Claiming our right to our own fears: listening to them, taking them seriously, honoring them and taking good care of our selves in the middle of them.
Owning Our Fears
When you can openly name and own your right to your own fears – without apology…
You give your self permission to be just where you are…
And, you honor your capacity to "be there" for your fearful parts.
This always deepens your sense of your own strength and empoweredness!
One beautiful early fall weekend some years ago, my friend Cynthia and I set out on what was, for each of us, our first backpack trip without a more experienced guide along. She'd been on her first backpacking trip earlier that summer with her son as guide. I had been on three trips with different women Vision Quest guides some years before.
We'd had fun shopping for (and then deciding to return some of) the equipment we needed to fill in for what our guides had contributed to our earlier trips. We'd read an article that taught us how to jerry-rig our own bear-proof containers using lengths of PVC pipe and PVC end plugs. We'd negotiated about food, organized and packed everything we could imagine needing for any emergency. We weighed and divided our equipment, supplies and food into two piles of roughly 35 pounds each. We had our topographic maps, compasses and whistles – all the right stuff. We were both excited, eager and only a little bit edgy about the stretching we were each about to do.
Our first day of driving, arriving and setting up our initial camp (in the vicinity of the car), went easily and well. We spent the night at 6000 feet practicing with all our gear and getting acclimatized to the altitude.
Next morning, we began to pack our way up to the camp at 8000 feet where we expected to spend three days. The weather was glorious, the skies filled with dramatic clouds, the sun bright and the air a little nippy. It was exhilarating to be on our way. For the first twenty minutes, that is.
At that point, it became obvious that the trail was going to be a relentlessly steep and narrow one. The boulders of the mountain loomed on one side; a sheer precipice fell away at the other. A precipice without even the smallest bit of chaparral to mask its edge: a huge test for me.
Just the tiniest veil of low shrubs gives me a sense of groundedness when I'm walking near a cliff edge. When there's nothing at all between the drop and me, I walk with low-level terror as my companion. With a heavy pack and the steepness of the grade adding to the struggle of keeping my self balanced and grounded, the usual level of my terror escalated. It was hard to revel in the magnificence and beauty all around me. It took almost all of my energy to keep walking and to keep my eyes away from the edge.
And, I kept walking-two-ways-at-once. My anticipatory dread of the steep-downhill-return-trip-with-pack to come kept adding to the terror I was experiencing on the uphill climb. Coping with the weight of my fear on top of the weight of my pack was exhausting. I kept talking gently to my petrified self. I promised her we could stop and turn around any time we felt we couldn't handle it anymore.
Despite the terror, I wanted to get to camp in the alpine meadow ahead. So, I practiced going very, very slowly with many, many breaks – each for however long my frightened self needed in order to be ready to move again. I kept gently reminding my self not to be walking two ways at once. I kept giving Cynthia updates on how I was doing. And, I kept making sure I still had her agreement that she'd turn back with me at any point.
We did a lot of stopping and resting. At some point we were stopping almost 15 minutes for every 10 minutes of walking. Though Cynthia wasn't frightened by the edge, she was more than happy to be stopping to rest as often as my fearful self and I wanted. Her pack, like mine, seemed to be getting heavier and heavier as we climbed. And, as my most regular hiking buddy, she already knew and was sympathetic to how scary physical edge-walking was for me.
Then, the worst happened. We met an eight-mule pack train with four horsemen coming downhill and had to move off the trail to let them pass. That meant standing on the very edge of the precipice. The grumpy, brusque leader of the train was impatient with me as I very slowly tried to find some secure footing on the small, rocky outcropping at the edge of the drop. I was almost frozen when he told me I'd have to take off my pack because it/I was too close to the trail and likely to spook one of the more skittish mules into shying. Cynthia, standing further out at the edge, helped me out of the pack. Then, I collapsed to the ground in a petrified puddle as the mules and horsemen passed by.
It took a while to put my self together enough to crawl back onto the trail, slow the adrenaline and get Cynthia's help putting my pack back on. Amazingly, when I checked, the inner consensus was still to continue on. So we did.
When we crested the mountain and arrived at the meadow surrounded by pine forest and ringed with yet higher mountains, it felt well worth the struggle. It was awesome and completely our own private domain. The campsite was near a creek, had a huge downed tree trunk that would do perfectly as a counter on which to set up our kitchen and another smaller trunk that would work as a backrest for sitting. Upturned roots provided hooks for all sorts of miscellany.
A small, deserted nearby weather observation cabin with a tiny sheltered entry proved immediately useful. Just as we stood there, gaping at the beauty, the clouds broke open in a downpour with thunder and lightning. Both of us and our as yet unopened packs fit neatly under the entry for the half-hour of dramatic storming.
The storm left as suddenly as it had arrived and we began the business of setting up camp, filtering water, and preparing our evening meal. We managed to get a small fire going for a little while.
Once we gave up on the damp fire and crawled into our sleeping bags in the tent, we discovered that our sleeping bags were not fulfilling their promise: our feet were freezing. Making foot pocket linings out of our Mylar emergency blankets warmed our toes but set us off into hysterical cackling as they crackled raucously at any slight movement. Our cackling led to each of us having to wriggle out of bag and tent to pee. Of course, that led to more uproarious cackling and crackling. In the midst of all this we heard cowbells. It wasn't an auditory hallucination. We peeked out and saw a herd of cattle grazing in the meadow. More cackling, it was hysterical. My earlier fear and panic seemed distant. (I still celebrated my Little One for having been able to make it up to the meadow despite how scary it had been for her.)
When we were finally warm enough and quieted enough to say goodnight, I was surprised not to be fast asleep in my typical five minutes. Instead, I found my self overwhelmed with a resurgence of fears. I worried that it might rain again over the days we planned to stay up here, making the already terrifyingly steep, narrow, edgy downhill trail muddy and slippery. The cowbells and the lowing of the cattle kept coming closer as I lay there getting more and more anxious about the trail. Then, I started to be afraid that the cattle might wander into our camp and trample us as we slept. I felt claustrophobic and vulnerable in our tiny little tent.
The Mommy part of me was there watching as I moved from anxiety and terror into what was rapidly becoming a full blown panic attack. That part kept holding me, rocking me. She kept talking gently and lovingly to me, acknowledging how really overwhelmed I was feeling, how scary this all was being for me. She reminded me that I was not alone, that she was with me and would stay with me.
The panicking part felt a desperate need to be down from the mountain, back near the car, back to where it was safe. She wanted to leave that very moment even though she knew it was not possible or safe to go then. She could hardly breathe. She was afraid to wake or to share her panic with Cynthia; afraid that the intensity of her panic, so rare and unusual in her, would frighten Cynthia. If her panic frightened Cynthia, she would feel even more overwhelmed.
The Mommy reminded her that Cynthia was not like her biological mother, that Cynthia probably wouldn't get terrified by the Little One's terrors. And, the Mommy let her know she didn't have to tell Cynthia now, in the middle of it, if that was too scary. The Mommy promised the petrified one again and again that she would stay with her no matter how frightened the Little One was. She crooned and soothed and promised her that we could tell Cynthia in the morning that we had to go back down the mountain. That we would, together with Cynthia, figure out a way to do that safely. That we could even ask Cynthia to make two trips and take our pack down for us if we couldn't do it our self.
The Mommy kept reminding us to breathe out so that we would be able to breathe in. She reminded us to breathe slowly, deep into our belly. She reminded us that she loved us so much, that it was okay to feel scared whether or not there really was anything scary happening, that she would never leave us alone with our fears or be angry at us for having them – no matter what. Gradually my body relaxed from its clenching. The panicked, exhausted Little One began to calm and finally drifted into sleep.
When I woke in the morning, the cattle were very close but had miraculously kept outside some invisible perimeter. It was another glorious day. I wasn't feeling terrified, but I still felt sure I needed to get off the mountain early on in the day. Over breakfast I shared the saga of my night with an astonished Cynthia. She was absolutely willing to break camp and head down as soon as I needed to leave. And equally willing to help deal with my pack if I needed her to do that.
We took a short breathtaking hike further up the mountain (with only our fanny packs on) before heading downhill with all our gear. Of course, the downhill trip turned out to be a piece of cake: the trail was dry and hard, didn't feel nearly as steep going down as it had seemed it might as we made our way up and, this time, we didn't meet up with any mule-trains.
Setting up camp in the valley at 6000 feet, I felt sort of blue that I had needed for us to come down. I felt a little sheepish about having been so panicked at the prospect of a downhill trip that was, in fact, not particularly difficult. But, the Mommy reminded me, it didn't matter that it had turned out to be so much easier than I'd thought; it didn't matter that there was nothing to be afraid of after all.
What mattered was that we had listened to the fears we were having, honored them, taken them seriously, and taken good care of our self in the middle of them. It mattered that we had asked our friend to be as respectful as we were of our fears and that she had been. It mattered that neither we nor Cynthia had tried to belittle or to talk us out of our fears. We had made it safe to be afraid, no matter what was so on the outside.
It is such a huge and empowering step to openly own our right to our fears, to name them, to honor them without apology or excuse or shame. It is how we can begin to stop abandoning our frightened selves. It is how we can say, "No! That's not the truth" to anyone (including parts of our selves) who would think less of us for being fearful, for having fears. It's not fear that we need to be afraid of (with all due respect to Franklin Delano Roosevelt) it's our fear of fear. When we commit to listening to our fearful self and to helping her find safety, she begins to trust our care-giving enough to risk walking her edges. This always helps her grow stronger.
All the me's of me learned so much, grew so much and did so much healing of early woundings in the middle of this scary experience. It was exciting to be able, at last, to be taking such good care of my frightened self. And, an added bonus of the journey is that I have learned not to walk two ways at once when going up steep trails.
Consider being gently respectful and loving with the fearful parts of your self.