When fear feels like truth.
Many years ago, I had an out of the blue opportunity to work in Tokyo in one of the more random jobs I’ve had (and there’ve been a few) working as a weather presenter for a global whether company headquartered in Japan. Stay with me.
In the short lead up to my departure, which I think was probably around 10 days notice, I had this really overwhelming sense of anxiety and knot in my stomach that every time I tuned in to, felt like it was telling me not to go; that something bad was going to happen, that this was a really terrible idea. It felt very real, and it felt like instinct.
It wasn’t. It was straight up, textbook, anxiety-ridden fear.
Knowing now what I do about the mind and the brain and how we operate, I so get how easy it is to confuse instinct with fear. The brain doesn’t know the difference between something that’s real and something you’ve just imagined. So let’s say I think some really scary, dark thoughts about a situation that I’ve created in my imagination. Even though the situation is completely made up, the brain reacts as though it is reality and so it begins to release a gaggle of stress hormones and kicks off the chain of events in the body identical to that which would happen in the case of a real-life threat.
Let’s bring this back to my Japan adventure. With little notice I was effectively being asked to move thousands of kilometres away from everyone I knew and loved, to do a job that seemed a little quirky in a culture I had no previous exposure to and certainly didn’t speak the language.
I mean, as I read that out loud I’m thinking what kind of sedation would you want to be under to not feel some anxiety?!
But what I was feeling felt like so much more than just apprehension or anxiety; it felt like a warning bell, an alarm to let me know that what I was about to was a horrible idea and one I should avoid at all costs.
That trip ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done. Ever.
The time in Japan was such a brilliant learning experience and hugely enriching in terms of really immersing myself in another culture, meeting awesome new people and generally just having a whole lot of fun. And it didn’t stop there: when the contract ended I travelled to Malaysia spending a month there, between a friends house in KL and a small island where I arrived on my own and left with a bunch of new friends. For good measure and extra kicks, I then took a flight to Bangkok where I ended up getting a job and apartment and making more new friends – most of whom spoke no English and I spoke very little Thai so communication was…. ‘interesting’ 😉
All this, ALL of this magical, mind opening, heart expanding adventure I’d have missed out on had I listened to that voice that just *knew* something bad would happen if I got on that first flight.
Cut to the end of last year when we had the chance to take our little family to Portugal for 3 weeks. Oh hello panic-inducing anxiety, my old friend, I figured you might make an appearance.
“Oh God, what if something terrible happens the boys while we’re abroad? What if we get in a horrible car crash? We’re not used to driving on the right, we’re gonna get mangled. Then I’ll never forgive myself, and spend the rest of my life wishing we’d just stayed at home. We should probably cancel the trip. I feel like we should. I’m just going to cancel it all and we’ll never go anywhere. At least we’ll be safe”
Yup. I know.
Of course we went, and of course it was an amazing adventure that we’ll remember forever.
You recognise yourself in some of this faulty thinking though, right? We all do it. In an effort to ‘protect’ ourselves, we project; we catastrophise, we think up the all the things that could go wrong, so at least then we can beat them to the punch. If we’re prepared for the worst, we can’t get hurt, right? If we outsmart the pain, then we’ll be be safe, we’ll be cushion proofed against impact if and when it hits.
Except we won’t.
No amount of worrying that we’ve done would ever ease our pain should the worst happen, but it will certainly rob us of precious life in the process.
Are there times when that gut feeling is a legitimate warning signal? Absolutely. I bet all have had times we look back and feel grateful that we listened to an instinctive hunch. And I bet we have infinitely more times where fear showed up with such conviction and seduction that it felt so real, we either listened to it and lost out, or poured precious time and energy going over and over all the toxic, unhelpful thoughts and stories that came with it.
Fear is cunningly adept at disguising itself as instinct – like a really good quality knock off – hard to tell the difference. But deep, deep, deep, deep down, beneath the noise and overthinking, there’s a voice of wisdom and knowing. And it would never want to rob us of life, but instead would encourage us to turn turn toward the unknown and leap towards it with our whole heart.
“When you come to the edge of all the light you have, and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on – or you will be taught how to fly.”