Recipe for Changing Your Life: The Uncomfortable Edition



She is a powerful mistress.

Sometimes I think she is an evil spirit who lives in the basement, sitting at her dungeon desk, fingers steepled, watching. She observes my weaknesses and knows them well. I hardly know she’s there, and then all of a sudden she floats up like a snake made of smoke, and her fingers are around my neck.

No one wants you. People will leave you.

But she shape-shifts.

Sometimes she is a stern, disapproving teacher with too many rules who thinks you can never succeed at anything.

You could never do that. That will never work. You don’t have the ______ to do that.

Sometimes she is a high-maintenance child who throws tantrums and sucks all of my attention, and patience. The answer to every possibility is: NO.

Could I…? NO! What about…? NO! Maybe we could try… ? NO! I hate you, and also I’m going to monopolize your attention so you can’t actually get anything done!

Sometimes she is just like the flu and a hard drive crash the inevitable slow-to-a-halt 90-minute traffic jam, combined — really fucking uncomfortable.

Over the last ten months of my life, I have been doing a dance with fear. I have walked out of the doctor’s office crying, thinking, “When she says my condition might just be a matter of stress and lifestyle, that means I have to actually change my whole life around, doesn’t it?” How are you going to find a new career? You’re not qualified for anything else.

I have grieved the sudden loss of a relationship that felt eerily similar to being abandoned by my mother at age ten. You haven’t learned this lesson yet? People don’t want you. People will leave you.

I have journaled, and counseled, and read, and meditated, and cried. I have applied for new jobs and gotten turned down, and I have applied for new jobs and turned them down. Stay small. You don’t deserve anything greater. You couldn’t possibly make that happen.

In the end, I decided to change everything. In the dance with fear, something cracked open. I made an intractable decision: I will change my life. What did this mean? It meant that I gave up my home where I have lived for five years. It meant I marched into my bosses’ offices to tell them that I will not be returning next school year. It meant telling my students I will not be returning next year, and watching their sad little faces. It meant asking my parents for help. It meant weeks of purging items from my apartment, giving things away, throwing things out, and packing the rest into a POD. It meant managing the logistics of a move myself. It meant saying goodbye to some of the dearest friends I have. It meant crying silently into my towel in the bathroom after finishing a letter to my friend L, and crying in the car for a good 15 minutes after pulling away from her house. I thought to myself, Wow. This is incredibly uncomfortable.

I metaphorically jumped off a cliff without a total plan for landing. I have three months planned. I have ideas and intention and information about the life I want to create. I am getting to know my entrepreneurial self. I am fortunate to have another six weeks of pay from my teaching job, some savings, a family who will watch my cats and has the means to ensure that I will not end up on the street with nothing to eat.

But leaving everything to make a new life is unavoidably, wildly uncomfortable. The voice of fear is easily strong enough to force the best of us into submission and inaction. The last day I was in Boston, I sat on my friend’s deck and thought about the fact that five years ago, the girl who moved to this city with an ex-boyfriend, an ex-cat, and the start of a new graduate school, would not have been brave enough to do what I am doing now, by myself.

I do not know exactly how I will make it all work, but I know that I will. I do not know the exact shape and form of that new life yet, but I know that I am worthy of it. It is as though I opened the door, looked fear in the eye, and let her in. I am learning to dance with fear, and I am learning how to not let her lead.

Fear invisibly rules many of our lives and decisions. When things are too unknown, too scary, too daring, we choose the comfortable. We often choose inaction. I look around and see things that make me squirm — the husband at the airport spending all of his energy berating his children and ignoring his wife, who is trying meekly to positively redirect her bored child’s attention; the couple, or sometimes whole family, out to eat looking at their phones and not being present with each other; the woman who wonders in private, “When will my boyfriend propose to me so I can have my dream wedding and babies?”, when in fact, she cannot openly talk to the boyfriend about what she wants and he wants in the relationship, for fear that the answer means the relationship will end; the woman who stays in a job that is beneath her because the prospect of navigating all of the steps to move herself out to something else seem impossible. I wonder.

I wonder how many of us proceed through our lives in a default mode that ends up letting fear drive, because we aren’t brave enough to stomach the possibility of the scary, the unknown, or the immensely uncomfortable.

I wonder how many people have stayed in relationships or gotten married to the person who was already there, when if they had asked themselves the hard questions, their intuition would have said: this is not right. This is not what you deserve, or are capable of.

I wonder how many of us sell ourselves short.

I also empathize. I have been there. Oh, have I. Sometimes I think all of my 20s was mostly ruled by fear. I am still there, at times.

I really love Elizabeth Gilbert’s welcoming speech for fear that she gives at the start of anything new:

Dearest Fear,

Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting, and may I say, you are superb at your job, so by all means, keep doing your job if you feel you must. But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused, and Creativity will also be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. I recognize and respect that you are a part of this family so I will never exclude you from our activities, but still, your suggestions will never be followed. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote. You're not allowed to touch the roadmaps, you’re not allowed to suggest detours, you’re not allowed to fiddle with the temperature, dude, you are not even allowed to touch the radio. But above all else, my dear, old, familiar friend — you are absolutely forbidden to drive.

I think there is an intentional, cultivated practice we can do around discomfort. There is a difference between choosing something uncomfortable and choosing something truly risky. I subscribe to Tim Ferriss’s definition of risk: the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome. Notice how that definition does not include the likelihood of incredible discomfort. As Brené Brown says, if you are living bravely, you WILL get your ass kicked. Not maybe, not let’s mitigate the chances of ass-kicking. WILL. And so we have to write our letters and have our own conversations and dances with our fear.

I think the thing to realize is: fear does not go away. We learn to live it with it, and we learn to take back the driver’s seat.

What does your fear say to you that stops you? How have you learned to dance with the fear and act anyway?

{Photo: Rebirth by Lieke Anna}