I was reluctant to share my writing and my work, to be seen; I was afraid of being hurt.
But I hurt anyway.
I shared the flawed way I’d been protecting my heart and received a number of messages in response. One was from a new friend, “I’m in this club, 100%”. As more messages poured in, my impression is that many of us are. And whilst I found solace in reading, “Me too”, I was also cautious. “Me too” became a powerful hashtag in an important, global campaign. “Me too” is often the place where incredible friendships begin. But sometimes there’s the risk of “Me too” keeping us stuck.
Holding hands with others who share our fears can normalise those feelings and whilst it is normal to feel afraid at times, we need to be willing to question the origin and validity of our fears and give one another the courage to face them in order to move forward.
I found once I recognised and then revealed my fear of being seen, something shifted internally. It wasn’t that I stopped being afraid; it was just that my fear felt different. I could see it for what it was and begin taking actions – small steps – to move through it.
However, I’m wary of suggesting my experience mirrors everyone else’s. I received plenty of messages advising me, “You just need to get over your fear” which felt more like I was being shamed for feeling fearful in the first place, rather than genuine attempts to help.
I wondered, “How do we really move forward through fear?”
Before I even tried to answer this question, I felt I needed to understand exactly what others are afraid of that makes us shy away from being seen and stops us from doing those very things that our hearts and souls are longing for.
I received this answer in response, over and over again:
“I’m afraid people won’t like me”.
“I’m afraid if I do what I really want to do, I won’t be considered ambitious or successful by other people’s standards”.
One woman told me, “I want to give up my career, leave the city, work in a little seaside café by day and write my book by night. I have everything I’ve been led to believe makes me successful, yet I don’t feel it. However, I worry if I make this change, others will no longer consider me to be ambitious or successful”.
I nodded, said I understood – because I do. I remember leaving my corporate career to launch a business as a personal stylist. Even though that didn’t turn out to be what I ultimately wanted to do, it was an important stepping-stone and at the time it felt so incredibly personal to say to those around me, “I no longer want this comfortable career and this comfortable life, I want something else” – especially as my ‘something else’ didn’t look the same as other people’s career and life aspirations. So, I entered that very tender place: facing my fear of the unknown and allowing others to witness my new beginning and inevitable stumbles along the way.
I understood and yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about that conversation and why we allow another person’s measure of who we are, and how successful we may appear to them, to stop us from living the lives we truly desire. I thought of Bronnie Ware’s ‘Regrets of the Dying’ – the most common regret being, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.
Owning Our Fears
There were other fears, of course; fear is such a personal thing and usually linked to our past and the experiences and people that shape us into the unique individuals we are. Yet I still find it curious how much we struggle to claim our place in the world, to say, “This is me” and “This is what I care about”. I believe it’s because in doing so, we’re putting our hearts on display.
Aside from being told I, “Just need to get over” my fear, I was offered suggestions of books to read, coaches to refer to and courses to attend, amongst other things. Whilst these tools are helpful, I believe the first step in moving through fear is being willing to own it, because what we don’t own, owns us. So often our fear is subconscious and because we’re encouraged as a society to avoid uncomfortable feelings and truths, we numb them out with busyness and food and alcohol and shopping and Netflix and social media and procrastination, but in doing so we end up missing vital clues about who we really are and how we might be playing small. And we’re always far too eager to take other people’s opinions and make them our own. In the words of Marianne Williamson;
“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn”.
Once you own your fear it’s much easier to look at it objectively. I’m not suggesting it will magically disappear, but it’s only when we learn how not to be afraid of fear itself that we can begin to question its origin and more importantly, it’s validity.
Do You Like You?
I thought about the two fears that came up in conversation repeatedly: the fear of not being liked, or being perceived as ‘settling’ for a life that doesn’t appear to be driven by ambition or a desire for success. Whilst the fear of not being liked can hold us back from expressing our true selves, doing what we really want to do and therefore being seen for who we truly are, I don’t believe striving to not care what others think of us is the answer either. We’re human; we’re wired to long for approval and belonging, but that approval and belonging doesn’t have to come from everyone.
I considered all the times I’ve tried to avoid being disliked and how, as a result, I’d twist and squeeze myself into a version of me I felt was ‘likeable’. The irony was I rarely liked myself during those periods of my life. At one point I fell apart because I’d spent so much time twisting and squeezing myself out of shape in an attempt to fit in, I wasn’t even sure who I was anymore. In the end I realised I could forever try to accommodate everyone else by abandoning myself and looking for validation externally, or I could look inwards and connect to my heart and soul and the truth of who I am. I finally understood that I need to like the real me before anyone else could. Now, I do like me – even if I do forget that sometimes.
“It’s not your job to like me, it’s mine” – Byron Katie.
Attempting to ‘get over’ your fear isn’t what’s necessary; it’s learning to like yourself enough to show people who you truly are; to share your strengths and your vulnerabilities, knowing that some people won’t like you, but believing you’re still likeable, regardless. The goal is when others decide to dislike, reject, abandon or ignore you, that you love yourself enough to let them. That’s the real work that needs to be done.
A Supportive Community
Also, it’s time we became far more discerning about whose opinion of us actually matters. Keith Ferrazzi, author of ‘Who’s Got Your Back’ suggests creating an inner circle of ‘lifeline relationships’. These are made up of a handful of people whom you love and trust and who will encourage you, give you honest feedback and won’t let you quit. Surround yourself with people who inspire you to show up powerfully in your life, rather than people who want you to remain the same forever, which – painfully – sometimes does include those we’re closest to. However, when you have a supportive community in place, other people’s opinions will cease to matter so much, and that includes the opinions of strangers on the Internet. Let’s stop giving so much power to people we don’t even know. Not allowing my self-worth to be determined by someone I possibly wouldn’t even like if we met at a party, has been one of the most caring things I’ve ever done for myself.
“Even the most beautiful of wildflowers are considered weeds in the wrong gardens – what another thinks of you does not dictate your value” – Beau Taplin.
Do What Feels Good
I used to lie awake at night, my head spinning and my stomach twisted with anxiety. I worried I wasn’t accomplishing, being or doing enough. I discovered I’d swapped the corporate world for the entrepreneurial one with a very clear vision for my life, only for it to be constantly clouded by other people telling me that in order to be considered ambitious or successful I needed to be and do certain things. As a result, I’ve wasted so much time trying to fit myself – yet again – into a hole I’m never, ever going to be the right shape for.
Most of us have been taught society’s narrow definition of success and we make it our own, without question. We believe that if we can be, do or have certain things, then we’ll feel successful. But feeling successful doesn’t come from checking off universal boxes – I’ve checked off many and frequently felt like someone had taken a spoon and scraped out my insides – it comes from being connected to the true desires of our heart and soul. And success isn’t a numbers game, it has very little to do with money or recognition; it’s about doing what feels right for you in the infinite number of possibilities available.
In short, there is no one right way to live. However, we’re continually sold the idea that there is. An idea that suited someone once and somehow this idea became The Truth. But it’s not The Truth at all. And it only gets its strength when we agree with this idea and follow the rules. A list of made up rules. There is no such thing as ‘the right way’ – there’s only what feels good and what doesn’t.
Only you know what feels good for you. Write out exactly what you want and more importantly – how you want to feel – and then, ask yourself why, why, why, why, why until the answers you’re left with reflect what’s true for you.
Please have the courage to own your fears and trust yourself enough to live a life that feels good, make your own rules. Be prepared to like yourself first and foremost, surround yourself with a supportive community and claim your place in the world by saying, “This is me” and “This is what I care about”.
Be willing to put your heart on display.
© 2017 Esther Zimmer