I have surprised myself with my steadiness amidst the troubles of this year, of which the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest and obviously worst. I recently journaled to unpack what is supporting my steadiness so I could use it more consciously. I’m sharing the process I doodled as my journal entry (c’mon, who doesn’t love journaling in frameworks?) in case it’s helpful to others.
Let’s be honest, this most of all. I have my own home, good health so far, access to material and intangible resources, etc. None of these is guaranteed but they are all currently present. So, it’s easier not to spin out than it would be if these were at imminent risk.
In addition to my many privileges, a fluid emotional-rational process also helps me to address my fear productively.
When I’m afraid, I try to follow the thread of my fear. All emotions are signals to draw my attention to something I value. With fear, I often go to catastrophizing. I go to my worst fear then back up to get enough distance from it to understand it. Where does it comes from? Is it more about the past or is there a present/future threat? If the latter, I assess it rationally. What is the nature of the threat? How likely is it? What is needed to face it? Etc.
Specific fears vary by context but my overall core fear is that I will somehow end up alone and helpless in the dark, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to. When I reflect on this, it leads me not to a present or future threat but to the past (which I won’t go into, you’ll have to buy the book I haven’t written). Finding that the present likelihood of this worst case is slim to none soothes me so it’s easier to rationally consider lesser fears or more likely threats and prepare for them. (I have not bought extra toilet paper.)
Where I can get stuck is if I become identified with my fear and ruminate on threats, actual or imagined — I can’t skillfully distinguish in an anxious state. Or, if instead of moving toward my fear, I run away and numb myself with denial, I’m unprepared for what may materialize.
Getting unstuck requires being neither too close to, nor too far from, my fear but just adjacent enough to regard it with friendly curiosity. Then things can flow to…
When I can rationally investigate the threat my fear has pointed me to, I can plan and prepare responses. Sure, I hope it’ll just go away or someone else will take care of it but what can I do? What need am I trying to meet? What resources are available to me, internally (skills, values, etc) and externally (assets, networks, etc)? An inventory of resources soothes me and brings forward gratitude. A desire to help others naturally emerges so that What do I need? expands and shifts to How can I help?
Where I can get stuck is in depression or confusion. If I feel disempowered or depleted, I might not be able to muster the power to act. Then I might bypass agency and go straight to acceptance —i.e., just give up. Or, if I can’t find the clarity to guide me, I fritter away my energy in directionless action.
To get unstuck, I need to find power or clarity, sometimes both. It helps to spring from my fear to a hopeful vision of the world. Understanding the need I’m afraid won’t be met, I imagine the beautiful world in which it is. Anchoring to that vision also helps me find others who share it so that I can be in a mutually supportive community with them. Having a vision and being part of a community is empowering and helpful for taking effective action in the face of fear.
Whatever can’t be acted upon must be accepted. Sometimes, what I’m afraid of has happened and there is real loss to integrate. It could be a loss of abstractions like my expectations or aspects of my self-image or it could be a loss of actualities like a loved one or an aspect of my health (this last I haven’t faced yet but it’s always only a matter of time).
Acceptance is no passive matter, it’s even tougher than exercising agency. Letting go is very hard because we humans, like every other animal, are wired to hold on. I try to grieve what is lost, which eventually brings peace. Then I can gather wisdom from the experience, which brings the joy of learning. True acceptance inevitably yields new resources to draw upon.
But if I bypassed exercising my agency, I can get mired in regret or redirect that into blame, as though something was done to me. Or, if I don’t grieve what is lost, I can’t make peace with the new truth. Then I can’t access the joy of learning and might get mired in sadness or depression.
To get unstuck, I have to actively soften toward what I’m resisting, both in my mind (imaginatively) and in my musculature. This frees the energy I’ve been expending in resistance so that it flows again — literally, reenergizes me — and enables agile responsiveness. To relax in an energizing way takes a lot of…
I’m in awe of people who seem innately skilled at handling difficulties because for me building the capacities that support flow rather than stuckness takes continuous work. I work at discipline with healthy habits — sleeping well, eating healthily, meditating, exercising, journaling, studying, connecting with others, etc. — but all of these are subject to the vicissitudes of my life and will.
To reshape unconscious processes requires energy and attention, both of which are variable resources. Often, I can’t get in the flow when I’m scared and I get stuck in the muddy bits above. But now I can tell which state I’m in and how to work with it. With practice, I can shorten the span of being stuck and return to flow more quickly — and that makes all the difference.
I’d love to hear from any of you about what supports you with your fear!