Instead of writing about showing up with my insecurities, I’ve found myself writing about showing up to my insecurities. After decades of burying away my insecurities, being able to show up with them and feel them as part of my life has depended on recognising and acknowledging them in the first place.
Most of us I think have our own most frequent response to life, the grooved pattern that it is easiest for us to fall into without noticing. For me that has been fear and, alongside this, a denial of fear.
I grew up with a relative who lives with worry. All the time. About anything. If there was nothing to worry about, that would become something to worry about. Seeing how severely that level of worry and anxiety curtails life, I resisted signs of this in myself, thinking (wrongly, I now see) of fear as weak, resisting any similarity, determined to have a life. And so I did. I applied to go to university despite being terrified that I’d never get in (I knew no one who had) and spent the first term at university fearful that I’d been let in by mistake and that someone would one day ask me to leave. I threw myself into student and local politics – ending up by age 19 on the student union exec and various political bodies and combining CAB volunteering with a full time degree. I didn’t make life easy for myself. My job involved solo home visits to some very troubled people and I didn’t stop to think about any risks. If I ever felt scared I didn’t notice it.
Never good at admitting to emotions, the almost automatic way for me to respond to fear was to push it away. This came at a cost. I numbed myself. The fear and insecurity was still there. I just didn’t let it emerge if it might get in the way of something I felt I couldn’t avoid and should do. I also made myself face work situations I didn’t felt comfortable in. When I found myself without the confidence to deliver needed training sessions, I put myself on a 2 year evening class on teaching adults, typing the coursework one-handed while breastfeeding my son who was born part way through the course. Through immersion, I found I could make the uncomfortable feel familiar and so manageable. Where I could avoid a situation that unsettled me however I did so. I stayed quiet when there was someone else to speak. I took a step back if there was anyone else who could act. The main casualty was socialising and friendship. After I stopped drinking in my 20s, social groups and nights out became something to avoid or to keep to an absolute minimum. Without the social lubricant and numbing effect of alcohol it was far easier to stay home. Not having babysitters to hand was a convenient excuse.
Most scary of all would have been allowing myself to have a full range of emotions. In my experience it’s not possible to selectively block emotions. The barriers, evasions and defensive walls put in place to deflect the emotions we don’t want to feel also block the joys of life. The constant busyness that stopped me from noticing my discontent also stopped me noticing the wonderful aliveness of life. Rather than dealing with my own emotions, I threw myself into other people’s lives – through various ‘helping’ roles in my work and, outside of work, by compulsive reading (on average 20 novels a month) which served to fill every spare moment. On the very rare occasions that I stopped for long enough to notice that I was unsatisfied with life I put this down to ingratitude. Other people had difficult lives, real problems. I had a comfortable home, a job, food, a marriage and two adored healthy children – what possibly reasons could I possibly have to feel discontented?
In seeking not to follow the example I’d seen in my childhood I hadn’t overcome fear, I’d just allowed it to drive me in a different direction. After most unexpectedly and suddenly losing my fear of life, I was able to see for the first time how it had dominated my thinking for so long without me even being aware of it, how much it had formed the backdrop to my life. Nowadays fear only rarely arises. There were however decades’ worth of buried fear to deal with. I feels to me it that my buried emotions have been stored physically, in knots, tensions and areas of numbness, none of which I noticed until they started to lift. Sitting has therefore been a very visceral and forceful experience as one by one these have surfaced, at times gently and at times far from gently. Buried fear for me seems to live deep in my right side and I sat at times with buried fears lifting, and even full blown flashbacks. Sometimes it was like sitting with a toddler. When I first allowed (or perhaps was forced to allow) buried fear to arise the fearful child me was a raging demon, adamant that she wasn’t going to be pushed away anymore, that her emotions, discounted for so long, were going to surface. And they did. Big style. Along with a load of memories, storylines, assumptions, fixed ways of relating to life and a mass of self-loathing and a huge backlog of tears. I’ve learnt along the way that, for me, pushing fear and other emotions away was a costly strategy, undoubtedly functional at some point in time and to some extent but having long outlived its use. I’ve also learned that if I really allow myself to completely feel fear, or whatever other emotion is arising, without adding thoughts and stories to the mix, the emotion moves very quickly.
New fear still arises from time to time, usually about something and nothing. A few weeks ago I felt that familiar sensation which I can’t really describe. Not pain, not really even discomfort, maybe just an unsettled energy. Alongside that came a clenching of my right palm which happens to me subconsciously whenever an old fear is working through. This time it didn’t feel like an old remnant of fear passing through – these I just leave to surface and pass. Instead it felt quite faint but fresh. I didn’t need to deliberately do anything with this fear other than welcome it like an old friend and allow it to be there. What followed was a sort of spontaneous inner conversation between different elements of me, with the fearful me (child me) being invited to explain what she was scared about, being reassured and the fear then lifting with the calm adult me thanking the child me for sharing her fear and the child me thanking the adult me for listening. All very gentle, polite, respectful and harmonious and easier than I would have ever believed possible in the past. In the end, the situation that provoked the fear, (a night sleeping out alone in a bivvy bag) when it finally happened was not accompanied by any fear at all.
Showing up to my emotions no longer feels impossible. It now feels natural and healthy. There is no fear of feeling my fear, no sadness about being sad, just the emotion itself. The emotions stop feeling so individual and personal and more just part of life. Being willing to really experience my own emotions and knowing that they won’t drown me allows me to more honestly and openly be with others in their times of emotion too. Somehow that seems to help both me and others. What I felt as a weakness has become a strength. I don’t have to wait until I feel brave or fearless to step forward to life’s challenges (if I did I’d could be waiting for ever), I don’t have to think that I am the wrong person for those challenges and that if only I was different I could cope with them. Recently someone drew my attention to a poem I’d splurge written some years ago and had long since forgotten. It ended:
“Instead of fear, a confidence that life will only ask from me
That which I can deliver
And that it will provide that which I need.”
Life will always present new challenges and opportunities. There will probably always be a little part of me which is convinced I’ll never be up to them. I’ll try to remember and to apply my own words. I’ll also try to remember the words that ran through my head during a recent zazenkai: “Step forward and take responsibility”. Maybe that is what showing up to and with my insecurities does – provides a space to turn things around and to deal with life rather than trying to evade it.
After collecting in all the posts on this theme, I found myself returning to the theme, some months after writing the piece above, penning these lines as part of a longer poem:
Vulnerabilities and insecurities
Acknowledged not buried
Become a vital ingredient
Creating the colours, texture and taste
Of the bubbling stew
That is our own unique life
A thing of beauty, this life.