On the first day that I ever walked into a counselor’s office I was shaking so much that you would have thought I had to give a speech that would either save the world from nuclear disaster, or send humanity to the brink of extinction, depending on my delivery.
I had just separated from my husband, and the only thing worse than revealing myself to a complete stranger was continuing on in the cesspool of pain that had become my life.
The room I walked into was complete with the stereotypical shrink sofa and box of Kleenex. My therapist reminded me of a librarian, with glasses, short grey hair, and that tall thin frame that seemed a prerequisite for the job. I took great comfort in this because in my imagination, I’d always pictured therapists looking like this.
The first thing I said to her was, “I don’t know how I could possibly fill an entire hour talking about myself.” She retorted, “Everyone feels that way on the first day, and then they end up shocked at the end of the hour when I tell them their time is up.” And I laughed at that, and she laughed, and I was free then because I found out I was just like everyone else, and they were just like me: glorious schmucks trying to chuck the schmuck part to get to the glory.
I’d like to tell you that after that first ice breaker, my fears proved unfounded. They didn’t. The experience was weird, and messy those first few times, and ever after that I’d come to a point in the therapy session where I was babbling incomprehensively, or felt misunderstood, or was sweating and red and uncomfortable from some deeply stuffed sore spot pushing itself up and out of me.
So why keep at it? What makes us humans decide to walk into something that scares us?
I went through it all to get to the good inside me more quickly. Therapy was a lot like standing in England in front of a five-star cruise ship full of luxury accommodations and making the choice to ride the Chunnel train instead, complete with sweaty, stressed-out passengers and no room for relaxing diversions. It sure wasn’t as much fun of a commute, but it definitely got me to where I wanted to go a lot faster.
Courage isn’t lacking a feeling of fear. It is walking straight into any actions that engenders trepidation in order to discover that limiting beliefs about ourselves were never real to begin with. The bottom line with facing the scary stuff is that a fear faced is a fear deprived of if its favorite fuels: shame and self-doubt. Once these are cleared, or even partially cleared out, an understanding of our unlimited nature starts to take hold. FDR’s contention that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself” switches from some platitude to a daily way of being.
Yet this switch is a hell of hard one to make. In order to ensure that the toughness of this journey goes a little bit smoother, I’ve compiled a ten-point system for punching through the petulance that fear often shows when it knows its days are numbered. These are the tweaks to life which, when practiced consistently, engender courage as a first response to life’s challenges and get us to where we want to go a lot faster.
- Make a list of the fears faced to date
This is a biggie. The first counseling appointment I was going on pure adrenaline, but by the second, I was so scared of being rejected, seen as a failure, as strange, or as way too messed up to be dealt with that I had to sit down and talk myself into going to see my therapist again.
I had no idea how to convince myself to do this. While brainstorming ideas, I flashed back to elementary school recess when all of us rugrats would run up to our teachers with the same half-desperate inquiry as we rocked back and forth from foot to foot:
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“You CAN,” came the inevitable reply, “but that doesn’t mean I’ll LET you.”
Trying not to roll our eyes, we’d rephrase into the proper English so that we could get past the grammar police and into the toilet area before having an embarrassing accident that would forever mar our grade school days. “MAY I go to the bathroom?”
“Yes you MAY,” would come the satisfied reply.
It occurred to me then that the power of the word ‘can’ was so strong that even our earliest teachers discouraged its overuse, as if they were afraid that we all might suddenly realize our own power and storm the loo, breaking the plumbing and causing chaos throughout the school in the process.
“You CAN, but that doesn’t mean I’ll LET you.”
Letting ourselves be stopped – in the name of good manners or social judgement or not being accepted or making a mistake – is often seen as acceptable. Yet it is the most unacceptable of actions that we can take because it is actually a lack of action.
So to counter this childhood indoctrination, I began with the thought, “You can do this” to which my fear said, “No you can’t” and my next thought was “Yes you can, you’ve done it before.” And I thought, aha! That’s right, I HAD faced scary stuff before. I’d had the courage to end a toxic marriage, I’d turned away from the religion of my youth upon understanding that it wasn’t serving my Soul, I had started my own business, I had taken a chance at love, and I had bothered to face head-on my own mistakes by taking the fork in the road onto a path that led towards enlightenment.
It was those list of fears that I’d already faced that became my lifeline, enabling me to walk right back into librarian-land for my next counseling appointment. In this way, brainstorming our past moments of courage is equivalent to feeding it the healthy diet it needs to flourish and grow into fearlessness.