This is the third blog post in my series “A Year Without Fear.” The theme of this blog series has generated a lot of talk, and a little bit of controversy. The comments went something like this:
“Can we really live completely without fear?” …“Should we even try to live without fear?” …“Can’t fear be a good thing, even though we don’t like it?” …“Isn’t it the fear that reminds us we’re all human?”
I suppose what I mean when I reference irrational fear is really the feeling of anxiety about things over which we have little control. When we’re anxious, we’re afraid—we may be afraid of being rejected, afraid of losing a loved one, afraid of losing our job, afraid of being found out in some way that makes us feel unlovable. We may feel afraid and anxious and have no idea of the cause.
It’s fear that drives almost all anxiety, especially the generalized kind. For some people, the fear of making a mistake can drive them into a chronic state of panic leading to a chronic state of limbo, where they cannot make a decision, for fear of making a mistake. This dynamic can lead some into a state of perfectionism as they attempt to hold their fears and anxieties in check. We’re most likely to feel this type of fear and anxiety when the stakes are high—contemplating leaving a relationship that’s hurting us, deciding whether to leave a job to pursue a more meaningful life course, making decisions that could lead to increased wealth, or complete financial ruin.
I do believe we can live a life without crushing I-don’t-want-to-get-out-of-bed-and-face-the-world anxiety. And I do believe we can strike out in courage, despite our fears. And I also believe that we can actively work on overcoming our fears and the anxiety our fears provoke. But first, we must root out and face down the shadows that make us feel so afraid, whatever those may be.
I mentioned at the end of my last blog post that I had a fear of envelopes. Some of you may have thought that was a joke. A pithy way of ending a serious post about my sometimes fear of homelessness. But it wasn’t a joke. I do have a fear of envelopes. Well, those that contain letters from organizations like my bank, the IRS, the student loan people, doctors, insurance companies, and the Orange County Toll Roads.
This fear was much worse before online banking and autopay, but it’s still present and I hate it because this fear often makes me act irrationally. For years I believed my envelope avoidance was really just procrastination. Who has time to go through a stack of mail? I sure didn’t. So the envelopes would pile up—on my kitchen counter, in my bedside table drawer, in my car, in my backpack.
Basically, anywhere I could stack the envelopes and be assured they were out-of-sight. And that’s where they’d sit undisturbed, sometimes for weeks (or months), until the anxiety of anticipation outweighed my fear of their unknown contents.
And then the only successful path to relief involved me biting the bullet and opening the damn envelopes. Once I did that, and dealt with their contents, a strong sense of relief would engulf me, and I was certain the memory of this liberating feeling would carry over to the next time, emboldening me to take a different path—one that didn’t involve hiding unwanted mail in my underwear drawer.
But not so. As soon as another piece of mail that I was certain contained bad news landed in my mailbox, such as money owed that I didn’t have, I’d squirrel it away in a drawer, telling myself I’d deal with it when I had more time.
I’ve circled around this issue for years, recognizing the irrationality of my ways. I mean, it’s not like hiding unwanted mail in a drawer is going to make their contents go away. And in no case ever, has running away from one’s problems resulted in greater personal wellbeing. So, in January of this year I decided I’d had enough. I decided that I was no longer going to be controlled by any irrational fears and anxieties. I was going to change my avoidant ways and become more confrontative in the scariest areas of my life.
I’ve faced many hardships in my life, and there is no reason I can’t face this one, head on, eyes open, letter opener poised, confidence in tact. And yet, despite my resolve, I continued to find myself employing old avoidance strategies until the anxiety of my evasion outweighed my fear of the unknown. And apparently my threshold is impressively high, because I have often gone months without tackling the stack.
This habit of mine is so ridiculous and to be honest, I find it very shaming. I’m ashamed that I have this fear, and what it might mean about me as a person. I’d never really told anyone about it, until recently that is when I finally confided in a good friend. I told her about this habit of mine, secretly hoping she could relate. And she could. She shared numerous stories with me about her own avoidance patterns.
Unopened envelopes, especially if she was going through a financial dry spell (which was often), as well as avoiding other unpleasant tasks, such as reconciling her bank account and filing her taxes—anything that involved facing something that scared her. She also shared some great insights about this behavioral pattern of ours.
“I believe we avoid mail from these places not just because the envelopes potentially contain bad news of some sort that usually impacts our finances, but because they make us feel powerless. And that feeling remind us of times in our past when we felt this way, times when we were younger and lacked personal power, times when our vulnerabilities were exploited by people more powerful than us. And those experiences made us feel alone and defective, like there was something wrong with us.
So our brains got wired to shut down and run away in the face of anything that makes us feel that way again. Irritation is what we feel when we have to deal with life’s problems, but we do it because that’s a part of being a grownup. When we feel paralyzing fear that’s a sign that we’re dealing with old stuff, stuff that reminds us of past traumatic experiences we’d rather forget.”
“You’re right!” I said, quickly connecting the dots. “I think my fear of envelopes reminds me of times when I didn’t just feel powerless, I was powerless.”
“Yep!” my friend said, relating to what I shared. “I used to numb those feelings with alcohol. Now I have Facebook.”
I nodded in complete understanding, “and I used excessive focus on other people’s problems. And now I have Netflix.”
So that was it. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe I could manage life’s problems, like figuring out how to pay an unexpected bill, or negotiate an acceptable resolution when I had a difference of opinion with a company I’m doing business with. It’s that the IRS makes me feel powerless. The student loan people make me feel powerless. And the Orange County Toll Road, with its errant violations and loan shark-worthy penalties, definitely makes me feel powerless.
Some of us handle these feelings better than others. Some of us were taught in childhood how to deal with feelings and states of powerlessness. Some of us learned problem-solving strategies that led to a sense of greater self-efficacy. I was never taught these lessons while young. Most of my experiences in childhood and adolescence taught me how to make myself invisible and how to flee from any situation where it seemed there was no possibility for a positive resolution.
But I’ve learned effective coping strategies along the way—from mentors, from friends, on my own, and I've been able to apply them in most of life’s domains. But not all, and certainly not when dealing with entities more powerful than I am.
My fear of bad news from ultimate authorities isn’t completely unfounded. I spent years as an unwilling participant in an unnecessary family court case involving my son and his father who’s an attorney and holds a seat as a circuit court judge. The experience left me feeling exhausted, and well as powerless, because compared to him, I was in fact, without power. I have other experiences that left their mark as well. We all do.
It’s the irrational nature of my paralysis that bugs me the most though. For instance, I spent most of last fall wringing my hands over a stack of mail from the IRS, petrified that I was being audited. But rather than opening the damn envelopes and dealing with their contents, I let them stack up. When I finally did gain the courage to open them, they were each a notice of an address change. An address change! And I hadn’t even moved! Why were they sending me these? Doesn’t the IRS know that no one likes receiving mail from them?
I called the IRS and pleaded with them to stop sending me these notifications. I explained to the anonymous customer service rep that I had a dreadful fear of his employer, and that whenever I received something from them in the mail, I fretted about it for weeks, hid the letters in a drawer and pretended they weren’t there, while thinking about them constantly. I hadn’t moved in a few years, so not only were the continual notifications confirming my new (unchanged) address unnecessary, they were downright cruel.
But other times, the news is bad, and my avoidance is completely understandable (but never well served). I recently avoided letters from The Orange County Toll Roads, a privately held pseudo-government organization that manages the toll roads in the county where I live. This organization, which apparently has no government oversight or accountability, has a penchant for adding on penalties that would make organized crime families gleam with envy. The envelopes not only scared me, they irritated me as well, because I signed up for the paperless option (because I hate envelopes), and regardless of my motives, I take the Paperless Reduction Act very seriously.
But rather than behaving rationally and opening the envelopes to see if there was a problem, I ignored them. And when I finally forced myself to open them, heart pounding, palms sweating (kidding, my palms don’t sweat), I was stunned to see an account balance of $1200 and a referral to the DMV! The original violation for the week that my transponder had toppled unknowingly to the floor was only $42.50, and the rest of the charges were penalties added on for each day the violations went unpaid. I then entered into a month-long battle with this (criminal) enterprise, and 16 emails, 5 tweets, and one poor Yelp review later, I resolved the matter for a much lower amount.
There are two lessons here. First, apparently, I am capable of facing down ultimate authority. And second, had I opened the first envelope the day it arrived, I could have resolved the issue immediately and avoided the entire mess (and the financial hit).
My fear of mail from ultimate authorities has roots in my belief that I may be incapable of defending myself adequately when involved in an unequal power dynamic. These fears are also rooted in the possibility that regardless of how justified I am or how hard I’ve tried, I will be powerless in the face of those far more powerful than I. Is my fear all that unusual? I don’t believe that it is. But taking a path of avoidance is never an effective response to things we’re afraid of. And I do not believe we are ever as powerless as we may think or fear that we are.
When I was attempting to advocate for myself with the toll road mafia via email and wasn’t making much headway, I drove to their local office, and with canceled car registration in hand, I spoke with a real person. We made eye contact and talked to one another, calling each other by name. We made a human-to-human connection. It wasn’t terribly deep, but it was enough for her to hear me and significantly lower the penalties. And remember my story about the IRS sending me weekly change of address notifications? Well, the guy who answered the phone actually laughed when I told him about my blinding fear of the IRS. He then explained the glitch and promised to fix it immediately.
What I find confusing about my fear of mail is how I can be so fierce in one area of my life, and timid in another. I was tenacious in pursuing my PhD, overcoming one barrier after another until I finally achieved this lifelong goal. I had a lot of fear and plenty of doubts, but I believed I could be successful, and eventually I was. I’ve traveled throughout the world, often alone. Any trepidation I felt was quickly overcome by the anticipation and excitement about exploring a new culture. But get me in front of a stack of mail, and my heart begins to race, I imagine the very worst, and the feelings of powerlessness begin to envelope me (pun intended), causing me to emotionally shut down. Silly, perhaps, yet very (very) real.
But, as Alanis Morrisette says, “the only way out is through” and the only way for me to rid myself of this sometimes-irrational-sometimes-not-so-irrational fear is to race into the fire and open the envelopes immediately, and then deal with their contents directly, as best I can. And equally important, deal openly and courageously with the feelings of powerless they provoke in me.
One of the most powerful tools for overcoming fears rooted in historic feelings of powerlessness is to create a sense of community with others who have shared understanding—maybe not of your specific fears, but similar ones that allow them to relate to yours. I gain no comfort from people who deny having irrational feelings. Narratives of perfection are not empowering to me, nor do they create authentic connections. People who deny their irrational fears and anxieties used to intimidate me and make me feel ashamed of my own perceived weaknesses. But not any longer. To be honest, I now find them a bit tedious and a little bit boring.
I am empowered by those who have the courage to take a risk and be honest about their own fear journeys, which is why I’m taking this risk right now and sharing mine with all of you—secrecy empowers fear, but transparency and the willingness to share our humanness, connects and binds us in a way that allows us to exhale and let go.
My dear friend who shared with me her own fear of envelopes not only increased my sense of connection by eradicating the fear I was alone, she helped to improve my coping strategies, because our willingness to share our secrets with one another allowed us to strategize ways of defeating them. And in the process, we each increased our personal empowerment as we collectively reflected on our past painful experiences.
And I think that’s what it’s all about, right? Making human connections and learning how to conquer the scary parts of life, together.
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer façades, less role-playing and a lot more fun. I chose a photo with myself and my son because he is my heart.
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