How I stopped letting my fear ward off love
You know the part in The Velveteen Rabbit where the Skin Horse explains what it's like to be real? That always makes me cry. You're worn out, falling apart, in pain—but it doesn't matter because you're real.
Somehow I was never convinced about that last part. I always got stuck on worn out, falling apart, and in pain. Destined for the burn pile.
My biggest fear has always been that I'd be replaced. People would tire of me and find someone newer, shinier, more interesting. In my three-year-old mind, that's what happened when my sister was born. I wasn't cute enough or tiny enough any more, so they went out and got a new baby. They still let me hang around, but I was The One no more. The fear has been stuck in my head ever since.
This fear has been reinforced throughout my life. People come and go, relationships start and end. But for me, each ending was further proof that I would always be cast aside or lose everyone I cared about. I lost my spot in the jazz band senior year—auditioned out by a freshman who was better than me. My best friend from college quit speaking to me and disappeared without explanation. After years of insecurity with a guy I saw as my soul mate, I finally relaxed into the belief that he wouldn't leave me. He was gone within six months.
What do you do? I built a wall.
No matter who I was talking to, I tried to be what they would like. I was cheerful and helpful. Agreeable. Friendly. A good listener.
Listening was the best because it was safe, and people love it when you listen to them. That was my favorite trick: avoid talking whenever possible. Then you won't drive people away.
The problem is, people still left. Getting the other person to talk is a great skill for job interviews, and being agreeable and helpful wins the hearts of committee chairs. But for friendships and romance, it's problematic.
It's hard to have a relationship with someone who won't share herself. It gets old to be the only one with an opinion, the only one willing to be vulnerable, the only one willing to be known.
In my quest to be safe and loved, I was unwittingly ensuring that I would never have what I truly wanted: a deep, intimate relationship where I was loved for myself. Instead, everything started out great. People loved the exhilaration of being with an adoring listener who seemingly shared all their tastes. Then a slow decline began. By the end of two years, the relationship would be feeble and broken, starved to death. And then it would end. Another brick in the wall.
Things got so bad, I realized something had to change. No matter who I was with or how different they were, the relationship was always the same. The one thing in common was me.
I asked for advice. When I heard that I needed to open up and be real with people, I thought it was the craziest thing I'd ever heard.
As I thought back over my relationship history, I could remember each person asking me what was wrong, begging me to tell them how I felt or what I wanted, or anything of substance.
I remembered feeling like nobody understood me.
I remembered feeling isolated, even in the most loving embrace.
At the time, I thought that was how things worked. Weren't all relationships that way? But looking back, it became clear that my relationships couldn't be any other way, because I was never really in those relationships. I hardly knew who I was or what I wanted myself—how could anyone else, when I spent so much effort making sure they could never see it?
Opening up is the scariest thing I've ever done. Every time I sent an email with a real opinion or a version of a story that showed myself in a less-than-perfect light, I cringed, expecting that it might be my last contact with the recipient.
But a funny thing happened. Nobody freaked out and dropped me. Nobody even seemed surprised at the things I said, let alone shocked.
In fact, my relationships suddenly started getting a whole lot deeper.
My friends started opening up to me more than they ever had. I got braver and started sharing deeper confidences, too.
I thought I had close friendships before, but it was nothing compared to how close they got when I started being real. For the first time, I felt truly accepted.
When you let people see your real self, you suddenly lose a huge worry. You don't have to watch what you say or wonder what would happen if people knew what you were really like. You know. It's incredibly freeing.
All the time I hid myself to avoid losing people's love, I ensured that none of my relationships would ever take root. It's the same with a lot of things. If you avoid trying something new because you're afraid you won't be good at it, you never learn and become good at it. If you avoid following your dream because you're afraid it might not work, you don't try, and you never achieve your dream. Obeying fear often produces exactly the result we were afraid of! It's only when we act in the face of fear that we have a chance at what we want.
Sometimes what scares us is what we need most. If you'd like some help, check out my short, free guide: "What's Stopping You?" It includes how to figure out what's holding you back, how to know whether you should take a risk or listen to your fears (they are right some of the time!), and what to do to make your efforts more likely to succeed.
|Cara Stein is the founder of 17000 Days, a blog about remembering that life is short and making your best days a common occurrence. She's a big believer in self-reinvention and building your ideal life for yourself. Her latest adventure is Beyond Fear, a workshop on overcoming your fears. |
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