Feeling Afraid? Try Acknowledging It

When I was in my early 20s, I was offered a job in sales and design for a manufacturer in Hong Kong. My office was in a factory located in an industrialized and severely polluted part of the territories. After arriving and settling in, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the job for me.

They hardly had anything for me to do and had hired me primarily as a favor to my mother. Every day I sat at my desk in a windowless room pretending to work. It was pretty awful.

About six months later I mustered up the courage to quit.

I made a list of what I felt like I needed in my life. Things like: sunshine, variety, more than 2 weeks vacation, connection. Between my list and my language limitations -not speaking Cantonese- I decided I should become a teacher. In fact, it met all of my requirements!

And of course that’s what happened.

I was offered a position at an international high school. I was thrilled, my first real job. I excitedly began prepping for my English literature and language classes until the night before school officially began. That’s when it dawned on me.

My job was public speaking all day, every day and I panicked.

As a child, I'd loved performing but that had all changed in high school. I had a crisis in confidence resulting from being socially ostracized. Now I was shy and scared, and most importantly, had lost my voice.

I quickly ran out of my apartment and down to the lobby then took off walking. My building was located on a cliff overlooking the harbor and was dark and quiet. As I walked, my mind whirred.

“What am I going to do? I can’t believe this. How could I have been so stupid? I can’t public speak all day everyday.” That freaked out voice went on and on until another voice interjected.

This new voice said to me, “It’s just fear. Can you do it anyway?”

Recently I’d read William Faulkner’s acceptance speech. The one he had given upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. He’d spoken about the pervasive fear in the United States caused by the Cold War and the impending doom of nuclear annihilation that hovered over us. He went on to say: [the young writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever…”

Huh. I began to reason with myself. Fear is just an emotion. Was I going to let it stop me from teaching? Could I go through with it anyway, even though I was scared?

And the answer was, “yes, I can” and that’s exactly what I did.

In that moment, I realized that I was bigger than my fear. I had allowed myself to recognize it, and then put it aside.

Shortly after this, I saw a film that reconfirmed what I had experienced. In the movie, one of the characters quotes a Spanish proverb.

Translated it was: “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”

Sitting in that movie theatre, I resolved that I would not live a half-life. I wanted to live a full, rich, complete life; truly experience being alive. And if that meant learning how to deal with fear, then that’s what I was going to do.

That was more than two decades ago but I still feel the same way today. Of course, fear keeps knocking and every time, I have to pay attention.

And in that time here’s what I‘ve learned:

Just because I experience fear, it doesn’t mean it has to control me.

If I acknowledge it, then I can manage it. When I try to push fear away or drown it by eating too much, drinking or avoiding, it comes back even stronger. Instead, when I recognize the fear and face it, just like I did on that dark cliff in Hong Kong, then I can disable it. I relegate it to the back seat instead of allowing it to be the driver. This way fear becomes my fellow traveler and not my boss.

What have you found helpful in managing fear?

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