This morning I sat with my first coffee of the day on the front bench. The air was cool but the sun was strong enough to warm me. I went out with the intention of reading some emails but, as is so often the case, got waylaid by social media.
Coffee drunk, emails still unread, I decided to have a second cup. Nursing number two decaff, I opened my inbox. I’d ‘saved’ a couple of messages from the night before because they looked too juicy to read without being fully attentive to them (I was catching up on The Great British Bake-Off when they’d arrived in my tray). Two more equally enticing messages lay there as well. Working my way through them, I could feel gratitude swelling my heart. All four emails contained amazing content that made me feel content to be alive (not something to be taken for granted after months of debilitating mental health issues). Not only that, they inspired me for the workday ahead, all feeding into the thoughts and themes that I am trying to bring to my writing right now.
This gratitude was swiftly followed by a slightly guilty sense of luck. Back when I was working full-time at my previous job, every login to my email bought a sinking sensation in my stomach at the prospect of what might be awaiting me. Changed deadlines, moved goalposts, requests that I really, truly did not want to fulfil, and maybe a nice message in there too. For over five years I tolerated this discomfort without really thinking about it. It’s only in its absence do I realise how uptight even the simple task of reading emails made me. I was unhappy, my body knowing what my mind refused to acknowledge.
In the end, my body and some long relegated part of my mind joined forces against me. As my mental health struggles worsened earlier this year, I found myself physically unable to get out of bed when the time came to go to work. It sounds like some lame excuse that I’m making up but truthfully, I am serious. Parts of me that I was trying to ignore ratchetted up the anxiety, panic and stress until normal service could not be resumed. So I quit.
After years of wrangling about my career choice, the actual decision to resign came relatively easily. I knew that it was the only option left available and I felt relief at actually asserting some kind of authority over my situation after years of feeling victimised by it. I had a supportive partner, savings and a small business on the backburner, all of which I could lean on. Still, leaving full-time, well paid employment for I wasn’t exactly sure what was terrifying if I thought about it too much. ‘Aren’t you worried?’, people asked. Of course! But I knew this was the decision I had to take. It was a classic case of feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’: was there ever a phrase from self-help literature as hackneyed as this? It is so embedded in common parlance that many probably don’t realise that there is a 1987 book with that title by Susan Jeffers. However clichéd the term itself has now become, Jeffers’ text is worth a read, providing a nuanced argument about how to use our fear in productive ways. As she and others recognise, fear is a natural human response. We should not simply ignore it, riding roughshod over alarm bells and warning signs. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway is not about putting ourselves in danger but instead pushing our comfort zones a little further, stretching ourselves beyond where we’ve gone before – further but not necessarily too far.
Maybe I’ve read this analogy before, I don’t remember, but using our fear as motivation for action seems to me like building a muscle. The more we flex it, the more we use it, the stronger it grows. We have to test ourselves with small challenges so we are used to the process and sensation of overcoming fear before trying to take on grander struggles. You’re not going to get far attempting a solo round-the-world yachting expedition unless you’ve taken some adult swimming lessons to get over your fear of water first. You’re not going to establish a new relationship with alcohol unless you are prepared to face one social occasion without drinking first.
Of course building up this metaphorical muscle is easier said than done. Even those small steps towards facing our fear can seem overwhelming. In the hours building up to my second netball practice session last night, I was riven with anxiousness about attending. Despite having a brilliant time the previous week, my monkey mind was very good at coming up with arguments as to why I shouldn’t go back. This time they’ll know that I’m rubbish. This time no-one will want to mark me because I am so useless at playing. This time they’ll shout at me for missing passes. This time they’ll point and laugh and say ‘Look at that stupid fat girl trying to play our game! Let’s all point and laugh!’ This time they’ll tell me to never darken the doorstep of their clubhouse again.
In the end, I only went because I promised myself I’d never have to attend another session ever again if I didn’t enjoy it. Oh, and my friend was already sat on the drive waiting to pick me up.
Obviously I totally loved it, just as I had the previous week.
I won’t pretend that feeling the fear and doing it anyway was pleasant or easy. However, it was worthwhile. I gained from it not just because I had fun playing netball, but also because it strengthened that face-the-fear muscle just a little more. The same irrational thoughts will probably surface next week, and the one after, and the one after that, but each time that metaphorical muscle will get stronger. And I’ve signed up to play for a team so I’ll leave myself no choice but to keep on facing that fear. There’s no harm in giving ourselves an extra push if we need it.