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Is Fear the Mind Killer?

August 15, 2013 in Conversations with Isobel

20130815-003941.jpgLately, I’ve noticed a certain coherence in my facebook feed. That is to say, there’s a theme surfacing among the many memes that have been shared into my stream and hashtag-riddled crypticisms posted by friends and affinity groups. And when the theme shows up and stirs something up in my soul, I know it’s reflecting a theme I’m experiencing in my life. The theme I became aware of today is fear.

Yesterday, I told my coach and friend that I’ve been inundated by irritants and triggers and have been sitting on the edge of my sanity. My short term measure of success is whether or not I made it through the whole day with my sanity in tact (or at least no more damaged). She offered that when we (humans) are transitioning in big ways in life we may feel like we start to regress into the habits and behaviors we typically turn to for self preservation. This is a response to feeling vulnerable, a response to fear. Of course! I got such comfort in this revellation. What I had been taking as possible signs that I had made a wrong turn in life – to quite my safe and comfortable job to be on my own and explore my significance in coaching, writing, and parenting the crap out of my kids… the fear I was feeling was actually the affirmation that I made the RIGHT turn. Fear is an emotion that presents itself when we realize that something we value is at sake. The bigger the fear, the larger the stakes. And here’s the thing, if there is no fear, and nothing is at stake then the question becomes – are you playing big enough? So by embracing fear, I embrace the decisions I’ve made. Yay.

Dune fans know this phrase: Fear is the mind killer…. Is it? Sure it can be paralyzing, but it, as in any other emotion, is information. Rather than killing the mind, what happens if it wakes you up to really evaluate what the emotion is telling you? What questions could you point your mind towards answering?

Like… what’s at stake? I’ve been gainfully employed since I was roughly 14 years old and lied about my age on my application so I could get a work permit. Even before then I had a pretty successful babysitting empire, having hooked up with a great family when they only had two kids and being their primary sitter right through into their fourth child. I was a really responsible kid. I didn’t need to ask for help to buy tickets the movies. In fact, I was quite skilled at arranging for transportation to the theater, school and work. I paid for and prepared the majority of my meals, funded my wardrobe. I largely took care of myself – even if I didn’t do it very well all the time. So here, nearly twenty five years later, putting myself (even if temporarily) in a position where I am dependent, needing to think twice about whether or not I should treat myself to a latte on the way to a meeting… what’s at stake is my sense of independence. Well that’s what it feels like. But is it really? Sometimes, when we are experiencing fear, we’ve created the appearance of something at stake, but when we name it… it really isn’t. Emotion defies logic, though and the belief in what’s at stake feels exactly the same, whether it is or isn’t.

So what’s to be gained, and is it worth it? Yes. To be gained is my feeling of significance in the world and to my children. It is totally worth a few months (or years) of financial dependence. For me. For this transition. This isn’t always the case and that’s why that fear feeling is the flag on the play that says – hey, check in on your risk. It’s just information and once you hear it, you reclaim the power to choose – what is the greater value? What must you protect at all cost?

There you are… That is to say… here I am… embracing my fear. Now what? For that, I look to my favorite teacher. My sweet Isobel – I remember a time when I thought she was fearless. If someone had something she wanted – say a piece of cake – she’d walk right up to the owner of that which she coveted and just ask for it, brazenly, while I watched, mouth wide open, painfully aghast at the gaul. If she wanted to test for the next belt in tae kwon do, she’d just ask to participate. She had no fear of embarrassing herself because she didn’t have the sense of having her ego at stake.

But this has been changing. She is developing ego in all its fragility. Maybe this is typical in the now school-age child, but, true to her style, when she experiences fear it is absolutely paralyzing. At one point last year I worried that her fears were leading her to agoraphobia. To this day, I don’t know if that’s my over-dramatization or hers. But whatever that one was, it passed.

Her current trigger is bees. When she begged to start school on a farm last year, I asked her if she was sure… I mean, there were a few bees in the gardens when we visited and her panic was not subtle. We were in the car, driving away when I mentioned the bees and she was uncharacteristically silent for 20 to 30 seconds. And when she broke the silence it was with this little gem:

“You know, mom, I have this friend. I never told you about her. But… well…” there was a long pause. “It turns out she’s a bee.”

So that’s one approach… personify the fear and then make friends with it. That might work better if you’re five. It actually worked pretty well for her. And a few weeks after she started school I received the text message from her teacher that said “it finally happened. She got stung by a bee. She’s ok and has calmed down.”

Then the weather got chilly and the bees weren’t an issue again for months. I totally thought we were passed it when I received photos of her during cicada season, playfully engaging cicadas to craw on her bare-skinned hands. Yup – I thought we were passed it. Until recently. Recently, she’s rushed into the car at pickup, clearly fresh from crying, imploring me to “just drive.” In fact, I think it started when a bee-like insect got entangled in her hair in the pool, and so for weeks now she has entirely avoided the outdoors. No picnics. No swimming. No swinging. No sandbox. No bubbles. No bikes. No walks. With all the no’s it’s hard to acknowledge that it’s even summer.

It’s not that the fear is irrational, it’s that the response seems that way. To me. And that the response may be a greater danger to her than the actual fear. At the awareness of the faint buzzing, she will cease up with fear, mouth falling open to let out a scream so piercing it stops time, and then she runs. She runs away with no mind to the towards. Could she trip on the patio and fall in the pool? Could she burst into oncoming traffic? Run into a hot barbecue grill? Yes. All of these things are totally possible, and they are all I see in the moment. My sweet daughter, engulfed in histrionics, impaled by danger’s ubiquity. Her fear and drama heightened by mine. In what was probably not my smartest move, I shared with her my fears. That didn’t work out.

So I, as any good parent would do, escalated to the next most obvious source of information – the Internet. Turns out it is quite common for children her age to have a paralyzing fear of bees. Also turns out that no one recommends listing out things that she should be afraid of instead. Go figure. What was recommended was supporting your child to gently confront her fear (hello obvious) and to strengthen and encourage the muscles and responses in opposition of fear (brilliant), specifically recommended was to practice giggling.

Giggling! Giggling as cure for fear. BRILLIANT. But not giggling from tickling which produces a reflexive reaction but can also encourage a feeling of being out of control – which is in fact fearful. But giggling from play – from joy – from gratitude. How does giggling help? Fear causes the body to cease into a state of rigor unless released by adrenaline, exploding into fight or flight response. Giggling is an enthusiastic state of physical flexibility preventing fear’s hold.

So Isobel and I authored a new story. We authored the story of a superhero, named Isobel, who, stung by a radioactive bee (I may have borrowed from Eli’s recent obsession with spider man) manifested bee-like powers including the ability to generate flowers at will, pollenating the world with goodness, and you know – buzzing. There was a lot of buzzing. We buzzed until we giggled. This hasn’t cured her phobia, mind you. But I am noticing that as she steps out of the car, she tells herself reassuring stories about what she knows about bees. I’m noticing her buzz herself to a grin. And it’s progress.

We also practice recreating states of safety and security, calm, confident, comfort. This is another muscle worth strengthening as the centered state. You can’t giggle forever (can you?). For Isobel, she tells herself the story of sitting in bed with her mommy, listening to the bedtime book – like Little House in the Big Wood. For me, it’s taking the thirty minutes of quiet time in the late morning when no one is hanging on me, asking me to do something, screaming for a snack. Failing that, it’s the 20 minute five dollar latte that I got without even asking. Because if that pricey cup of joe reclaims some of what’s at stake in the ongoing search for significance, it’s totally worth it. It’s a tiny little price for playing big.

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