by Madeline Laughs
Leading life from a place of fear has never worked out in my favor. I figured this out a long time ago, however I still find myself making those same decisions whenever I’m faced with an issue that brings those fears roaring back to the surface. Knowing how I operate under that kind of stress, and recognizing the patterns I have developed to cope, has made it easier for me to put the brakes on potentially destructive behavior and allow the people in my life that care about me to take over the driving.
I used to swim like a fish. I loved the ocean and surfed with my boyfriend for years. Fear of the water was never a problem for me, but after a traumatic event I found that going into any body of water above my knees paralyzed me with fear. So I stopped going into water if I couldn’t touch the bottom. Eventually the thought of swimming at all, or putting my head under water was frightening.
A couple of years ago I received beginner’s swim lessons for my birthday. I hesitated to fulfill the task. The lessons were one on one with a private instructor and I found it very easy to put off initiating that first lesson by siting my work schedule as being full. After many failed appointments, I finally went in for my first lesson.
I refused to put my head underwater. No way! She worked with me for three hours. My frustration level probably matched hers when I left that afternoon. She tried valiantly to bend me to her methods and I resisted. I didn’t want to do things her way! Instead of feeling like I had failed, I felt she was unreasonable and demanded too much. Why should I acquiesce?
As I walked to my car, the imaginary conversations of how I was going to get out of taking the rest of these lessons was already in full swing. I mounted a credible defense and found reasons not to like her teaching style. She was pushy and loud and perhaps she really didn’t pay that much attention to me during the lesson. Hadn’t she excused herself a few times to talk to the other lifeguards in the pool? And what if she didn’t like me? I could drown! No, this was never going to work for me! Arriving home my mind was made up. I was getting out of taking these lessons, or else.
Standard operating procedure once Fear Mode has been triggered; Find a reason to get out of following through. Even if that reason means I end up walking away from something good for me, I’ll do it if I get scared.
The good thing is that it takes something I perceive to be life altering in order for me to react negatively, so my fear trigger is not often pulled. Why is this a good thing? Wouldn’t that mean that any life altering event could be a potential disaster? That is precisely what it means. It took a few of these episodes for me to realize that I wasn’t making decisions based on logical conclusions. I was making them out of fear.
I call this Rabbit Fear. You’ve watched rabbits in the wild. They sit quietly eating a delicious weed. Life is good and it’s moving right along. Then an unusual sound occurs. Maybe someone slams a car door or rides by on a bicycle. You see the bunny’s ears perk up in fear and they sit totally still to listen. Any sound after the fear mode has been activated and the rabbit runs with the speed of light for safety.That’s what I do…I run back to what I think is safe rather than look around to see if this new situation could be better for me.
No matter what the situation is, the patterns are always the same. Knowing yourself and how you react will help you make the right decision and if that’s not possible, then admitting what is happening with you to the person involved in the pathway of your self-destructive behavior and allowing them to take over, can alleviate the need to be afraid of the outcome. I’m not saying this is always the best choice, but if you trust the person, or you know they care about you, it is.
It’s not about allowing someone to control you, it’s about letting go of your control over the situation and allowing things to happen organically. It’s about letting the other person know that you have included them in your process and they do have decision making power.This is not the action of a weakling. It is the action of someone self-aware and willing to let someone get close to them.
Another fear based action is over-functioning. Though I don’t do that in the traditional, defined way. Perhaps I should call it something else, but the definition fits in more ways than not. Over-functioning is when a person goes above and beyond their capabilities, at their peril, in order to make someone else happy.
Going above and beyond is not something I have an issue with, but I will not do so at my own peril. If I do not want to do something, there is no way you’re going to make me. I don’t mind helping a friend out of a jam or being there if someone needs a shoulder to cry on, but I have no interest in fixing someone. Generally I like people for who they are, or I have no interest.
My tendency in this behavior is to start overdoing as a way to get out of a situation that scares me. It’s spontaneous and burns energy. In my head I’m thinking that if I push an issue hard enough, then someone will get frustrated and I will be free to abandon the project. I can recognize this pattern right away. It only takes one well placed remark for me to say “Uh-oh. Now why did I say that?” That’s when I know I need to back off and regroup.
I am not a fearful person and I rarely panic. Everyday stuff has no effect on me and when in hazardous or dangerous situations I tend to remain calm. What does scare me are matters of the heart. Those are the ones that we have the least amount of control over and they hurt the most. I don’t always throw caution to the wind and I know myself well enough to know that I make good choices in that area, but occasionally I will panic and run no matter how idyllic it appears. Making good choices means the person watching your back recede into the sunset will be strong enough to pull you back until you calm down.
My fear is not always just about me getting hurt. I don’t like hurting other people at all. When a situation arises where I feel someone will be hurt by the process, it devastates me. I’d much rather tread lightly moving forward than run any risk of putting someone in harm’s way.
I stopped creating roadblocks to fulfilling my swim lessons and I called my instructor and asked to come in a bit earlier to discuss the course of my lessons with her. Once I explained my fear of the water and my resistance to continuing the lessons, she understood why my first lesson had gone so terribly wrong. She told me she would have handled me differently had she known. I wanted to take the lessons and I wanted to do my best so I told her the only way I could continue would be to allow her to have complete control over how the lessons progressed. If she told me what to do, I would do my best to comply, whether it scared me, or not. I trusted her and I knew she had my safety and my comfort in mind.
Did the rabbit learn to swim again? Not really. I’m still afraid of the water, but now I can put my head under it without panicking and I will get in the deep end of the pool. To me that’s progress!
I am a strong woman and I know who I am. But I am not perfect. When you spend enough time observing other people for a living, you find that you tend to turn that observation on yourself occasionally. Sometimes I don’t like what I see, but instead of looking away, I figure out a way to correct the mistakes. The times I experience rabbit fear are few, but when they happen I become aware enough of age old patterns to stop, perk up my ears to listen, and then turn my head in the direction of the noise to really take a look at what I’m afraid of.