Except for this week, I’ve woken up scared every day for the past few months.
The fear is not as bad as that I felt in those weeks after I’d taken my grad school qualifying exams and received a conditional pass on the oral portion. My advisory committee had determined I needed to do a little more work before I was ready to move on to the dissertation proposal phase. I passed the oral exam on the condition that I work with a particular professor for a quarter and do some additional research and writing. My twisted little mind—and my gut—interpreted that conditional pass as failure. For weeks I woke up feeling as if some small, sharp-toothed animal was trying to gnaw its way out of my stomach. And as I went through my days, I gained a visceral understanding of the expression “walking on eggshells.” My self-image had been shattered, and I moved through the Humpty-Dumpty remains hoping I’d run into someone more capable of reconstruction than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
With time—and the help of a therapist—I worked through my fear and sense of failure and made it out the other side. I completed the extra work, submitted my dissertation proposal, and eventually finished the dissertation and earned my Ph.D. And the toothy little creature in my gut curled up in a ball and went to sleep.
It took me a while to connect my recent weeks of waking up scared to my grad school experience. As I said, the current fear isn’t anywhere near as intense. Instead of a gnawing animal, I’ve felt more a sense of butterflies, followed by a flush of—what? Panic, I guess, though that term seems a bit too strong. I lay in bed, feeling the fear, throwing off the covers when the heat wave of panic hits, then pulling them back over me when the wave passes. Then I get out of bed and start my day.
What’s the connection between the grad school experience and my recent bouts of fear? That feeling of failure. In grad school, I felt like I had failed. Now, I’m afraid I will fail. I released my first novel late last year. I’m working on a sequel and writing a short story to submit for consideration for publication in a mystery and horror anthology (submission deadline October 1). I’m trying to get the word out locally about my book—through readings/signings, library programs, etc. I’m posting (though probably not as often as I should) to this blog and trying to keep up with the blogs I follow. I’ve been doing some editing for a friend in exchange for help with PR and marketing. I’m working my day job, doing the necessary chores of laundry, house cleaning, etc., doing my best to take care of my body by giving it the exercise and sleep it needs, and trying to find time to read, maintain my friendships, and do other things I enjoy. All of these things are good, but sometimes the to-do list seems overwhelming. So, I lay in bed, flushed with the fear that I won’t be able to do it all, that I will fail, that I won’t be enough.
I’ve wanted the fear to go away. It’s uncomfortable and not how I want to greet my days. But reasoning with my emotions, explaining that my life is really pretty good, that I’m doing what I want, and that definitions of success and failure are completely subjective—so there’s no need to be afraid, right?—hasn’t worked so well.
It turns out that writing can be kind of a terrifying experience. Not for the faint of heart.
Then last week when I was cutting the grass, I thought, “Is the point really not to be afraid, or is it to get comfortable with feeling the fear?”
In an earlier post, I wrote about Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly and how her work has shown vulnerability to be the key to what she calls “wholehearted” living. As I pushed my mower, I made the connection between my fear and my vulnerability. Of course, I’m afraid, I thought. I’m putting myself out there with my writing, daring to try something different, to do that thing I’ve always wanted to do. That realization brought with it a huge sense of relief. Instead of linking my fear to a sense of failure (past or future), it linked it to the inherent vulnerability of going after a dream. I might not be able to get rid of the fear, but I could try to get comfortable with feeling it while I kept moving forward. I could live with that.
In the past, I’ve let my fear stop me. I’ve thought I had to know exactly what I was doing, and that any mistake meant failure. Now I’m doing what I want in spite of the fear. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I will undoubtedly make more, but I’ve survived—and those mistakes haven’t been failures, just learning opportunities.
So, what changed this past week? Why, this week, have I awakened unaccompanied by fear?
I’m not altogether sure. Maybe it was the fact that last Friday’s reading/book signing event (which I’d been really nervous about) was now behind me—and had been a lot of fun. Maybe my grass-cutting realization gave me a sense of perspective that made my vulnerability less scary. Maybe it was because I decided I could extend the timeline for some of the items on my to-do list. In any case, I’ve been able to greet my days this week not with fear but with the happiness of having the freedom to pursue my dream—at my own pace. I’ll get done what I get done in any given day.
The fear may be back next week. It may be back tomorrow. But maybe I can meet it as a friend, as evidence of being alive, accepting that living frequently means feeling uncomfortable—and being okay with that.