by a mother who is something of an… under-responder.

I didn’t even know moms regularly worried about, well, anything. My mom’s motto was basically: “It’ll be fine.” She didn’t “over” much: overreact, overprotect, overrule, overkill, overcorrect, overbear.

I asked her once when my kids were little, “Mom? Did you and your friends worry you were doing everything wrong when we were kids?” And she famously responded, “God, no. You and your friends “parent” (air quotes employed). We just raised you.” Welp. 

You are forbidden to interpret this as criticism. My mom was the only calm human being in our house. While the rest of us ran up and down the scales with our hair on fire — the embodiment of melodrama — mom held a low-register steady note that never faltered. So rather than an entire family in the rafters, mom nonchalantly filed her nails waiting for us to descend from whatever ceiling we were glued to that day. 

However, because she was so unflappable and under-responded to things that should have arguably raised at least an eyebrow, we grew up and had no idea we were supposed to be afraid of stuff. I could fill 50 books with things I have absolutely no fear of that I should. No hint of a lie, I did not own a key to my own house for a solid decade. “What if someone breaks in??” gasped the friends. “Who on earth would break in??” replied Jen, truly baffled. Against substantial evidence, I steadfastly believe no one means any harm, people won’t swindle, nothing will go wrong, and everything is safe. I live in the upper portion of the top half of the glass. (This is no exaggeration. Ask anyone who loves me.) 

So it was genuinely disorienting to lose my marriage after 26 years and discover I was now afraid of everything. I didn’t sleep 15 seconds between 2:30 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. for six months, lying awake in complete fear, my mind a soupçon of panic. It would be quicker to list the things I wasn’t afraid of than outline everything that felt unhinged. Dread wrapped its tentacles around my brain, and I was certain I would never feel safe again. 

I was afraid I might die of pain. I was afraid I might live with pain. I was afraid I couldn’t do it on my own. I was afraid for my kids. I was afraid for our future. I was afraid about money. I was afraid about my career, my community, my church, our friends, bills, yard maintenance, our cars, my in-laws, my unborn grandbabies, loneliness, being broken, my credibility, Legacy Collective, faith, college, retirement, trauma, holidays, my own patterns, my foolishness, my naivety, my ignorance. 

Turns out, I should have been afraid all along. 

Which is the exact sentiment I took into therapy: I’m scared now. There is reason to be scared. I should have been scared. I will always be scared. Please teach me how to live as a scared person for the rest of my days. I have no training. 

As you might surmise, my therapist thought this approach to the next 40 years was ill-conceived. She would ask me horror questions like, “What are you exactly afraid of?” And I was like, “Ma’am, this session is $125 an hour. I will get to the end of the list and owe you a quarter of a million dollars.” But because I am an Enneagram 3 and wanted to win therapy, I listed my fears and begged her to tell me how to make it stop. I wanted none of it. I wanted to sleep through the night. I wanted to feel my old sense of confidence for 15 minutes a day. I wanted this in my rearview mirror and needed the therapist’s secret formula for making bad things end. 

“Jen, there is how you feel, then there is your resistance to how you feel. The first is hard. The second is catastrophic. You are afraid right now. This makes sense. This is appropriate, because you are a human person who experienced trauma. This is a normal response. But your refusal to face your fears with open arms, welcoming each and every one like the fitting companions they are right now, will delay your healing more than a single other factor. Your fear isn’t the problem. Your resistance to fear is.”

I didn’t care for this. My $125 an hour was meant to evade the suffering and resurrect the sparkling person who didn’t own a house key. All I did was resist my fears. At no point did I sit with my feelings and just let them exist. I fought like a wildcat against every worry, every doubt, every possibility of future anguish. I argued with my terror, gave myself every Girl Boss lecture, seized any 60-second burst of optimism and declared myself “healed.” I resisted fear like it was my paying job. 

Only because I couldn’t tolerate the suffering anymore, I reluctantly tried to figure out what my therapist was saying. I literally had no practice with this. I was a shiny girl born to a shiny dad with a zen mom and a historical nonchalance toward fear. In a sentence that cost me $2.08, I said to my therapist: “Talk to me like a kindergartner. When you say ‘stop resisting your fear’, what that means is… that I would… I want to say… just decide to be happy?” (I was definitely not winning therapy, and this is why counselors need their own counselors.)

With much guidance, I learned the rudimentary practices to embrace fear instead of resist it. I learned to go soft when a fear rose up, to unclench, to relax my forehead and hands and shoulders. I learned to breathe in for eight seconds, hold for four, then exhale slowly for another eight, and I’ll be damned if BREATHING didn’t help calm the internal panic. What on earth? Even babies know how to breathe! And they didn’t even have to pay to learn! 

I learned to let a scary thought ride its own wave without trying to squash it or fix it or deny it; I just let it live in my scared little mind while breathing helped me endure it. I would tell myself: “It’s okay that you feel scared about this. It is a normal way to feel. You’re not doing something wrong. Relax your forehead. Check if your hands are clenched.” Low and behold, the thought would find its end and I didn’t die from it. 

It doesn’t make sense, but facing a fear, letting it be what it is, letting yourself feel how you feel, while intentionally staying calm and keeping your body soft is better than resisting. I don’t know how it works.

Resisting fear seems smarter. It seems like kickass, Annie Oakley, mind-over-matter shit, and I can promise you I’d still be doing that if it worked. I’d be sparring against scary thoughts and terrifying what-ifs, talking myself out of every emotion. But some transmutation happens when you let the fear rise, peak, and recede without a fight. It forfeits a great deal of its power, like it feeds off the strain and without the tension, it goes slack. 

I wonder if whatever you are resisting might find a quicker end if you just let it exhaust its energy without your participation? Can you just let it come, knowing it will also go? What if you shifted your attention to your forehead, your hands, your shoulders, and your breath? Most fear is not productive anyway; inventions that are uncontrollable, unchangeable, or unlikely. When I think back to my litany of fears, almost zero percent of them came to pass. Well, to be fair, I don’t yet know if my unborn grandbabies will make bad choices because of my divorce, but I’ll let you know later if I should have hung on to that one. 

I’m less shiny now, sure, but I’ve developed some tolerance for fear when it comes. I’ve learned to shrink its run time, and that’s about the best we can do. The less oxygen I give it with resistance, the quicker it moves through. I would say I’ve returned to the bottom portion of the top half of the glass; fear didn’t permanently change my orientation but just lowered it a few degrees. You still cannot convince me the streets of New York are dangerous at 3:00 a.m., I’ll ask a stranger to hold my purse, and I never think any football player flagged for a face mask meant to do it. 

My shiny tendencies have mostly recovered, although on my best, most regulated day, I will never under-respond like my mom who, upon learning my brother drove her Jeep into a river, shrugged: “Well, it’s just a car.” Jesus, give me one-tenth the restraint of Jana King, but so help me if one of my sons drives my Bronco into a river, I will have to forfeit my salvation.

Hello rafters, my old friend.