Anxiety and fear: the two go hand in hand. On a visceral level we all understand fear. It is the knot in your stomach when it’s your turn to go on stage, the hot flush that comes over your body when the doctor takes out the needle, or the locking of your knees as you stand on the edge of the diving board. Most of the time when we are afraid we know what we are afraid of. Anxiety, however, is fear without cause, reason or source. Anxiety is the sudden sense that something awful will happen if you accept your friend’s invitation to that party with all those new people, or the irrational and yet wholly undefusable fear that you will lose your job if this presentation doesn’t go well, despite how many times you’ve been praised for your presentations in the past. Anxiety in a way is habitual fear.
I have fought with anxiety and inexplicable, unreasonable fear since elementary school. There was a moment when I realized that I only had three friends and from that moment on my entire world morphed into a kind of fishbowl cage where I could see the people around me succeeding, playing, having friends and doing sports, and yet there was the barrier between me and them preventing me from doing the same. It was a very small world to live in and at this point I have spent the better part of my thirty one years on this earth struggling to get out of it. Between an embarassingly fundamental Christian upbringing and a spectacularly failed marriage it has been a long, hard battle, but I have finally figured out the trick to freeing myself.
The difficulty with anxiety is that it becomes so much a part of our life and our every day thinking that we no longer see it for the crippling obstacle that it is. As an energetic person with a bright personality people always thought I was confident in everything I did. That made it hard for me to realize that I was holding myself back from trying things that I knew would be really fun for me out of a fear of social rejection and humiliation. I remember I wanted to play basketball when I was six years old. But the other boys on the court were all better than me (or so I thought) and so I told myself that I was too old to start playing basketball. It would be embarassing to try to play with these kids who were younger (five years old) and better than me. I told myself that it wasn’t that I was bad at basketball since obviously I could practice and be just as good as them, it was just that I was starting too late. Besides basketball there was also dancing. I am a beautiful dancer today having had thirteen years of ballet training and two years of pole dancing (an impossible combination to beat when it comes to clubs), but when I was younger I didn’t understand how dancing worked or what you were supposed to do and I was sure people would laugh at me. So I didn’t go to any dances all the way through high school because I was sure I didn’t know how to do it.
What I know now is that it’s never too late to try something new if you think it would be fun, and that dancing isn’t about the right way, but just about what makes your body feel good when you hear the music. It took me over twenty years to come to this realization. I wish I had figured it out sooner, but when I was younger I didn’t understand that my fear of being laughed at was holding me back from every new thing I wanted to try, so even though I eventually did get fairly decent at basketball and even get good enough at dancing to steal the whole room’s attention, it wasn’t until about two years ago that I finally realized why it had been so hard for me, or why despite my success I was still afraid to try other new things.
The first and most critical step in overcoming anxiety is to know your own fear. While I thought that I was worried I would be bad on the court, my real fear was that my classmates would laugh at me and not want to be my friends. My greatest fear in the entire world is to be alone. More than death, more than any hardship I can imagine, I am afraid to one day wake up and realize that I could live or die, eat or starve, or maybe just walk out of society and never come back, and no one would notice or care. When people tried to encourage me as a teenager to play with them and I held back, they always tried to convince me that I would be good at the game and to just try, but it never worked. When I would see other girls who were less fit than I was but who would play anyway and really suck at it, it only made me feel worse because I couldn’t understand why everyone else was able to have fun and I had to sit on the sidelines paralyzed. Now that I know the real reason that I am afraid to play, I find that it is a lot easier to get over that first major hump of saying “yes, I’d love to join!”
They say “knowing is half the battle.” Generally I am not fond of them because they can say some pretty dumb and useless stuff. I’m not sure if it’s half of the battle, but while we’re using war metaphors perhaps I should say that it is critical to know your enemy. When my friends and I both thought I was afraid to join because I thought I wouldn’t be good, we all tried really hard to convince me that I would be plenty good and that it would be fun. I knew those things already but I couldn’t get myself to try because I was fighting against the wrong demon.
Once I realized that my anxiety was just the generalizing of my own fear of isolation I could finally begin the process of overcoming that fear. Let me say now that this is a process that never ends. The fear will never go away, but it is possible to learn how to live with it and thrive in spite of it, and I truly mean thrive. I think the most valuable skill anyone can learn is how to push through their own fears to get the things they want.
Murakami Haruki wrote a book about an adolescent boy who felt estranged from his father, who had no friends other than an imaginary boy “called crow”, and who dreamt a recurring dream of a sandstorm chasing him through a desert. Every time he saw the storm he would run faster, but the storm would catch up to him eventually. Finally, at the end of the novel, he decides the only way to make the storm stop chasing him is to turn around and go straight through it. The sand tears at his skin and burns. He closes his eyes as tightly as he can, but the grains get in anyway. Even when it feels as if his whole body will be disintigrated by the stinging swirling sand, somehow he survives and makes it through to the other side. The metaphor is simple and complete. Fear is a sandstorm so big and huge it threatens to swallow you whole and tear you to pieces. You may not survive it, but if you run from it, you will run forever.
There is one way and only one way to free yourself of what you fear and that is to go through it and come out the other side. Like Kafka and his sandstorm, it is natural to want to run from it, particularly when the storm is so huge that it stretches the length of the horizon and threatens to block out the sun. Unlike Kafka, who is a mere character in a fictional story, we cannot jump ahead a few pages and find out whether or not we will survive. The defining feature of our fears is always the unknown. Neither can we see what lies beyond them, nor can we know whether or not we will be able to pass through them unscathed. Many advice books and quick-fix magazine articles tell us that the key to overcoming our fear and being All that We Can Be (or Living Life to the Fullest, if that’s your flavor) is as simple as the right pep talk, a daily mantra of empowerment, or to fake it until you make it. Almost every advice will promise you that if you just follow its simple instructions your life will be sunny with roses. I think we can sense the dishonesty in this advice even without being psychologists or psychics. No one staring down the face of a storm that threatens to rip the very flesh from their bones would believe that a mere pep talk would be sufficient armor against what lies in front of them.
No, the only way to be free of the storm is to pass through it. But in order to pass through the tempest, we have to make our peace with the possibility that we may not survive. This is the truth about fear and anxiety. Until you face it, accept it, expose yourself to it and experience it in all its rage and power and all your helplessness, you will never be free of it.
Ironically it was the simple regurgitation of the popular mantra “fake it til you make it” said to me at just the right moment by a very kind man that revealed this truth to me. The only chance you have to overcome your fears is to pretend that you are, in fact, not afraid and to do nothing to attempt to insulate yourself from its force. Kafka had many options available to him. He could have continued to run from the storm. It would have worn him down and deprived him of his ability to chose his course or experience anything in the world beyond the overwhelming presence of the storm. He could have also attempted to arm himself against the wind and the sand by digging a shelter and waiting for it to blow past, or maybe by wearing a mask or some clothes that might protect his skin. Any of these things could have lessened the blows of the storm, but they would not have freed him of it because if, upon coming out the other side, he looked back on his choices he would see that his ability to survive the storm depended on him having the tools and the time to prepare for it. This would be like me going to a party and having fun, but only dancing the Macarena or the Time Warp or some other silly line dance where all the steps are predecided. Or else praciticing shooting the ball as part of gym class and calling that playing basketball. In both cases I would have done something like what I was afraid to do, but I would not be totally free of my fear because what would happen at a party when the Macarena song didn’t play? I would still be incapable of dancing.
We can skirt our fear, dodge our fear, dampen it and run from it. I won’t say that these choices are never warranted. When faced with the gaping, howling maw of a grisly bear, I’d really prefer not to have to face that fear. In fact, I would really like to deflect it onto anything else possible. Certainly there are fears that are warranted and are best kept with us throughout our lives such as fear of grisly bears and crossing highways or falling off of cliffs. These fears protect us. Some fears, however, are not healthy for us to hold on to. Chronic fear of failure or rejection only prevent us from taking the risks that could lead to a fuller, more authentic life. These are the fears that follow us like Kafka’s sand storm.
As for myself, I still fight with my fear of being alone. It manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Right now I wrestle daily with the fear that I will not find a job in three years when my contract is up. I know I am capable of finding employment and supporting myself on an objective level. I am well educated and creative and good at solving problems so I know there is a market for my skills. But I tell myself that my ability to find work will be hampered by my status as an immigrant. I need a visa to stay which means I need a legitimate organization to employ me. I could throw the full force of my energy into doing the best job I can and keeping my resume in top shape for a new job hunt every few years, but that would be the same thing as Kafka running through the desert. It’s tiring and it won’t actually remove my fear of being unemployed and visa-less in the land of my heart. No, the only way to live free of this fear is to pretend that I am not afraid to be unemployed in Japan, to ignore my resume and to do the work that I want to be doing. I have to expose myself to the possibility that another university will not find my choices favorable and that I will have to seek alternative employment in order to stay here, possibly taking a cut in my salary or being forced to make major changes in my lifestyle. I am seriously afraid of these things but at the same time I am accepting of the fact that they are the risk I have to take in order to live happily. This is one storm that I fully intend to pass through.