Years ago, I was in Paris (long before I moved to France). I’d just arrived and was preparing for one of the most important meetings of my life.
It was cold outside. Not super-cold, but brisk enough to need a jacket (which I didn’t have). It didn’t matter, though; I was already shaking. I was afraid. I was about to meet my new boyfriend’s three children, for the first time. My boyfriend, who my heart said I would one day marry.
I put on my favorite dress, the one with the stripes, so that I’d feel confident and good. I breathed deeply, and listened to one of my favorite songs. Then, I did it. With the fear clutching at my shoulders, I left to go meet the four of them at a nearby restaurant for lunch.
Fear is something that we all feel.
As an entrepreneur, I’ve been afraid my business would fail. That I’d make the wrong call. That no one would see the value in my work.
As a mother, I’ve been afraid for my children’s safety, health, and well-being. Every unexplained fever or illness. Every trip to the emergency room. I’ve been afraid I’d never get a break soon enough. Afraid I’d damaged them when I lost my temper.
Fear isn’t unusual — even the tiniest animal feels it, and it is a constant force in our daily lives. But, still, many of us have gotten it in our heads that fear is wrong and, worse, we are wrong or weak for feeling it. We feel like we should ignore it, or rationalize it, or fight it.
This is not only unrealistic, but wildly unhelpful, advice. The truth is that there are a couple types of fear out there, and both offer up brilliant information.
Type 1: The “Good” Fear
- Positive, fear-based instinct that helps you survive when in danger. It tells you to make sure your kids are away from the oven when you’re cooking, and to keep your hand on the stroller when you’re getting near the street.
- When you really listen to it, you can hear with crystal clarity exactly what you do not want to do (e.g., burn, get hit, die, etc.).
- Often, this fear causes us to “fight” or take “flight.”
- This is the kind of fear that keeps us from dying. You acknowledge it and, hopefully, prevent an emergency.
Type 2: The “Bad” Fear
- Negative, fear-based reaction that doesn’t let you thrive because you might fail. It says your kid will never recover if you let them cry for 5 minutes while you take a shower. It keeps you from trying for the new job. And, it locks the door to your dreams and swallows the key.
- When you really listen to it, you can hear with crystal clarity exactly what you’d love to do (e.g., wash the hair, get the gig, etc.).
- But too often, this fear causes us to “freeze.”
- This is the kind of fear that keeps us from trying. You acknowledge it and, hopefully, do “the thing” anyway.
The catch, of course, is that only you know which is which, and you only hear the answers when you listen. One of my favorite quotes by Ashtanga yoga teacher David Swenson explains this beautifully: “There’s fear that keeps you alive, and there’s fear that keeps you from living. Wisdom is knowing the difference.”
Become aware of when you feel fear. Nothing is too small; the effect on you and your neurophysiological stress response is the same. Allow the sensation to be there. Literally, just breathe and notice that it’s there. Listen. Ask yourself which kind of fear it is that you’re feeling: “survive” fear or “no thrive” fear? Finally, decide: what do you want to do (or not) with that data?
For me, on that cold, sunny, scary afternoon, our lunch was a brilliant blur of nervous conversation and smiles. It is etched into my memory; how each of their faces looked when I arrived. How the oldest stood up to shake my hand (he’s still confident), and the middle just smiled silently (he’s still an observer), and the youngest stared at my eyes and asked me if I wore mascara (she’s still remarkably attentive to detail).
My life changed forever once I moved through that “bad” fear, and went in to the restaurant. And though they surely felt it, too, I’m glad they did the same. Because acknowledging that fear and doing it anyway has given me one of the greatest honors I’ve received: being a bonus mom.