Becoming more gentle, loving and generous with our frightened selves, especially when it appears "there's nothing to be afraid of."
Be kind and gentle with your self when you are feeling frightened…
Especially when your own mind, or anyone else, thinks there's
"really" nothing to be afraid of!
In the winter of 1982 my (now former) partner and I had just returned to California after two draining, emotionally undermining years in the heartland of Indiana. We had been living in relative isolation near my partner's family in South Bend. We'd moved there to help cope with the serious illness and then the death of my partner's closest sister.
Our relationship had been sorely challenged during those two years. Except for one 10-day visit from a close California friend, both of us had been without viable support systems as we each struggled with our selves, a very difficult family situation and with each other. The return to California was a welcome relief for both of us. It was a coming home of sorts even as, at first, we lacked a physical home base. We each had friends here. And, we had couple friends here. There was hope of re-grounding our selves and, perhaps, the relationship.
During our first three months back, I began the work of building a psychotherapy practice for the fourth time in my almost twenty years as a therapist. Not ready to rent office space and not comfortable working out of our shared house, I chose to have a mobile practice. I made my self available both to do house calls and to work with people in their most nourishing outdoor spaces.
Since my work and I were known in Santa Barbara, I began to advertise and reconnect there despite the fact that we were living in Ojai. As I began to face traveling to Santa Barbara to meet with people (both to build a referral base and to work with as clients), I found my self feeling very frightened. I was terrified about driving the beautiful 25-mile mountain road between Ojai and Santa Barbara alone.
I couldn't make any sense of my fears. I would be driving the same van in which I had, alone, lived as well as traveled both across country and all through California several years before. The van, though 9 years old, was in excellent mechanical condition. The road was one I'd traveled, alone, many times in those earlier years as I'd moved between camping places in Santa Barbara and Ojai.
I thought it was ridiculous that I was feeling so much anxiety and fear about something so inconsequential. I felt embarrassed by the unfamiliar feelings of helplessness. My partner was equally unsympathetic, suggesting that I was "making a big deal out of nothing."
Those were the days before I had begun the work of lovingly re-mothering my self. My response to my fears was self-condemnation and self-ridicule since there-wasn't-really-anything-to-be-afraid-of. Of course, there was no question that I would have been kind and caring with anyone else (friend or client) that might have been feeling such seemingly groundless fears. In those days, however, I still excluded my self from such sympathetic concern.
I pushed and badgered my self into getting over it. I shamed my self mercilessly into just doing it. I remember trembling and hyperventilating as I drove as slowly as I could, pulling over several times along the way. After many such awful trips, I gradually did become less frightened and more secure about being able to make it through the ride. After many more less-awful-but-still-scary trips, the fears ultimately dissipated.
I ache now for the battered Little One I treated so abusively way back then. I was as mean, impatient and condemning of her as my own biological mother had always been when the Little One needed any help or support. And, I was treating her fear just as our culture encouraged me to: push through the fear/there's nothing to fear but fear itself/get over it/just do it, etc.
It's true that the harsh treatment did ultimately lead to the dissipation of my fears. Yet, the way I treated my self robbed me of any opportunity, at the time, to discover what the fear was about inside of me.
On the road to lovingly re-mothering my self, I have learned that it's never okay to be harsh and abusive with my self, especially when some part of me is feeling fearful; and, even more especially when there seems to be no reason to be fearful.
When any part of me feels afraid, I listen carefully to her. I trust that there is something really scary for that part even if she and the most advanced part of me (or anyone else around me) doesn't understand what it might be. I explore the fear with her. I hold and comfort her. Metaphorically, I put all the lights on. We check in the closet, behind the doors and under the bed to confirm that there isn't any bogeyman hiding there.
Then, instead of impatiently making her sleep in her own bed by herself, I stay with her. I let her know that even though there isn't a bogeyman around, I hear that she's still feeling scared. I let her know that I will stay and snuggle with her while she feels frightened. I let her know that she doesn't have to be alone with her fear anymore, even when we don't know what she's afraid of. I let her know that it's okay to feel scared even when there doesn't seem to be something out there to be afraid of. I let her know that sometimes things just feel scary to us – without our quite knowing why they do. I let her know that, in those times, it can be that something inside of us is feeling scary.
In this tender space the fear usually melts away. Often, it seems to have been her fear of being completely alone with her experience. With the loving Mommy there, she is no longer alone with her fear. Other times, having the assurance that she doesn't need to know what she's afraid of in order to receive comfort allows her to gradually become aware of what inside her is creating the fear.
She learns not to feel afraid of feeling afraid. This allows her to have room to explore her fear and discover what she needs from herself or from the Mommy to help her feel safe again. She learns she needn't feel embarrassed or shamed about her fears, no matter where they come from. She learns that her fear is a signal to listen to and to explore. She learns that listening to her fear will help her to know herself more fully.
Being tender and gentle with our frightened selves allows our fear to become our teacher. With the Mommy to make the space safe to feel the fear, the fear can deepen and grow our understanding of all of our selves, big and little and in between.