Facing Fear

Dr. Kristen Johnson, PT, SEP
February 8, 2024

I am a recovering perfectionist.  As a result, many things in my life may appear outwardly perfect.  But the danger in perfectionism is fear —a deeply rooted intolerance for making mistakes, for being seen as nothing other than an imperfect human.  It is this fear, this intolerance, that can hold us back from moving forward towards the dreams, visions and aspirations held in our heart and soul.

As I have been humbly learning, courage is not the absence of fear, but moving forward, even when fear is moving with me every step of the way.  In stepping towards my own aspirations, I meet the part of myself, again and again, who puts undue pressure on myself to make the “right” choice, who experiences the constriction of fear.  

With this experience of pressure and constriction, I often loose sight of the bigger picture. I find myself getting caught in the weeds of the details, and before I know it, I have lost the capacity to experience joy or reverence for the simple profundity that I actually have the ability within myself to make a choice.  

How often I forget that choice is available to me in any given moment in time.  

I know this forgetting is not unique to me. I am a product of this culture, of the generations before me, and of my own upbringing.  There is no blame in this statement. It is only to acknowledge that the patterning is deeply embedded within me, within us, within our culture, and takes a certain level of persistence and patience for it to shift.

How often I forget that there is not actually a “right” or “wrong” choice, but rather a myriad of possibilities, each that will take me down a slightly unique path.  

For me, the path of least resistance, is the path of the known, the familiar, the comfortable.  It is a path where I have a sense of control, where I can have some relative expectation of the outcome.  It is a path that looks very much like the past, and very little like change. To choose a different path, is to the invite the possibility that things may not be perfect, that I may not have a sense of control, and I may not be able to expect the outcome.  This different path triggers a deep fear within me, a tightness in my chest, a shakiness in my voice, an experience of being naked, exposed and vulnerable.

And yet, in choosing this different and highly uncomfortable path, I start to learn that the tightness in my chest, the shakiness in my voice, the pernicious thoughts of what could wrong, are not bad things, but simply things that go along with vulnerability.

How often I forget that meeting this vulnerable part of me with generosity is actually what will set me free.  And perhaps the most generous thing of all is to remember that it is so very easy to forget the possibility of freedom when we are meeting our edge of growth and expansion.  

Lama Rod Owens, a bodhisattva of the modern day, writes in his book The New Saints, “To be free is to remember that I have always been free.  The real labor of liberation is acknowledging that there is always a choice, even though I must work to get back to that choice.”

How do we work to get back to that choice?

Each of us has our own unique level of tolerance for uncomfortable things.  And while I am ultimately interesting in helping this capacity to grow, we must first start very simply with the things that are stabilizing, that are familiar, and that are comfortable.  We must first help our body to remember what it is like to experience the layers of support that are here for us.

This may be feeling our feet are in connection with the ground.  It may be noticing the movement or the sound of our breath.  It may be simply noticing that our eyes can see beautiful colors, light, and shadows. It may be inviting in compassion for the parts of us that want to collapse.  It may be acknowledging gratitude for those beings that support us, whether they are near or far away.

Bringing attention to these things does not mean that fear goes away.  We may still experience fear while taking in the present moment through the senses, but there will also be something that feels a little bit lighter, a little bit more spacious, or a little bit more grounded.  And this can help us to move with and through the fear.  

It will be often that we forget to make the choice to bring our attention away from the constriction of fear.  But fortunately, in each forgetting, there is always the possibility of remembering.  There is this magic moment, the possibility to come back to choice, the work of reclaiming our liberation.

In remembering, we can, in small moments, experience that freedom is already here, inside of us. We can remember that we do not have to only travel the path of the past, the comfortable, the familiar, and the known.  As I write, I am remembering, I am already on that path, and that is precisely why things feel uncomfortable right now. And so I am getting good practice in the practice of remembering. I turn my attention to my feet on the Earth, the breath in my body, and the layers of support all around me. I believe that if I can remember these things while I travel this path into the unknown, each and every one of us can remember.  

Change is possible. I see it within myself, and within my clients.  It is not always easy. It does require persistence, patience and very healthy doses of curiosity and compassion.  And it often starts with the simple remembering, that we can shift our attention, in this moment, away from the constriction, and turn that attention towards the resources of this present moment experience.  

In facing our fears, anything might be possible.