We are hardwired to protect ourselves from physical and emotional harm.
We go into flight, fright or freeze mode when faced with physical danger or emotions that threaten our existential base, such as abandonment, shame, or worthlessness.
While these defences are effective, they often cause harm to ourselves and the people around us. I see it with my clients and I know it from experience.
As a teen and in my 20s, my defence was to be fearless. I lived intensely and took risks with no regard to myself or others. I was high on adventure and invulnerable.
Which was exciting, seemingly safe but also costly. I wore my family out and wore myself out, yet remained unfulfilled no matter how intensely I lived.
In my late 20s that began to change. Through training, coaching and therapy, I began to untangle my many layers of emotional defenses. It was – still is – hard work, but it brought me a lot of good. I feel more connected to myself, I am emotionally more present, I am healthier, calmer and more content.
But I also discovered a huge downside: I no longer feel invincible and fearless. Quite the opposite in fact: I am becoming more vulnerable and fearful over time.
There is much I fear. Heights, narrow spaces, swimming in deep water. I fear talking in front of an audience. And being in groups is uncomfortable at best or dreadful at worst.
These fears seem different, but they are essentially the same. They are about being helpless and powerless in the face of forces I cannot control.
And in my case, I feel most helpless and powerless when it comes to money.
I have been self-employed for almost 13 years. By all accounts, I am doing pretty well. My turnover is stable and allows me to provide a comfortable life to my family.
And yet, I sometimes worry. Usually at night, when fear grips me and I wonder: What if my clients stop calling? What if the money runs out and we end up on the street?
It’s worse when in a slow period I have to dip into my savings. Then, the fear grows and becomes sheer panic, even raw terror. I honestly feel as if I am about to die.
These are not my finest moments. I get nauseous and drenched in sweat. My bowels go funny and my throat constricts. I am unable to enjoying anything.
Monster under the bed
I know it’s all irrational. I have enough savings, I can always borrow money and there is always work. But this is my Achilles heel, my shadow, my monster under the bed.
For a long time, I would ignore the monster or drown it in adrenaline. But the more inner work I do, the less I can avoid feeling powerless and the more I have to face my demons.
Which, I realise, is a pretty awful ad for inner work. Do inner work and feel your greatest fear, yeay! Sounds insane, and yet to me it makes perfect sense.
Because for 41 years, I have had to be powerful, to exert my will, to pull through on my own. And while it brought me much, it has cost me dearly. It’s tiring and divisive.
So now, I am slowly learning to be vulnerable. Very, very slowly.
Learning to be vulnerable
I think that learning to be vulnerable is teaching me a number of things.
One, to accept that there are forces in life I cannot manage, control and foresee. To accept that things can and will go bad at some point. Accept that control is an illusion.
In other words, I am learning to surrender. Not give up or become irresponsible, but let go of the need to control things and instead accept that things are as they are.
And second, I am learning to sit with my fear, with my panic, with my defenceless and powerless self. Allowing it to be there, while I am fully present and attentive.
When I do that, I am finding I no longer spend so much energy on managing my fear and that the fear itself softens, that a space opens up inside. For what, I do not know yet.
And third, I am learning to be courageous. Not hard, overpowering or reckless in the face of adversity, like my younger self, but open-hearted and soft.
So courageous as in stemming from the French word for heart ‘coeur’ and the Latin word ‘cor’. Soft power instead of hard power, a different kind of inner strength.
Pretty words, but the process from fearlessness to courage is a messy one. Part of me still fears the fear, hates the panic, wants that feeling to disappear.
Too bad, because while I cannot go back to my invincible self, I am far from Zen when it comes to my fears. I am consciously incompetent at it and it sucks.
But there is only one way and that is way forward. Towards being more present, more awake, more myself. Learning to surrender, to live courageously.
I trust that some good will come of it.
Ilja van Roon
P.S. Now that you have read this, maybe also check out this blog about why you should avoid avoidance or how the other person you meet is your mirror, not your enemy.