Dancing with Fear

A few weeks ago, as I was taking the Groove Facilitator Training via zoom, the organizer told us we had to do an iPod Groove. As she explained that we were to put our headphones in, play our favourite song, dance to it wholeheartedly in the most public place we could access in that moment, I felt a huge ball of anxiety form in my throat. My body tensed up, I felt a wave of nausea come over me as I broke out in a sweat and tears welled up in my eyes.

Fear.

“Fear is the anticipation of future pain and it is one of our most primitive forms of survival”, writes Tara Brach in her book Radical Acceptance.

In that moment, as chemicals flooded my body and as I recognized the symptoms and sensations I now readily label as “anxiety”, my mind was quick to correlate stories and thoughts to this physical experience.

“You’re going to embarrass yourself”, my mind told me. “People will think you are crazy. You won’t be able to survive the pain of embarrassment. It’s not worth exposing yourself. Play it safe. You always get hurt when you do weird things. Why do something “just for fun”? If there’s nothing to be gained in status or popular acceptance, what’s the point?”.

These stories are well rehearsed in my mind and when I’m not commited to a daily mindfulness practice, they tend to go unnoticed and unchecked. They slip right from my subconscious to parts of my brain that assume them as fact.

Despite being mindful and aware that day, that these stories in my head were just fear shouting loudely at me, I still struggled to push past this fear and get outside, dancing all alone to music noone else could hear.

In and around that time, life had this funny way of highlighting the theme of fear in so many aspects of my life. It almost felt like life was laughing at me, taunting me, challenging me with fear so that I could once and for all learn to not let fear stop me.

I was listening to Tara Brach’s audiobook Radical Acceptance that week and had been listening to the chapter “Opening our heart in the face of fear”.

In Groove training, we talked about fears we developed around dancing and our appearance, and how much fear stopped us from dancing, but also in so many other aspects of our lives.

Fear came up in conversations with my therapist that week, and she recommended I listen to a talk by Pema Chödrön about moving from fear to fearlessness.

Alright, life. I get it.

So I put my shoes on and grabbed my phone, plugged it my earphones and headed out the door.

At least, I meant to head out the door. But I found myself paralyzed, feet cemented to the floor, unable to push myself to step outside and start dancing.

Nausea hit again, as anguish built in my chest.

“Come on, Michèle, just f*cking do it!” I told myself.

But I simply couldn’t. So I started dancing inside – and by dancing I mean pathetically swaying my hips from side to side because that’s the most my body could do in that moment. It felt horrible and awkward and embarassing (not that anyone was around). But I danced … ish.

Eventually I mustered up the courage to step out onto the screened-in porch. I felt a bit more exposed and vulnerable, but protected a bit by the shelter of the porch. So I danced, not wholeheartedly, but I danced even though I felt horrified and wanted to crawl back inside and hide away.

After a while, heart pounding and palms sweating, I told myself f*ck it and I stepped outside and started walking down the driveway. I walked across the street, down the road and onto the bridge that crosses the waterway in front of our house.

I placed my phone on the ground, pressed play and started dancing on the bridge as cars drove by, people gawking at me with their mouths wide open.

I felt petrified. Embarrassed. Crazy.

But I kept dancing as more cars drove by. And at some point, after someone starred with an exceptionally horrified look on their face, I let out a laugh.

It was a nervous laugh, but a release of tension none the less. I laughed as I imagined what this person could possibly have thought as she watched me, but mostly I laughed because I realized it really didn’t matter what that person thought.

When the song ended, I grabbed my phone and almost ran back to the safety of my living room.

That’s was NOT fun, I thought.

But, I had done it. I had pushed past the fear and did something that was way out of my comfort zone.

Over the following days, as I reflected on that exercise, I came to realize just how much fear stops me in life. And also how much fear is likely the source of so many “bad” habits I just can’t seem to shake!

Pema Chödrön explains that when we are faced with fear, we often reach for the wrong things. Even though we know these things may actually bring us more heartache, for whatever reason, we still reach for those things.

Food, booze, sex, drugs, sleep, work, busyness, procrastination, phones, social media, isolation, avoidance.

Why do we do that? And why are we so compelled to do these things?

Chödrön further explains that the reason we struggle so much is because we’ve received so much security from our habits. The outcomes are predictable. Familiarity is comforting.

We can’t underestimate the intensity of the emotions that arise when we are faced with fear, therefore we can’t underestimate the BRAVERY it takes to let go of these habits or addictions.

There’s a quote by Maya Angelou that I love, but that has also made me feel at times thoroughly inadequate.

“When we know better, we do better” – Maya Angelou.

But f*ck I’ve known better for a while now, so how come I can’t get myself to do better? What is wrong with me that I can’t just alter my behaviour when I know so well how much these behaviours are unhelpful!?

Tory Eletto, a write and therapist from New York recently shared a video on her Instagram page. She talks about the importance of meeting ourselves with compassion, especially in moments when we are struggling to change patterns and behaviours we are trying to overcome.

She explains that this compassion is how we fill the gap between what we know, and what we do.

So how can we begin to find compassion for ourselves and interact with fear in a different way?

Instead of avoiding everything that scares us, and instead of numbing the fear with whatever addiction or habit we may have, can we actually invite fear into our awareness?

Can we create space for us to experience this fear, explore how it feels in our bodies while being kind to ourselves?

Looking back on the iPod exercise, it may have been more helpful if I had brought some extra compassion when faced with fear.

As I experienced the surge of adrenaline and anxiety, and as invasive thoughts flooded my awareness, maybe I could have met myself with more kindness, reminding myself of how scary it is to put myself out there, but that I was safe.

My work as a nurse practitioner and the ups and downs of the dating world are two other significant sources of fear in my life.

I worry I will miss something big and that someone will suffer because of it. I worry I’m doing more harm than good, that I’m not smart enough to hold down this job and that I’ll be found out and reprimanded by the scary college of nurses of Ontario.

I worry that I’ll never find a partner, that I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life alone. I worry that I’m to blame for not having found a loving partner. I worry that something is terribly wrong with me.

As you see, fear is ever present in my life. And I imagine that it’s ever present in many others’ life as well.

My hope is that with time, and with lots of compassion, we can learn to interact with this fear.

Rather than avoiding the things that trigger fear, and rather than numbing our fear with addictions and unhelpful behavior, maybe we can start to practice self compassion as we learn to truly feel fear yet not let it take control of our lives.

May we all find the bravery required to step outside of our comfort zones, walk out onto that bridge, and dance with our fear!

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