As human spirits, I believe it is our birthright to live in a state of peace and joy. So each morning the first thing I ask myself is, “Am I feeling peace and joy right now? If not, why not?” Next I proceed to search my mind and heart for some thought or feeling that might be blocking my sense of serenity and jubilation. Often the impediment is linked to some element of fear.
Lately, I have become aware of how I, and the individuals I meet with in spiritual direction, are held hostage by fear. Easily and quickly I can enumerate a list of fears and how they puncture my peace and steal my joy. As I reflect on my many apprehensions as well as those I hear in the sacred stories of others, I wonder how we all might lead lives of greater inner freedom. In “Escape from Fear-Part One,” I will name and describe some fears and in Part Two, discuss potential antidotes. The fears I address here include the fear to follow my heart’s desires, fear of rejection, fear of success/failure, fears associated with a psychological syndrome called “time urgency perfectionism” and fears about the body. Clearly, many people suffer with serious anxiety often requiring medication and therapy. However, in the next two blogs, my focus is on the common fears that permeate daily living.
Many years ago, I started my career journey. I knew I needed to take a year off after college but I was afraid I might never return to graduate school. So despite my trepidations, I entered a PhD program. I wasn’t particular happy studying social psychology because I had always been drawn to counseling. I yearned to help people with everyday problems like loss of a job, divorce, or death of a loved one. But I persevered because I had enrolled at Harvard University and I was afraid to disappoint my family or appear as if I lacked the intelligence or determination to finish their doctoral program. As I prepared to graduate, I considered pursuing post-doctoral studies in counseling. Completion of a few requisite courses and some internship hours would have led me to my dream. Yet I was afraid to turn down the outstanding job offers I’d obtained at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Duke University, and UC San Diego. I continued to walk this journey allowing fear to act as my oppressor. I permitted concerns about money, reputation, and living up to the perceived expectations of others pin me down onto a path of unhappiness. It wasn’t that I lacked courage but I wanted certain and calculated outcomes. I wasn’t a risk taker.
Recently, I awoke panicked wondering if I was doing enough to promote the release of my new book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom. Last summer, I anguished for several days about asking a prominent person for an endorsement. I feared he would say no or worse yet, read my book and tell me he couldn’t endorse it. I was experiencing the fear of rejection. I prayed and finally summoned the inner strength to email him. He was delighted to write a lovely endorsement. Later I realized what a senseless fear this was.
Last month I spoke with a woman I hadn’t seen in years. When Amelia heard that I was publishing a book, she shared her desire to write one as well. After a recent speaking engagement Amelia was approached by a book editor about a potential book project. Yet she never followed up. I was shocked. Writers send thousands of query letters each day seeking a literary agent or an editor. I wondered about this bright professional woman—was it fear of success or fear of failure that was kept Amelia from pursuing her aspiration particularly when an editor had expressed interest in her work?
I find that fear of success and fear of failure are different sides of the same coin—fear. Fear is the way in which the ego inhibits intelligent and competent people from expressing their deepest passions. Fear of failure is often linked to concerns about making mistakes, being embarrassed or not living up to the expectations of others as I mentioned earlier. Fear of success is frequently related to an underlying sense of unworthiness. Sometimes we don’t think we deserve success and happiness because somewhere someone usually a parent, relative, teacher or supervisor, suggested we lacked some essential attribute; a skill, intelligence, physical attractiveness or other characteristic.
A close cousin to fear of success and failure is time urgency perfectionism. I notice this fear seeping into my days and controlling my life. Most people are familiar with the notion of perfectionism but perhaps not paired with a time component. In Faster, Better Sicker, researchers identified a personality type associated with Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress (TUPS). They write, “These are people who always like things to be perfect and therefore attempt to achieve perfectionism within a defined time frame.” Such people constantly watch the clock, worry about deadlines and completing tasks perfectly. The lives of time urgent perfectionists become encased in fear—they agitate over errors and fear there is never enough time. Yet living from an inner world dominated by fear, experiences of peace and joy elude one’s grasp.
Occasionally I feel heart palpitations. In the past, my thoughts would immediately begin to race and descend into a downward spiral. I would tremble about what might be wrong with my body. I’d wondered—did I need to go to the ER, urgent care or set up an appointment with my cardiologist. Similarly, I hear about family members, friends of family members, and others who develop preventable health conditions. Typically, an unwillingness to seek medical attention and then follow the doctor’s instructions is partially to blame. Some people dig in with denial. “Oh that pain in my arm—it’s nothing. I was lifting heavy boxes.” I cried as I read in Becoming, about Michele Obama losing her precious father. He was afraid to see what was beyond his swollen feet, and nodule in his neck. Her dad kept working until it was too late after which there was no possibility for recovery. I have heard this story far too many times as I reflect on the losses of loved ones in my own life. Perhaps underlying all of the apprehensions about the body is the fear of death.
Which fears are holding you hostage in your life right now? When is the last time you felt some deep peace and how long did it last? And what about joy? Does joy feel absent in your life, more like an infrequent visit from a long lost love rather than being central to your life? In “Escape from Fear-Part Two,” I will discuss how we might break the chains of fear. Meanwhile, I hope you will take a moment to reflect on which fears keep you from feeling the peace and joy in your heart.
Antonio Rodriquez, Edward Wolff, Many Wolff, Faster, Better, Sicker-Time Urgency Perfectionism Stress, available on Amazon as a Kindle download.