Fear factor

By Anna Maxted

A poignant blog shows just what an impact fear can have on women’s lives and dreams. Anna Maxted — no stranger to crippling anxiety — is prompted to ask ... What are we all so afraid of?

One of many photos from the 'If U Weren't Afraid' Tumblr. Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com
One of many photos from the 'If U Weren't Afraid' Tumblr. Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com

A boy with whom I went to primary school is head of a huge corporation. He is so familiar, so like me, and when I look at him I see a 6-year-old. But he doesn't see a 6-year-old and that is the difference between us. I still relate to the child; he feels adult, equal, capable - he is unafraid.

I look with a kind of wonder at people who are booming with confidence.

When you are afraid, your mind takes crazy, long jumps to the worst scenario. Nebulous fear curls around me like smoke: fear of misunderstanding my tax form and incurring a ruinous fine; the postman tripping on our path and suing; opening the doctor's letter that has sat on my desk for weeks; my children hitting their heads on concrete; my husband dying in a car accident; me saying something breathtakingly stupid at a party. For instance (paralysed by social terror on meeting the father of my son's friend): "You must be Stanley's mum!"

Trouble is, if you're scared, your fears often materialise. It's as if you will them into existence. So there's a sense of recognition and disbelief, of sadness, pity, admiration and joy on seeing the women on the blog If U Weren't Afraid holding their placards full of dreams, citing what they'd do or be if fear didn't cripple them.

The blog is hosted by Lean In, the campaign run by Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, to offer women the inspiration and support to achieve their goals. They need it - studies show young women are less ambitious than men, avoid leadership roles, and are afraid to speak up.

The mouthy Apprentice-style contes-tant, with her brutish instinct for survival but scant humanity may be prevalent on reality television, but a more widespread reality is the nuanced, thoughtful woman, who won't raise a hand in class as she's frightened of being laughed at - a fear ridiculous but rife.

I was such a student, and even now, decades after college, I hesitate to speak out. I almost expect derision. Then I blush, my petty fears rendered trivial when I read a heartbreaking anonymous post: "I would tell my story without fear of being told that it was my fault that I was raped and abused."

The luxury of fretting over what others think is hauled into focus. Sometimes you just have to let go - risk regret. There are women who yearn to write, sing, draw, dance - you marvel at their hesitancy; it's all possible, cram it in!

Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com
Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com

Still, it's oddly comforting to realise that so many of us are pinned down by these Lilliputian fears. We are surrounded by braggarts whose loud mouths propel their thin talent as far as the wind carries. They have no self-awareness, no fear of being judged.

But if you fear what others think and how they might critique your failures, you fail because you don't dare try.

Timidity creeps up on you. I look back in awe at the swagger of my late teens; a confidence built on youth and false bravado. My parents wanted me to attend college in London, and live at home. I was bent on escape. To my dismay, I was offered an interview to read English at King's College, London.

I informed the stunned interviewers that I'd like them to reject me. "We were going to offer you a place," spluttered the faculty head. I replied, heart pounding, scarlet-faced, "I'd prefer a rejection."

I dared, I won: I went away to university, far from my sweetly anxious parents, and had a blast.

A decade later my father died. The world and my place within it felt precarious. I became jittery. Fear fumbled opportunity. Shortly afterwards my first novel succeeded in the United States, and Fox Television asked me to pitch ideas for a sitcom. The executive suggested a theme such as "people who share a shrink".

In retrospect, I absolutely should have proposed a sitcom about people who share a shrink. Here's what I proposed: nothing. I didn't have the nerve.

It is not always wise to have a clear view of your limitations, because you won't exceed them. We women who doubt ourselves aren't coy, needy, silly; there's a moral aspect to our fear. A friend breezily took busloads of tourists around Siena, Prague, Amsterdam, having never set foot in those cities before. She arrived with them on the coach, having memorised a slew of guide books. I admired her courage.

"Or is that cheating people?" said my husband - a man who, physically, is unafraid, who challenges the bully haranguing the waitress, who sees injustice and steps in. Yet, years ago, invited to lunch by an emeritus professor of philosophy at Cambridge University, he feared he wasn't good enough, and didn't go. We fear cheating others, but end up cheating ourselves.

If I weren't afraid, I'd take our children to live in Barbados. We considered it, years ago: we rented a beachside cottage, enrolled our son in the local primary, canvassed expats for opinion, but I was a girl who was scared of going off-piste.

"What is the worst that could happen?" is not a futile question. Your career might crumble, you'd run out of cash, your kids would suffer. A friend invested in a business that failed, and financial problems ensued. Not all fears are baseless.

The Lean In project challenges women to identify their ambition, then asks, 'Why aren't you doing this already?' - as if the answer wasn't evident. "I'd march into my boss' office and ask for more money," declares one woman.

I silently agree, feel the internal cringe of such a situation, then ask myself sternly would a man care - as if all men are in fact one fearless person. But these are hungry years, so we bite our lip on our dissatisfactions. I'm sure daring to confront your boss is morally satisfying as you stand in line at the employment centre.

Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com
Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com

We mustn't call our caution cowardice; sometimes it's emotional intelligence.

But other unfulfilled wishes on If You Weren't Afraid tug at the heart: "I would tell friends how I really feel." - the lingering pain of being misunderstood by those you love. Some confessions showed me how far I've come: "I would stop dieting ... even if it meant being a size 12."

At this, I feel like a village elder: Oh my dear, come now. People who advise that a baked potato should not be consumed after 6pm make me want to eat an entire cheesecake directly before bed.

You see, I overcame my fear of food after a spate of anorexia long ago: a distraction, the wordless expression of a terror of not being good enough for life.

I also overcame my fear of trusting people; my poor husband-to-be performed like a seal to convince me he meant it - I was more comfortable with idiots. I didn't want intimacy; it was too risky. So I sought out unsuitable men, then blamed them for leaving.

You gaze at this parade of women on If U Weren't Afraid and suddenly understand that your fears are ordinary, honest. And yet, how sad to see those discarded dreams. While we can't all sashay off to eat, pray, love when we have a family and a mortgage, and don't wish to be forced to give away the cat and move our children to a hostel, we have to consider if something more substantial than fear is holding us back, such as sense, or if our fear is merely resistance and needs to be dismissed.

I'm working on my eighth novel - still a terrifying endeavour. My first effort was rubbish and the agent rejected it, which was a good thing. You need to wallow in the sting of failure, the misery and shameful feel of it, understand what you were frightened of - like attending an arachnophobia course at the zoo and holding a tarantula.

Forensically examining the substance of your terror can be a priceless experience. An educational psychologist told me, a week before Andy Murray won Wimbledon, that he would triumph because he'd accepted losing, confronted his worst fear - and could overcome it.

We fear because we understand the complexities of reaching a goal, but that's necessary to succeed. It's only when you don't learn from failure that you become angry, exist in a frozen state of agitation. You can't immerse yourself in life, jump in; you hover fearfully at the edge.

The responsibility of keeping my children alive poisoned me with terror to the point that I did jump in: fear curdled into madness and I leaped, fully clothed, into a swimming-pool to rescue my 4-year-old who'd plopped in without water-wings.

Mid-air, I realised my son was bobbing to the surface. Had I not interfered, he'd have swum. I realised I needed to rediscover my courage. Intangible fear, insidious as knotweed, had strangled serenity.

Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com
Photo / ifuwerentafraid.tumblr.com

You hope for these women, you will them to succeed, and in wishing for them, you wish for yourself. Courage is to fear but try regardless, to blunder on, speak up, feel foolish, squash it. So what if fear lies beneath? Fear is part of a full life, as is loss and risk. If we love, we will grieve - we suffer, regardless of feeling fear or not.

I tell my son, "If you didn't run and jump, you wouldn't get hurt, you'd be bored, sitting on a sofa with no bruised knee. But you love climbing, exploring - the knocks are worth it for the joy."

So I bite my tongue, and let the children climb to the top of every tree. I refuse to infect them with my fear; instead, I learn from them - try, because if you think you can do it, you probably can.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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