Battling Fear is Hard Work

I’m a bit in awe of fear. I don’t meant that I bow down to it anymore, but I’m continually amazed at how creative and convincing its voice can be, especially when we’re caught in its grasp and working hard to loosen the fingers that keep us stuck. Once we reveal Fear’s illusion (and I capitalize it to convey that it really is like a character in our psyche), I actually feel a little sorry for this part that has to work so hard to keep us separate from love and truth and joy. It’s like the end of the “The Wizard of Oz” when the curtains are pulled back and the great voice of Oz turns out to be a vulnerable little man. Fear talks a good talk but once we expose its lies, it shrinks to its actual puny size and slinks away.

Over the weekend I received a lovely email from a woman who wrote to thank me for my Conscious Weddings work. When she initially contacted me in April she had written (with her permission):

A few weeks after I got engaged I found your book and found it so helpful and comforting. While I’ve been working through the doubts and fears, they have resurfaced now that we have less than three months to the wedding. Taking this as a sign that I still had work to do, I’ve begun the journaling technique you suggested. I write down my fears and then write to find reasons that those fears are irrational or rational. I have not found a reason that the fear that is concrete. But I am still very anxious and am having trouble trusting myself.

My biggest fear is that I will have doubts the day of the wedding and be scared to walk down the aisle. How can I learn to trust that this is the last phase of the process and not think that this is a sign that I shouldn’t marry? Do you have any advice on this “day of wedding” fear?

I offered her some advice and hoped it was helpful. I didn’t hear from her for months, then in last weekend’s follow-up email she wrote:

When I contacted you in April, I was so afraid that I would have doubts on my wedding day and that they would prevent me from being able to get married. I was sure that I would have some paralyzing fear that would make me run from the alter or not show up at all. But I can honestly say that my wedding day was one of the most wonderful days of my life. And yet, I know working with fears is not over. Just today I tended some potted herbs left over from my wedding centerpieces and worried that their wilting leaves might be a sign that my marriage might eventually wilt as well. As if my ability to grow plants has anything to do with my marriage!

As I worked through this fear that my dying plants might be a symbol or a sign, I thought back to you and visited your site as I have so often done in times of anxiety or fear. I remembered all over again how vital your words were and are in giving me a way to understand emotions, feelings, and life’s transitions.

I asked for permission to quote from her email because I was impressed by her commitment to working with her fears, and I want to emphasize a point I often make: working with fear is hard work and, left to its own devices, fear will continue to drive your car as long as you let it. Often when people seek my advice they’re hoping for a quick-fix that will magically remove fear from their inner world. As one of my clients said a couple of days ago, “I keep hoping that I’ll wake up one morning and this anxiety will be gone!” We laughed together, as she’s now realizing that working with fear is a daily – if not hourly – commitment. When people succeed in booting fear out of the driver’s seat it’s because they work every day with it through journaling, dialoguing, or any other technique that they’ve found effective. It’s not easy. It takes time and devotion. But such is the case with any practice of personal and spiritual growth.

For the woman who wrote, her journaling paid off: she had a wonderful wedding day and is enjoying her new marriage. But as she also acknowledges, working with fear is a lifelong endeavor. The fear voice said, “These wilting leaves are a sign that your marriage will eventually wilt.” (Such a classic way that fear creeps in!) She recognized in that moment that fear’s voice was at work and that she needed to battle it with the truth. Once she did so, she could go back to enjoying the moment of replanting and, more importantly, enjoying her life.

13 comments to Battling Fear is Hard Work

  • Lyn

    Unfortunately fear did creep in on my wedding day. I had been feeling good the entire day but during the ceremony I was extremely hot (Caribbean destination wedding) and had a moment of panic due to fears I had swirling around in my head. I wish that I had done more to prevent this from happening. In a way I’m not surprised. Focusing on fear for months, including fear surrounding the ceremony in a way caused this panic.

  • admin

    I’m curious if you can say more about “focusing on fear for months”. There’s a crucial difference between focusing on fear and working with or battling fear.

  • Lyn

    Meaning that although I’ve tried to process my fear I don’t think in the past, before the weddding that I really “battled” it. I had fears of running away, I had fears of being anxious. I think that by putting these scenarios in my head it was inevitable that it would creep in on the wedding day.

  • admin

    I don’t think it’s fair to yourself to say that you “put the scenarios in your head”; the thoughts and negative fantasies appear unbidden and we have little control over them. What we CAN control is our response to the thoughts and fantasies. Also, it sounds like overall your wedding day went well but that there was just a point in the ceremony that you panicked. That’s okay! It was just a moment. It’s important to keep the positive aspects of the day forefront and not be too hard on yourself or paint a negative picture because of a few moments. The truth is that you didn’t run away! You got married, and that in itself was facing the fear.

  • Roxanne

    I love this post! Similar to the woman’s email–I too have fear-based thoughts that will creep in. I found it ironic how she mentioned the wilting leaves as a sign of her dying marriage and had a similar situation on the night before our one year anniversary. We had just “popped so bubbly” and poured it into our glasses. I accidentally knocked my glass over with my elbow and the champagne went straight down the drain before I even took a sip!! Now, you can only imagine the thoughts!! What must this mean? Oh my goodness, it’s a sign, isn’t it!! I didn’t actually verbalize this fear aloud; however, my husband, who knows I have these kinds of thoughts looked at me and said–Oh my god, that must be a sign–then started laughing!! He only did it to make me realize how silly it is to think that spilling a glass would actually mean something–and he knew without me saying anything that I was probably thinking that–and he was right! An important thing I left out here was that I constantly spill everything! I spill a full glass of water on my desk or on the floor at least once a month–so this should have been no different–but since it was the “eve” of our anniversary–it must mean something, right? WRONG! It meant nothing!! It did take a few hours to stop thinking that way though. Our minds really are so powerful! It is amazing.

    The good news is–(if anyone was remembers my prior posts) that I have been feeling great lately!! The best I have felt in a while so I am happy and thankful for that. My 30th bday is coming up so I’m curious to see how this transition will go– I usually do get a case of the birthday blues..but I’m feeling pretty good about 30–I hope the feeling continues!

  • admin

    That’s a great story, Roxanne! Thanks for sharing it – and I’m so glad you’re feeling great!

  • […] a sign that I shouldn’t marry? Do you have any advice on this “day of wedding” fear?  Click here to read the rest of this post and response on the Conscious Transitions blog. Posted in Wedding […]

  • MEG

    Hi Sheryl,

    Since last year I’ve been going through my engagement transition alternating between approaching fear with a stern “you can’t bully me” attitude and a kind, compassionate, befriending attitude. I’m currently working with a CBT therapist who is teaching me to question and redirect my negative thought processes (obsessive thoughts and ruminations), and I’ve also been becoming spiritual and have taken a like in Buddhist philosophies and mindfulness meditation. In the Buddhist practice, I have learned to become the “watchman” of all of my thoughts, to notice them, and not to deny their existence. I’ve learned that my ego is just feeling threatened which is setting off a fight/flight response in my body and is causing more obsessive thinking. My question is, how can I approach fear-based thinking with a stern yet compassionate voice? If my ego feels threatened about something I feel aversive to, am I just “giving in to the fear” by responding to it in a loving way? I guess I’m finding it hard to balance when to take care of my wounded self, and when to notice it and not listen to it.

    • It’s a great question, and a very important one. The answer is that it depends on what the thought is. If it’s a fear-based thought coming from a false belief then it needs loving attention so that you can replace it with the truth. If it’s an intrusive thought like “What if i don’t love him enough?” then you simply name it, notice it, and let it pass on by. Does that make sense?

  • MEG

    Thanks so much responding! I sort of understand. It’s hard to tell if my thoughts are fear-based or intrusive when they arise. At the root of a lot of my doubt is that I don’t trust myself. Would that be more of a fear-based belief? Then an intrusive thought would be in regards to the kinds of thoughts my therapist is helping me to re-question, and recognize. My confusion lately is in why the thoughts have changed from “what ifs” to “I am’s”.
    Because the wording in my mind has changed from a question to a statement, have I gone from being able to “notice it and let it pass by” to giving loving attention to it? I feel like there’s a fine line between tending
    to a thought and obsessing about it.

    • Well, the fine line is really about intention: When your intention is to control, avoid or protect, you’ll become obsessive, but when your intention is to learn and bring compassion to yourself, you’ll bring love to it.

      As far as changing from what-ifs to I-ams, this is a common trajectory when you’re dealing with intrusive thoughts and is really just another manifestation of the fear-based self. The more you extricate from the fear-based self, the sneaker it becomes : ).

      And yes, the root of doubt is often self-doubt or lack of self-trust, which is definitely rooted in fear and lack of self-love.

  • MEG

    Sheryl,

    Wow, this totally makes sense! Thank you so much for your responses. One more month until my wedding and, I can say without a doubt, my life would have gone down a Different path had I not found your work. This amazing man I lay next to right now might not be here if I didn’t stay with my fears and try to understand them. Thank you for helping me change my life.

    Warmly,
    Mallory

  • Nina

    1st: “thank You” is the minimum with which we all here can express our gratitude to you, your healing and comforting words, dear miss Sheryl. I believe we feel much more than gratitude.
    2nd: in reading all the posts and comments I still haven’t come across one that says: “What if I’m not good enough for my partner?” Seems to me it’s always: “what if he/she’s not good for me” or “what if I don’t love him/her?”
    Did anyone of you asked themselves, like I’m asking myself e.v.e.r.y. d.a.y. (grrrrr!!): what if I’m not enough amusing, smart, good-looking, tolerant, motivational, enough everything basically, to him/her? what if he replaces me? Oh yes, you guessed, I’m just another friend of anxiety. Oh yes, sir.
    Of course, my thoughts derive from my fear of abandonment due to past events and abruptly walkouts that my partners did (and so did I…I admit it). One of them said what we had was all out of sympathy. Pardon me if I’m wrong, maybe I haven’t read enough of Sheryl’s work here or comments so except my apology cuz of my ignorance. Maybe some of you posted already what I’m writing here.
    Needless to say that my partner represents all qualities that have been named here and hasn’t ever show me any sign of not loving and caring for me or that i’m dull, passive, uninteresting person. Yes, of course, as some of you maybe noticed from this post, I do have lack of self respect…God what am I saying??? I mean I don’t have ANY self respect and don’t see myself as a good person (or as a person my close(st) people perceive me). This fear is like a zombie – I’m eating myself up (instead of eating veggies and fruit XD). And one other thing, has anyone of you ever said to themselves: “I’m never gonna marry, who would ever want me?? I can’t live with myself sometimes, so who could endure me?” So my engagement came to me as a shock, of course. And it started to sink in now, a month later. I’m becoming aware of it’s heaviness. Maybe it finally came time I must face my fears, acknowledge them, bring to the surface all from the past that I’ve experienced and that’s sewn into my core, make peace with it and hand it over to dear God around us and….just TRUST?
    Greetings from Croatia. I pray for us all.
    Thank you.