“You know what would be really great?” my brother leaned back casually into the corner of the plush, red leather sofa, his voice sharply punctuated by his characteristic sardonicism. The corners of his mouth curled in mirth. “If you weren’t afraid of eeeeeverything.” His eyes twinkled playfully, offsetting the biting edge of his words, but they didn’t sting any less painfully.
Caught off guard, I could feel the rusty gears of my mind grinding against themselves, ineffectively searching for the best response. “Yeah,” I answered lamely. “That would be super-great. That’s the goal.” I stared at the dish of broccoli, carrots, and sugar snap peas on the coffee table before us, the artfully presented bowls of artichoke dip and hummus, my own dry hands, my sister-in-law’s between us. His comment dissected me like surgical steel slicing directly into one of the chambers of my heart. What I heard him say was, “You are a pathetic fraidy-cat, so scared of her own shadow it’s amazing that you’re able to function in the world.” Something inside me shriveled.
One of the lessons I’m coming to understand about communication and interpersonal effectiveness is that owning up to my anxieties, vulnerabilities, doubts, and questions is important to ensuring that my needs are met and is key to establishing realistic expectations and healthy boundaries for myself and others, and to building relationships. However, there is such a thing, apparently, as too much vulnerability. My memory of the evening is a bit fuzzy when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, but I’m pretty sure that in the fifteen minutes before my brother’s half-jovial, half-exasperated comment, I declared my fear of at least twelve different situations and inanimate objects, ranging from various types of food to overseas travel (despite the fact that I’ve been to Europe four times and visited seven foreign countries), to camping, dogs, germs, herbal teas, and swimming pools (even though I was a former competitive swimmer, then worked as a lifeguard and swimming instructor for eight years). Sigh.
He doesn’t understand! I thought, feeling defensive and wounded. He doesn’t realize all the work I’m doing to identify my fears, name them, and confront them! Perhaps that was true, but perhaps he was also overwhelmed by my unguarded and uncensored announcing of all-things-that-terrify-me. It won’t always be this way, I told myself. One day, I’ll be brave. One day, I won’t be afraid of the swimming pool or traveling.
Was it always this way? When I think about myself BEFORE, I remember myself as independent, spirited, determined, self-sufficient, bold, and courageous. Ironically, there isn’t a clear distinction between this vague before and the current present. I always contended with depression tinged by anxiety, waged a war of hatred and shame against myself and my imperfections, and wrestled with a persistent thought-milieu that coalesced into the general messages, “I’m not good enough,” and “This is never going to work out.” I was the kid in high school who flipped out if everyone wasn’t wearing seatbelts and when somebody showed up at a party stoned, because we were probably all going to get arrested and someone might die.
So… yeah… it was probably always this way. The difference is, now I’m owning it. I’m facing it. Instead of eating it away, or starving it away, or pounding it into the asphalt beneath my running shoes, I’m standing up and saying, it’s not that I’m scared of germs, or the pool, or flying across an ocean and eight time zones, it’s the UNCERTAINTY of it all. I can’t control whether the medicine will work when I get sick, and I can’t prevent myself from accidental injury in the lap lanes, and I can’t predict, let alone protect myself from, all the unfortunate ills that might befall me abroad. And that TERRIFIES me. It’s easier to be afraid of experiencing an allergic reaction to herbal tea than it is to be scared of uncertainty in general. In his own way, my brother was effectually calling to my attention the reality that I was (am) afraid of everything, because the truth is, that I really can’t control anything.
It seems that the only healthy solution to this conundrum is… ACCEPTANCE. My previous solutions (binging, orthorexic restricting, avoidance behaviors) only led to more anxiety, despair, and an ultimately dysfunctional life. I am in need of some acceptance of a radical variety. RADICAL ACCEPTANCE. Because, here is an even deeper fear – the fear that I will one day die having never lived because I spent all of my days trying to rigidly control and direct every aspect of my existence. Radical acceptance means different things to different people. It might mean just acknowledging the unpredictable nature of the universe. For me, radical acceptance means putting my faith and trust in God. It’s a work in progress.
So, dear readers, what would YOU do if you weren’t afraid? Today, I am GOING to go for a bike ride! I already texted my friend Meg to ask her to hold me accountable, and she set an alarm on her phone to chime at 5 pm, the deadline I gave myself for getting my hiney out the door. I better go put on my cycling shorts!