Turning Fear into Fuel

Turning Fear into Fuel

If you, like me, are something of a perfectionist, starting a new job can be a fairly daunting proposition.  I’ve lead something of an unusual life, and I’ve been around the block enough times to know that the most seemingly insignificant of factors can have a domino effect, cascading into a landslide that can drag me down for weeks, months, or even years.  Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest and generating the tiny gust of wind that, joining forces with other natural factors, leads to a devastating hurricane thousands of miles away, one decision—seemingly good, bad, or neutral at the time—can affect you for a long time to come. And too much fear of making the wrong choices can be paralysing.

Is trauma holding you back?

The problem is that our natural, physical responses to the hurricane, the trauma or the consequences of the past, originally evolved by our bodies as survival mechanisms to help keep us alive, can be just as or even more devastating than the storm itself.  And so it is that fear gets us in a chokehold, possibly even tying us down into a rut that can last a lifetime.

This is terrible knowledge to have to hold.  The fear of an uncertain future was wired into my brain on the day I came to realize just how frightening the world can be.  In time, the fear itself became a side-effect of my brain’s prehistoric, oddly obsolete attempts to self-heal, whose consequences in my life were just as dangerous as the situation that got me all whacked out of joint in the first place.

As I mentioned on my first blog posting, I’m veteran of the United States Navy who has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the past eight years.  In that time, I have come to view trauma, to a certain extent, as an inevitable part of life, like death and taxes.  Many, if not most, people are affected to varying individual degrees by PTSD and the distortions that fear can have on our mental spaces.  I feel very lucky and blessed to have had the support of the Veteran’s Administration in dealing with my past trauma and in receiving all of the services that I need to educate myself about what happened, why it changed me so much, and how to move on to create a better future for myself and my children.

Fear of an uncertain future can stop us from doing great things, and it can keep us holding onto things that are hurting us.  Letting go of fear has been the greatest and most spiritual experience of my life (other than motherhood, which is, of course, the greatest adventure of all).

It is all still a daily process.  I still had to, in my desire to excel, stop myself from catastrophizing every little mistake I made during my first week at my thrilling new job.  Everyone there has been wonderful to me, and I’m really stoked to be a part of their team.  There is a ton of new information for me to learn, and my boss has been super cool and patient with me as I get up to speed and basically get my ass in gear after a few years of not working.  I had been spending my time creating fine art, smashing trucks together with my two preschoolers for hours on end, and finely constructing thoughtful, well-balanced meals for my family (which promptly wound up thrown at the baby or on the floor).  Having a job with responsibilities outside the home is a risk and something of a nerve-wracking proposition for me.

Letting go of the past

The last eight years, for me, have been a long and lonely journey of discovery.  I have been forced to learn how to be at peace with uncertainty, and how to let go of the possibility that the future may bring the kind of pain, suffering, and loss that I experienced in the past.  I never want to deal with that kind of experience again, and for a long time, I wrapped myself in a comforting cocoon of routines and possessions, and safe and familiar people and places.  For instance, although I had traveled through 24 different countries before and during my time in the Navy, I have not left California since.  My PTSD grew worse over time before I became strong enough to work to make it better.  I chose not to work, instead opting for the security of my veteran’s disability pension and the self-righteous assertion that, after all, I had certainly earned it. Losing this comforting environment, and going into a new job where I was vulnerable and might fail or might not be good enough, was painful and scary.

In the end, though, my parents, two military officers themselves, did not raise me to live off of disability if I could possibly avoid it.  As nervous as the prospect of giving up the security of my pension for the uncertainty of a new career made me, I know I made the right choice. For me, making the change wasn’t the problem.  Fighting the change as long as I did, fearing the change and not wanting things to be different held me back for a longer time than it should have.

Getting Good at Uncertainty

The question I have begun to ask myself, in all of this, is how do I get better at dealing with change and uncertainty?  If I constantly work to become better at dealing with new things, then change itself becomes comfortable. If I can become comfortable with change, then it’s not as nerve-wracking and stressful.  I can even come to embrace chance and find joy in it.

In my early twenties, I was a bit of a swashbuckler.  I thought nothing of backpacking into a new country with next to no money, dating a new person, or starting out on any kind of new adventure.  Naïve as I was, I had no fear, and that was a beautiful thing.

So how do we get good at change?  Here are some tips and tools that I have learned along the way from some of the best experts in the world, the folks over at the Veteran’s Administration:

  • Try something new, but small and safe. New things can be frightening, because we’re afraid we’re going to fall on our faces. But if it’s something small, it’s not as scary. There’s no real risk of getting hurt. And the more we do this, the more confidence we’ll gain that new things are not painful.
  • When you mess up, don’t see it as painful failure. When you’re doing new things, there will be times when you make mistakes, mess up, “fail.” Perfectionist like me can sometimes fail to get the lesson out of their trials and errors because we are so focused on the mistake. Instead of seeing things a negative light, however, try to look at “messing up” as something positive — as the only way to learn. We get better, grow and get stronger in life, largely as a result of learning from our mistakes.
  • See the wonder and opportunity in change. Change might mean leaving a comfort zone, but it’s a risk with a potentially great payoff, bringing something new and amazing, such as a new opportunity to explore and learn and meet new people, or even possibly reinvent who you are. When change happens, look for the new doors that have been opened rather than the old windows that have been shut.
  • Ask “what’s the worst-case scenario”? If you’re exposing yourself to risk, it can be scary, but when you think about what is the worst thing that is likely to happen, usually it’s not that bad.  If you lost all your possessions today in a disaster, how bad would that be? How would you cope? What opportunities would there be? What new things could you reinvent from this new blank slate?
  • Develop a change tool set. Learn how to cope with changes, no matter what they are. Have a fall-back plan if things collapse. Build a support system, a network of friends and family you can rely on when the sh*t hits the fan, as it inevitably will in life.  Learn new ways of making friends with strangers, finding your way around a strange city, and living below your means to save for the future.  Try to develop a job skill set that will guarantee you an income, no matter what happens with society or the economy.
  • Experience the joy in the unknown. When something new happens, when we don’t know exactly what the future holds, we often see this as bad. But can we re-frame it?  After all, not knowing means we are free because it means that the possibilities are limitless. We can invent a new path, a new identity, a new existence.  And thank God for such second chances in life!

Flowing With the Unknown

This is just a beginning. I’ve learned to embrace change, to become confident in my abilities to survive no matter what comes my way. I am able to take on new challenges and create new things that I would have been afraid of creating just a few years ago.

I’ve learned that when I’m in the unknown, I have to flow with change and potential change without becoming paralyzed by fear. This flexibility is one of the most important tools I’ve developed along the way.  When the world throws something unexpected my way, I have to deal with it without fear, without anguish and without anger. I have learned how to respond (instead of react) with balance and calmness, and the joy of knowing that all will be fine, and, in the process, I have experienced something new and beautiful: a renewal and resetting of my life—and thank God for that.

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