Fear as motivator

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I spent Sunday night doing what Sunday nights were invented for: I logged into my bank account, scrolled through my transactions and captured my expense amounts into the appropriate columns of an Excel spreadsheet called “2017 NEW CHAPTER Budget to Actuals.xls.” I had three months of catching up to do. That’s because I was head-down-busy becoming the world’s next creative force and “Don’t get defocused by such old-habit, trivial, real-world things as finances and livelihood, Dakin.” I’d used every excuse to avoid my bank account, naively convinced that all things would automatically go according to my financial plan and that I was happily and safely trudging along—firmly on—the path of frugal money management.

Earlier this year, before I resigned from a regular salary, I drew up a list of living costs—in that same spreadsheet—to see how many months my savings would last for and, by extrapolation, how long I could dedicate myself to writing-with-abandon before the bank came off mute. I had six to nine months, I reckoned; even more if I rented out my house over Christmas, considered Uber-ing my car and liquidated one of my rainy-day accounts. Life was for the living and the brave, and I was fearlessly taking on my spirit animal, a beast wholly unconcerned with trivialities like budgets and spreadsheets.

Sitting in front of my laptop on Sunday evening, not even half-way through my Excel ritual, it started… The sense of impending doom approached like the grey-orange sky before a massive thunderstorm. I had been completely deceiving myself. A heat ball rumbled in my middle and radiated outwards. Alarm-bells shot to my finger tips and toes in flares of electricity. Damp palms. A galloping pulse.

Very quickly I did the mental two-step from “Oh dear,” to “Oh fuck!” From “I’m spending more of my savings than I should,” to “I’m going to be bankrupt and destitute, probably without my home soon too.”

I had started what would become a three-day Fear Spiral.

Lying in bed that night, I felt the beat of my heart throbbing in my ears and echoing back at me from my pillow. A hollow opened beneath my stomach that got wider and heavier. The back of my neck bristled and tightened. I was sinking from my middle, being sucked into myself as I let the thoughts fester and ooze.

This is what I call a Big Fear. Big Fears are those world’s-going-to-end fears that hit at something central to my identity, worth, relationships or aspirations. A death threat to my ego. Big Fears love exaggerating themselves. And they love monopolising my attention for much longer than they deserve.

I woke up on Monday, dazed, with my cheeks pulling down and my mouth full of nothing. I stared lethargically at my laptop and at the oh-so-clever insights I had enthusiastically scribbled into my notebook the week before. And I thought how silly they felt. My brain refused to type new words into sentences. Today was not a day for pretty paragraphs. Very quickly the contagion spread from financial insecurity to something much deeper: I would never become a True Writer. Those thoughts snapped me into focus, but not how I had hoped; synapse aftershocks Tasered my shoulders, arms, legs, chest and stomach. My brain lit on and off, a wall of spotlights that kept flashing, hot and white. Fear gripped my body in clenches and spasms of quiet rage. Nothing functioned properly.

More blank screen.

Instinctively—deep down—I knew what I needed to do to get over this: Step away from my desk and worries about money, rest my mind and soul with something calming, make some tea, walk in the park, eat something healthy and delicious, and only then come back to a fresh page and start writing something from scratch.

I got halfway through my recipe for serenity when I got side-tracked by litter pick-ups, season finales, social media feed-refreshes and the absolutely-imperative reorganisation of my spice drawer: All red lids together, all green lids together, all boxes in one corner and then… No, wait. Rather: All tall bottles at the back and short ones in the middle with the boxes neatly along the front… Actually, even better: All tall red bottles to one side at the back, all tall green ones to the other side at the back, all shorter bottles in front of them but now also by colour. A quick decanting of a half-full tall bottle into one of the short ones, because that tall bottle had a red cap but green contents… There. Done.

What a beautiful fucking spice drawer! My best work yet.

Yet still, panic, and a ball of rubber ribbons continuing to layer and knot, band over band, at the base of my brain, spice-rack-perfection be damned.

What did I need to do? What is fear and how do I solve it?

Fear is nature’s way of helping us protect ourselves. Whether it’s the fear of metaphorically being eaten alive at an upcoming boardroom meeting or the fear of literally being eaten alive, millennia ago, fear keeps us focused and diligent.  When coupled with good intuition and action, fear is the thing that helps me step away from that ticking time-bomb seductively camouflaged as the hottest person I’ve ever met, and not towards him.

Fear is how we survive.

Even so, I’ve been conditioned to avoid fear, whatever it takes. That its presence in my mood somehow indicates a weakness. Fight it or flight it, but whatever you do, get rid of it. Make the fear go away.

Fear may be unpleasant but, in proportionate doses, it’s healthy, informative, helpful even. It tells me more about myself in that moment than I realise. That’s because fear shows me what I am invested in. And by it being there, can point to several ways to protect, even promote, the things I care about.

It is very clear to me that I love writing and that I want to become the best goddamn writer that I can. The black hole of fear I disappeared into is proof-positive of this; I want to make a good living doing what I love. I want to be really good at writing. If I didn’t care so much about this, there would not be any fear around whether I succeeded or failed. I would just pick up the next thing and life would stay in Lay-Z-Boy recline. (This is an oversimplification, I know. Roll with me on this.)

But I don’t want to just pick up the next thing. I want to do what I’m doing now; this is my passion. And I want to get better at crafting excellent sentences, which is why I would like to get better at dealing with fear. Of grabbing it and containing it on first sighting. Of not letting it become disproportionate and all-consuming. Of taking action that responds to the fear and that the fear, in turn, responds to.

That is the best antidote I’ve discovered for fear: Taking action. It might sound obvious but in a paralysing moment it’s quite difficult. However, making lists, deciding to do things and then actually doing them… Those are the best remedies for dealing with fear, especially Big Fear. And that action, those steps, gets us to move forward, out of whatever cesspool is causing our fear. Towards success, or even just relief.

Taking action neutralises the intensity of the fear right away and addresses the things that drive it.

For my money stuff, it’s about immediately changing some behaviour around my spending. Setting a new, lower, monthly expense target. Doing my Excel ritual once a week instead of once every three months—Oh Lord Help Me—until I get out of financial ICU. Eating out less and taking Uber less and biking around more. Asking for help instead of paying that delivery service. Making a list of the small, silly amounts that go off my bank account monthly that aren’t really needed—whoever thought that owning www.ideascentral.org and .co.za and .org.za and .co was entirely necessary?—and then making time to phone the domain registrar and cancel their hosting service.

All action, and I feel a better already.

For my writing stuff, it’s about continuing to write words on paper and type them onto a screen and read them aloud and conjure ways to improve them, despite the incessant, insistent icy whispers from my own mind. It is about persevering; writing my way through the traffic jam of worry and back onto the open road. That’s the only way, if I ever wanted to come close to mastering my craft.

And that is why fear is a motivator.

At its core, fear is asking us to try. Try a bit harder. Try to convince yourself you can when fear is telling you that you can’t. Try again. And again. Keep trying.

Fear is the Angela Merkel of our emotions; the sight of it scares us but deep down we know it’s doing some pretty good work in the world.

(Not the worst analogy to end off with and reignite my faith that there is a wordsmith inside me yet 🙂 )

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Adele Grey
2 years ago

I read this today in the dentist’s waiting room- a small fear compared to some of the much larger ones eating away at me. The timing of this article was perfect for me, my friend! You have the wordsmith in you, but you also have a wonderful skill to call a spade a spade, no matter how much it scares you. I am (hopefully) o the verge of a huge life change after a year of constant turmoil and chronic stress. Thank you for talking about Big Fears- the ones who go to bed with us and wake up with… Read more »

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