Fear: Friend or Foe in a Life Transition?
Is fear knocking on your door during a life transition? If so, you’re not alone.
Fear is probably the number one emotion we experience when life suddenly changes for us. If we’ve lost a job, we fear becoming homeless. If we’ve lost a partner or close friend, we fear we won’t be able to manage without them. We fear what will happen to our lives as a result of these changes.
Perhaps we even fear our fear.
But is fear really the enemy we make it out to be, worthy of banishment to the dark closet corner where we can ignore it? When we’re in the midst of a dramatic upheaval–and we simply can’t handle one more thing–is it really healthier to hide our fear behind a smile or simply sweep fear under the rug? Easier, yes, without a doubt. But ultimately better?
Life transitions make us feel and do all these things with fear. Sometimes we need to ignore it in order to survive. And yet, there comes a time in every woman’s life where we need to stop running from fear and, instead, turn around and say “hello.”
Not easy, I know. So here are four ways that can help you meet fear instead of ignoring it.
1. Acknowledge Fear in a Life Transition
When we turn around to say “Hello, Fear,” we are taking the first step in gaining back some of the control fear has held in our lives. We’re mentally taking a stand, almost as if we’re blocking fear’s natural escape route to hide in the nearest closet. Once confronted, we would do well to notice more about fear. What color is it? What shape? Does it look like something you recognize? A person, or an animal? Does it have a particular voice or smell or sound?
Take a few moments to objectify your fear, to give it substance, a structure. Doing so makes it less abstract, less easily dismissed. Describe what fear looks in your journal. Using art supplies, maybe create your version of it. Does your fear have another name? For instance, fear for me often masquerades as “introvert” or a crone wearing a babushka shaking her finger at me saying, “You can’t do. What will people think?”
Fear can be a powerful trickster, especially in a life transition, but looking it squarely in the eye helps to disarm this slippery eel.
2. Know How Fear Works
The truth is our bodies and brains are wired to be on alert and fear is our emotional response. Quite simply, it’s a survival mechanism that has served us well through the millennia. So when we get that feeling in our gut that something isn’t right, that’s fear trying to get our attention. When we feel the skin on the back of neck begin to crawl, that’s fear telling us it might be time to leave a certain situation now. Transition expert Leia Francisco even calls Fear the Safe-Keeping Self since it’s fear’s job to keep us safe.
And that’s the rub with fear.
We need it, especially in a life transition when so much is in turmoil, to help keep us safe. And yet, fear can easily transition to becoming our excuse for not taking the next step we need, whether it’s getting out of bed in the morning, or making a much-needed appointment with a therapist.
How to tell the difference between a life-threatening situation causing fear and using fear as an excuse? If you’re in a life-threatening situation, the obvious answer listen to your gut and seek safety and assistance.
But if this is just fear gaining the upper hand in your life, here are a few suggestions for quieting the Safe-Keeping Self:
- Pause. Check in with yourself. Take a few deep breaths.
- Acknowledge what is coming up for you in your mind, your heart, your body.
- Visualize fear in your mind’s eye, and ask fear what it wants from you.
- Maybe go so far as to ask fear why it wants you to not make that phone call, or get out of bed.
- Thank fear for the conversation, and then (this is important) decide what’s best for you.
Sitting down with fear instead of pushing it away shifts your Safe-Keeping Self from enemy and more into an acquaintance.
3. Write a Letter to Fear
I recently was having a conversation on the topic of fear with Leia Francisco. In her Writing Through Transitions book, Francisco, she touches on fear, by writing:
Just don’t let fear take over your life (pg 35).
I asked her for insight on this, because it seemed to me so much more easily said than done. And she agreed, going so far as to say that fear is a “huge issue,” especially for us as women who tend to be approval-driven, care-giving individuals who want everything to go along smoothly in our families, workplaces, and communities. We’re often the fearless peacemakers whether we’re in a life transition or not.
Not one to offer simplistic answers, Leia referred me to words from Liz Gilbert, author of Big Magic : Creative Living Beyond Fear. In one section, Gilbert takes a humorous look at fear. As I read, I found myself smiling and nodding my head as I read the letter she writes to the fear that holds her back from creating. Here’s an excerpt:
Dear Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do….Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job….but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way….Dude, you’re not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.
Substitute what is happening in your life in place of “Creativity.” Notice how it feels to invite fear allow along for the ride, while forbidding it to get near the steering wheel. What would fear say if you invited it for a cup of tea?
4. Courage, Meet Fear. Fear, Meet Courage.
Lastly, I’d like you to meet Kaveri Patel, a family practice physician and poet, who has a powerful book called Fear Journal that I can’t recommend enough. Her work bravely tackles fear through poetry, journal prompts, reflections in fresh and interesting ways. Here is Patel reflects on fear, comparing to a child left behind:
In the old world view of difficult emotions, fear is the problem child, the child left behind at the orphanage because no one wants to adopt her. She cries and cries, sinking deeper into darkness and endless waves of emotion. Lonely in her abyss, she doesn’t realize the black pearl of courage is lost somewhere between the soft folds of her own oyster heart. She forgets that she bares the capacity to birth herself again from a womb of wisdom….Courage and fear are born from the same dark place. She is the rise and fall of all experiences and wise stillness underneath.
What visceral imagery! Fear as the abandoned child, who cries, and sinks and is lonely. The pearl of courage that waits in the soft folds of her heart. The metaphors here can be rich and rewarding if we spend some time with them. What do her words bring to your mind about Courage and Fear in your life transition? Maybe write about in your journal.
Fear as Ally
In summary, I’m not suggesting you cozy up with fear during your life transition, not in the least. But it does us no good to sweep it under the rug either.
Instead, knowing how Fear works in our lives, acknowledging it, and even inviting it along for the ride as passenger-instead-of-driver can help us flip fear from a foe into more of an ally.
What kind of conversations are you having with fear today? How can writing about fear today help you begin to acknowledge it? What metaphors does fear bring up for you?
I have a few more ideas on how to survive a life-changing transition in my Transition Survival Guide: 5 Strategies for a Stronger You. I invite you to check this out.