When was the last time you were afraid?
I just did a brief count, and came up with 13 instances of different types of fear in my life in the last 24 hours: I was afraid of slipping down a hill in mud, forgetting something, having lost something, not being on time, not making my plane, having an issue with my car, my suitcase being too heavy (and having to pay a fine), the tomato juice that spilled landing on the person sitting next to me, the content of my suitcase being broken, the contents of a text, the contents of a letter, being late for a meeting, the well-being of someone, the next day, not coming up with a text by a deadline. Comparatively, many of these are all relatively mild instances of fear. Individually, each of them were stressful for me, even if only for a moment (some are stressing me out right now).
Over the last months, I have been thinking about different facets of how I do my work, some aspects of which I’ve been working on over the last years: openness, vulnerability, criticism, standing up for others. In the past, I’ve often looked at all of these as unique topics. Recently, I’ve come to understand that they all share the same root: fear.
Fear is an emotion. Fear is information. Fear can lead us to changing our behaviour.
And fear has had great impact on my life and my choices. And unlike many of my house plants, I had nourished my fear, given it light and water, and it flourished (honestly, it did better than my house plants, and yes, that’s a low bar). My fear flourished to the point where it became overwhelming, overbearing, and a problem for me: it kept me up at night, became a big factor in my decisions, and it changed me. My huge fear made me risk averse, and while being the woman who says no is often part of my job, it also kept me from saying yes. It sometimes made me hesitate instead of doing, saying, moving forward with what I knew was right, because doing, saying, moving forward would have meant taking risks that felt too uncomfortable, too uncontrollable, too unforeseeable, too big for me. It kept me from failure, kept me within my comfort zone, and deprived me of opportunities to learn. And it kept me from changing faster than I could’ve. My fear grew too big, and it held me back.
Fear often feels dark, heavy, and easily becomes the stuff that gets a heart rate up, accelerates a breathing rate, makes a body tense, brings goose bumps (not the good kind), keeps a mind running in circles, makes a night sleepless and a skin sweaty. — Examined closely and at daylight, many fears are not founded in realistic scenarios (often, they’re more a 20%-truth/realism thing). So I asked myself: What is this about? — Is it fear of putting myself out there, not knowing the response? What is it that scares me? Is it fear of failure, losing connectedness, of rejection, disappointing people, not fitting in, not being liked, not meeting expectations, failing people, losing ground, making a mistake, losing respect, losing my job, losing my income? What are you so afraid of? And why?
Fear is wonderful: it keeps us from being reckless, doing silly things, taking dangerous steps, and doing things carelessly (or at least it makes us think twice before doing them anyway). Oftentimes, the steps that my fear made me take were right. But they were the right steps for the wrong reasons. Fear is part of being human, and based on what we were taught, learned, what we know, what we experienced, the historic and cultural contexts and societies we exist in. Fear can provide us with guidance. It can help us understand ourselves better, examine our emotions and reactions. Fear can teach us great lessons about life, the people around us, and how to live well.
Almost two years ago, I came out of a bad year, and was in the middle of another round of big and super scary change. Then I had what we call a *”Schnapsidee” in German (literally: grain spirit idea (can also be had sober, and doesn’t need to have alcohol present)), a spontaneous, wild idea: I started a small project for myself that I called “The Year of Being Bold”. For one year, I wanted to be bold for once in my life: I wanted to be strong, courageous, put myself out there, take risks _(within what was reasonable & affordable for me – being able to take risks is a privilege in and of itself)_, get things done, and not be driven by fear any longer. Most of all, being “bold” meant I wanted to stop holding myself back, and stop allowing my fears to hold me back.
Whenever I faced bigger choices, or questions about what to do next in a certain situation or interaction, I’d tell myself to be bold, and act on it. I was bold. In a little list, I kept track of the instances of where I’d been bold. Here are a few of its entries: I got in touch with someone after over a decade, said what I want, followed a strong gut feeling, said no, got bold glasses, pushed something through for someone, said yes, cried, voiced criticism, went out alone, was mindful about my self care, did something that scared the h*ck out of me, said the truth, gave an important talk, told someone how I felt, sent an email, stood up for what I believe in, addressed something that made me extremely uncomfortable, was very real, admitted that I needed help, stood up for others, set boundaries. —
This whole project started out on a hunch, as an excuse to myself for being bold and doing what I would otherwise not have done. I didn’t even take the whole thing very seriously for a long time (then I resorted to taking it a little seriously, but also lightheartedly). And it was only four months in that I realised how much it helped me, and how much it mattered to my development that I stopped with my constant waiting, thinking, rethinking, pondering. Being bold as a personal project gave me a framing, a reference, and meant I was pushing myself to put myself out there, stand up for others and myself. All actions I put into my list were all things I didn’t do lightly, and all were actions I took after thinking twice. Telling myself to be bold kept me from thinking a third time and then not doing it. Instead, I moved forward. This project also meant I kept track of my accomplishments, of what were big steps and bold moves for me back then, with the version of myself at the time and the place I was in. With this project, I pushed myself to give things a try, put out my truth, and be honest: know the risks, and go for it – and see what happens.
And with each action that I put into this list, I am incredibly happy (and applauding my past self) that I was bold with it. Not all bold actions had the outcome I wanted for them, or the outcome that would’ve been ideal. And that was okay, because I had been in it, present for it, I had been all in with all that I had (and sometimes, that’s just not enough, and that’s okay). Some steps that I took being bold changed my life.
Now, for a while, too much had been going on, and I’d forgotten about being deliberately bold. (My last entry was from mid September.) In the meantime, I’ve learned more about myself and the people around me since I started this project. I’m in a different place than I was back then, and I feel like I need to take the next step after being bold for a while. Now, I want to more consciously notice, recognise my fear when it’s there, acknowledge it, identify and name it, and I want to take deliberate steps to work with it.
I want to live a life that’s not guided by fear. I want to be in what I do with my heart, give it my all, and find the strength to move with it. I want to live courageously.
I call this The Year of Being Courageous.