Stifling fear is a full-time job but the absence of anxiety is not happiness Avoiding the bad is missing the opportunity to overcome it overlooking the value of such satisfaction The demons that chase you are challenges to conquer so thank them for helping you grow Inviting everything in with grace and equanimity the remedy for running is simply to stop
Last night as I was trying to fall asleep, I was so nervous about the practical exam I was going to have to take in the morning that I was literally shaking. Not only was I terrified of the exam, but I was terrified that I was so terrified. I can’t even recall another time in my life were I was that afraid. To make matters worse, once I finally fell asleep, I woke up in the early hours of the morning with unbearably painful stomach cramps.
I’ve never had much of an issue with cramping throughout my life, so I was really surprised how badly I felt. My concern only grew as the pain persisted for much longer than I expected. It even seemed to intensify at times. I nearly passed out walking down the stairs to my bathroom. Then I laid on the cold tile floor for awhile, just trying not to throw up. I barely managed to pull myself up to go into the kitchen for water. I seriously considered going to the hospital. Near the end of this episode, I was actually convulsing with each fresh wave of pain. Thankfully, I eventually fell back asleep and still managed to feel moderately rested when I woke up a few hours later.
Strangely enough, I found myself feeling grateful for that painful interlude I experienced overnight. My anxiety about the exam was shrunken considerably. It’s hard to be afraid of a zoom call, when hours earlier you thought you might be dying. No matter what happened, I was just thankful that I was no longer in pain.
I was still a little jittery as I patiently waited for my turn while evaluating my fellow students. When my time finally arrived, I was given (rather unfairly I might add) a scenario much different and arguably more difficult than the others. Despite this, I managed to stay grounded and focused and do an excellent job. It went even better than I could have hoped. After that, the written portion of the exam was a piece of cake. I definitely was the first one to finish and there’s no way I scored less than 100 percent.
The most interesting thing about all of this is that after all those hours and days I agonized about this stuff, it seemed like my overflowing pride and relief lasted only a few brief moments. I noticed my mind already eager to start probing for more possible fears to latch onto and ruminate about. No matter how hard or scary I think something is beforehand, once I get through it, I immediately start downplaying my accomplishment. “It wasn’t that hard.” “It’s no big deal.” “I was just overreacting.” These are just a few of the ways my mind tries to rob me of any and every opportunity to celebrate myself.
Not today though, god damn it. This week has been hell. I’ve been on edge and anxious and afraid for what seems like an eternity. I never thought I would make it to where I am now. I deserve to celebrate. I deserve to feel good about myself. I deserve to be happy and proud. I’m not going to allow myself to minimize this amazing achievement. I’ve work hard. I’ve faced so many fears with courage and grace. I nearly called 911 from the bathroom floor last night! The rest of this day belongs to me. I am going to enjoy the hell out of it.
In fact, I am going to keep right on celebrating this entire weekend. I’ve earned a good rest and a reward after how much I’ve pushed myself past my comfort zone. I can’t wait to tell everyone about this incredible achievement. I’m gonna relax, get drunk, and go to a mother fucking psychic fair on Sunday with my best friend. Hell yes. I’m amazing. I am so worthy of celebration.
I have met tons of people that identify themselves as competitive. I’ve been told that is a natural part of human nature, and I suppose all living things must have a certain competitive drive in order to survive. I, myself, however, have never considered myself competitive. I’ve never been very interested in sports or even playing cards or board games. There is nothing inside of me that drives me to win. Winning a game or a sport means little to nothing to me. Yet losing still makes me feel badly about myself. Therefore there is really no benefit to me participating in competitive activities.
I’ve wondered about this aspect of myself since I became aware of it. I do think a lot of it stems from social anxiety, but there is another aspect I think might be relevant. Growing up as the youngest sibling, you learn pretty fast that the chances of you winning anything or outperforming your older sibling are slim to none. I got used to always losing every single game we would play growing up. One particular incident stands out where I was playing “Mouse Trap” with my sister and grandmother. When I lost I was so distraught and unwilling to surrender my cheese game piece that I cried and shut myself up in my room. From all of these experiences, I think I have internalized the idea that challenge and competition inevitably means failure and disappointment. This has become so ingrained in me that I feel no more likely to win games of chance than I do ones that involve skill.
To this day, I still don’t enjoy playing games at parties (drinking games are a bit more acceptable) and even the video games I play are much more about casual, steady progress and creativity than winning and losing or being challenged. Until recently this was all the further I really thought about this mindset of mine. So I don’t like games very much, that’s no big deal. I dug no deeper into the matter.
The other day, however, I realized just how much this aversion to challenge has skewed my entire worldview. After all, competition and challenge is something that we all encounter each and every day in our careers, in our relationships, and even within ourselves. How you choose to perceive and respond to these challenges has a huge impact on your self-perception and your overall quality of life. Only very recently did it occur to me that not only do I anticipate failure in games, but in the challenges I face in life as well. I’ve come to view any type of challenging situation as inherently negative, foreshadowing only failure and embarrassment, never as an opportunity for self discovery or personal growth.
I think one of the ways I can start to change this mindset, is by allowing myself space to fail. There was a wonderful example of this practice in the yoga class I did yesterday. Vrikshasana or tree pose, as well as all the other balancing poses in yoga, are a great place to start playing with this. Once a balancing posture becomes second nature and relatively easy to hold, it’s time to start pushing the limits of our balancing ability. Often a cue is given to try closing your eyes. If you’ve never tried this, it is exceptionally difficult to maintain your balance with the eyes closed. Normally, I ignore this option. I inevitably fall out of the pose and get upset with myself.
Yesterday the cue was given in a slightly different way though. Because of this, I was able to let go of the expectation or even the goal of maintaining my balance perfectly and staying in the pose for any length of time with my eyes shut. It wasn’t about how long I could manage to stay still, but simply what it would feel like to try. Once I released the pressure of perfecting the pose, I actually was able to do better at this challenge than I ever have been in the past. Not only that, but I didn’t feel any irritation or disappointment when I did fall out of the pose.
Whether you enjoy challenges or not, the fact is that you are going to be faced with them regularly. It’s not an option to avoid all challenge for the rest of you life. Rather than trying to avoid challenges, perhaps we can try to look at them in a different, healthier way. Sometimes it even helps me to imagine what it would feel like to be someone that is competitive or excited by the idea of being challenged. Despite my initial reaction, I do admit that there is a certain pleasure and even peace in being challenged. When I’m doing something new or difficult, I am usually more focused than usual. And the only thing I really have to fear is my own self criticism.
In order to let go of the outcome and my expectations for myself, I find it helpful to start off by viewing failure as a likely and acceptable option. It’s almost more pleasurable if I assume I am going to fail from the beginning. Success or failure was never the point most of the time anyway. The point of life isn’t to do everything perfectly all of the time or even most of the time. Life is about trying new things, being curious, and growing through adversity. Failure is a natural part of these things and what’s most likely holding us back from them. Once we realize that we have the choice to live happily with our mistakes and failures we can finally be free to explore and blossom as we were meant to.
Yesterday as I was winding down and the day was coming to an end, I was struck by a thought. How long do I intend to keep feeling sorry for myself? I finally found myself in a position of actually wanting to let go of all this pain and regret I’ve been clinging to for years now. I’ve simply started to get tired of it. For the first time in so long, I felt capable of putting down this weight I’ve been carrying.
I am so relieved that I’ve somehow found myself back in this state of mind. I had it once before, but I felt like back then it was a response to hitting rock bottom. I was faced with a choice between staying there at the bottom of the ocean with this weight around my neck, or freeing myself from it and finding my way back to the surface alone. That was the first time in my life that I can remember facing tragedy and deciding to be happy anyway. I had decided that I wasn’t going to waste anymore time being sad over things I couldn’t change or waiting for something that may never come before I would give myself permission to just enjoy my life.
Somehow I found myself dragging that same weight around once again. Somewhere along the line I picked it back up without realizing it. The story I’m writing of my life isn’t the story of Sisyphus, though. I have not been cursed. This burden is not my destiny. I still have free will and I am tired of choosing needless suffering.
Often I’ll look at my situation from an outsider’s point of view to get some perspective. Usually I cringe at how pathetic and pitiful I seem. But as I look at it now, that same pitiful nature appears simply inconsequential. I can look at it as if it’s sad I cling to something so far gone. But I can also look at it as something so distant and silly that it will be easy to release myself from it. From this perspective I feel almost like laughing at how simple it seems.
When did I allow myself to fall back into the shadow of that sad teenage girl who desperately needed someone else to make her whole, to validate her? That girl hasn’t been me for a long time now. I know who I am now. I am strong and smart and self-sufficient. I can give myself anything that I once thought I needed from someone or something outside of me.
I won’t chastise myself for all this time I’ve spent wallowing. Perhaps it was something I needed. However, the time has come for me to step back into the light, my own light. It is time for me to start enjoying myself again. I plan on making this coming spring yet another rebirth. To shed this tight, dry, winter skin and step back into the person I was meant to be. To step back into my power. The power to create my own dazzling sunshine of happiness. And for the first time in a long time, I am so excited.