Befriend Your Fears and Thrive

I was watching the movie, Monsters University, with my kids recently. Through the laughs, I saw some realities for us adult folks.  After years of living, each of us has come to own the one, two, or more things that scares the living bijiggers out of us.  Like the movie, our minds have created these “scare monsters” who practice with great finesse to terrify us with the least bit of effort.  After years of priming us, the slightest stimuli gets us cowering in the corner.  With the many professionals and graduate students I’ve taught this last decade, I’ve witnessed that the most effective scare tactic our mind uses against ourselves is “you’re not good enough”.  Those 5 words will get the most gifted and accomplished individuals running for the corner, paralyzed into self-doubt and inaction.  Or with the same terror, these individuals will charge into life to do superhuman acts of achievement to prove our minds wrong.  Either way, we are responding to the survival instincts, to fight or flight when confronted with fear.  Except, now it’s not the animal predators that threaten us, it’s our thoughts.  It’s not “real”, but it sure feels like it’s 100% real.

High achievers are the best candidates for these “you’re not good enough” scare monsters.  I should know.  I’ve lived with them for all my life.  They’re still there, ambushing me when I am most vulnerable.  But unlike my past, I’ve called them out.  I see them.  I can even ignore them at times.  But most importantly, I’ve come to befriend them, to accept fear as part of my makeup.  I’ve found that resisting fear, pushing it away, only gives it more power over me.  In the past, living in my ignorance of fear, I’ve ended up either outperforming against these fears until I shrivel from tiredness or I’ve become paralyzed, thinking about all the possibilities of failure.  Neither has served me well because I’m always acting against my natural, knowing self when I react to fear. When I act with fear, I will always lose because fear tightens its grip on me with every fear-driven action I take.

The Chinese philosophy of yin-yang states that for a preference to exist, a non-preference must be coupled with it.  If we like light, that’s because there’s darkness.  If we like joy, that’s because there’s sadness.  If we like freedom, there must be fear.  Without the negative, we can not possibly know the positive version of it.  This concept takes time to digest, but when you get this idea, it’s pretty profound.  Rather than pushing it away, we actually accept it as a pairing.  Yin-yang also states that conditions are always changing so we can never always be happy.  There has to be sadness.  We can’t always be free, there has to be fear.  But once we know that, we have choice in how we respond to the positives and negatives.  Do you see how powerful that is?

For years, I was so “accomplished”.  Double Harvard degrees, youngest Vice President, first ever to…Yet underlying so much of my accomplishments was a dire terror to fail.  As with all overachievers, but especially as an Asian brought up in a culture where external approval defined my worth, failure was equivalent to exile and death.  And failure was being “average”.  I don’t blame my parents, whom I did when I was younger.  It’s inherent in the Asian culture and thus, the context in which I was brought up.  Beyond ethnic culture, is the perfectionist culture.  Ask any overachiever who feels a compulsion to win (versus a passion to express) and if they’re honest, underneath their accomplishments is a deep terror to be average. What’s driving them is not a dream, but a nightmare.

I meditate regularly because I intend to have a different relationship with my scare monsters.  Meditating gives me a pathway through which I can see my fear for what it is…a thought.  As a thought, I can choose to accept it or let it go.  I needn’t wrestle it to the ground because fear will always win in the boxing ring.  I see it.  I feel it.  I feel my fear. When I see it and feel it, it no longer owns me.  I have created a connection to it.  And I can let it go.  Like Tinkerbell, I touch this fear with my wand and it becomes stardust.  And I let it dissolve in the air.  It’s literally what I do.  Sometimes, my fear is so intense that I spend my entire meditation just touching that fear and letting it go.  I get frustrated with myself that I have so much fear sometimes.  But the exercise always helps because when I have the courage to sit with my fear, it no longer resides  within me as an intangible and unapproachable blob. When I can interact with it, I always emerge with more space, hope and confidence than when I started my meditation session.

Some may say, I just can’t sit down to meditate.  That’s ok.  Maybe it’s running, bicycling or hiking for you.  But whatever practice you decide to engage in, you must be in touch with this fear.  You must not just be able to think about it but you must experience it.  It may be the scariest thing you’ve ever done in your life because as a new initiate, I really thought I could get swallowed whole by my fear.  But with practice, years of practice, I’ve come to realize that when I can befriend, accept and let go of my fear, I am a more whole person.  As a result, I know I act more from my deep knowing and my passions, rather than from evading these scare monsters.

Some of you may say, I don’t have that kind of fear.  It may not show up as “good enough” for you.  But as humans, we seek to have worth. For some reason, humans have this wall that keeps us from embracing our fullest worth.  And it’s always these darn scare monsters called fear.  Fear asks us to abhor these scare monsters so it will have control over us.  But as the philosophy of yin-yang states, it’s just the other side of freedom. So if you’re feeling terror and fear, remember that you’re just at the other side of freedom.  To live in that freedom, even if its moments at a time, I am more than willing to consciously connect with my fears and let them go, so that I can traverse to the other side. Acting from freedom is such I gift to life.  I know this to be true for us all.

If you are courageously interested, start gently.  Establishing relationships take time.  When you feel compelled to win, when you self-criticize, dare to take a quiet moment to go inside and ask why.  Why am I feeling this way?  Why am I saying these nasty things to myself? Keep asking this simple word. If you sit with it long enough, you will see glimmers of your fear.  You will realize that what you thought was causing you to act or say something is a red herring.  Fear is the key cause.  You will feel confusion at first, but when you get a glimpse of fear, remember, you are a step closer to your freedom.  With practice, freedom will be a greater cause for your actions.  Now isn’t that a kind of life worth pursuing?