Giving our selves permission to move more slowly, care-fully and cautiously when we feel scared or anxious so that we may honor, protect and gently encourage our fearful selves.
Going More Slowly
Remember to go more slowly when you feel scared or anxious!
When, at 43, I started hiking the trails in Ojai, I joined an aging English woman who was leading informal explorations of the local canyons and mountains. A veteran of Sierra Club hikes, she was interested in gathering smaller-than-Sierra-Club groups of Ojai locals so that she could share with us her knowledge of the surrounding wilds.
It was an odd choice for me given my usual inclination to venture into nature on my own; odd also because it involved getting up every Sunday at what was for me – night owl that I am – a rather ungodly hour. Still, it was a great way to become familiar with the trails and their challenges before I went out on them by my self. Each week I trekked with groups of eight or ten other novice trail-walkers. As we went ranging around the front-country, I discovered a terror I hadn't known was in me. Whenever the trails had steep drop-offs without even some low chaparral between me and the drop, I would experience almost paralyzing terror.
Walking in the middle of a line of hikers along a narrow trail and coming to one of these edgy places was quite alarming. Surprised by the scary passage in front of me, I'd feel petrified and also acutely aware of the people behind me. There'd be no space either to let them pass me or for me to turn around, pass them and go back.
The pressure to keep moving ahead was intense. So was the anxious paralysis in my body. That no one else seemed the least bit affected by this edge that so frightened me left me feeling isolated and as if I were over-reacting. Used to seeing my self as a courageous, fearless warrior-woman – at least on emotional and intellectual terrain – I felt embarrassed by my anxiety. And, even more, I felt terrified that I was terrified.
This was the legacy of childhood experiences of having a mother who responded to my frightened need for support and comfort with angry impatience and ridicule. Very early on, I became terrified of feeling terror because all I had to help me cope with such towering fear were the limited resources of my petrified little self.
Fortunately at 43, my recently kindled unconditionally loving Mommy-Inside-me was available as my protector. At each such edgy physical place, she would speak to and advocate for me. She would whisper that it was okay to be scared, that I wasn't being a sissy, over-reacting or being melodramatic: that I was simply feeling what was so for me. She let me know that she was here with me now and forever more, that she would care for and help me in the scary times and that I would never again have to be alone with and overwhelmed by my fears.
All of it was whispered in my heart in an instant. Her presence gave me the permission and courage to matter-of-factly tell the hikers behind me that this was an edgy crossing for me, that I was sorry to hold them up but that I needed to go very slowly in order to get across it. Hearing this, hikers ahead of me would turn around to offer encouragement and even extend a hand for me to grab onto. They were solicitous and patient. Their kindness moved me to tears.
I would breathe slowly and deeply to calm and center my self. I'd lean into the side of the mountain, hold onto rocks or chaparral, take tiny baby steps and gradually make my way across the frightening interval. Sometimes the hikers I was with would cheer me at the end of such a crossing. I felt seen and supported. I felt very brave and well acknowledged for my bravery.
In earlier seasons of my healing, I would have been both afraid of and embarrassed about revealing my fearfulness. I'd have expected to be ridiculed, scoffed at or, at best, mercilessly teased for being "such-a-girl." In the face of trepidation about revealing my trepidation, I would force my self into doing whatever it might be while acting as if I weren't at all anxious. I would move as quickly as I could, racing to get through whatever it might be that was scaring me. I never saw any alternative way to approach these awful moments.
Acting as if I weren't scared when I was usually led to stomachaches and nausea. When, at last, I'd be on the far side of the experience and away from other people, I would collapse, exhausted. Holding my self together when I felt like falling apart was utterly draining.
As I started the work of kindling the ferociously protective, unconditionally loving Mommy-Inside (see Coming Home for more about this) I was able to be with my fearfulness in new ways. For the first time in my life, there was a connected, loving Mommy whose tender and care-filled voice I could hear within me all the time. I could hear the voices of the frightened little selves in me as separate both from the grown-up me and from this loving Mommy voice. I could separate all of these from the nasty, belittling voice of my internalized mean mommy (the critical Hatchet Lady). And I was learning that what the mean mommy voice was telling me was never the truth.
All these years and all this hiking later, those edgy trail places and the patches of slippery shale still scare me. I still go across them very slowly, holding onto the side of the mountain and using a lightweight bamboo walking stick to give me more confidence and support as I go.
Almost 30 years later, I'm open about and respectful of my fears and anxieties regardless of whether they're about things physical or emotional or interpersonal. Whenever and wherever they're stirred, I advocate for my self, carving the space – no matter what the circumstances or what anyone else has to say about it – to go very slowly and care-fully. I have my own permission to take as many breaks as I need to calm and re-center my self as I move through the fearfulness. Sometimes, I even give my self permission to completely opt out of doing whatever it might be that's so anxiety-provoking at that moment.
We live in a culture that's filled with messages that make it unacceptable to honor our fearfulness or to respond to our scared selves with compassion and kindness. Certainly we've all heard the myriad variations: "we have nothing to fear but fear itself," "bite-the-bullet," "feel-the-fear-and-do-it-anyway." And "be man/woman enough to just do it."
It takes courage, fierceness and lots of intentional practice to give our selves permission to feel scared or anxious; to name what we're feeling out loud, as if it truly is acceptable and respectable to feel this way; to go more slowly and carefully as we protect our frightened selves and to not allow anyone (including the self in us that may be afraid of being openly afraid) to shame or push or ridicule us as we take such good care of our selves.
We're surrounded with rhetoric that warns us about the danger of "giving in to our fears." The message: doing so will only make us more and more incapacitated and paralyzed. As is so very often the case, the cultural message is a complete reversal of the being-level truth. If we are gentle, encouraging and protective of our fearful selves, they gradually feel safe enough to trust our concern and to experiment with venturing beyond where before they had had to stop.
Consider tenderly allowing your self to go more slowly in any circumstances in which you feel scared or anxious.