When I was a little girl, I suffered a fairly serious foot injury as a result of a bicycle accident at the bottom of my grandparents’ driveway. Fortunately, I healed and have no permanent damage except for a nasty scar, but I spent that entire summer having to soak my foot several times a day. I was miserable being stuck inside with a gaping hole in my foot, and feeling left out that my friends were outside playing or swimming at the pool. So for the next few years, I avoided a bicycle out of fear that it would take me out of commission from everything else that I enjoyed.
As I have gotten older, I have developed a huge fondness for cycling, and my bicycle has actually taught me a lot about fear. For instance, while I was on a recent bike ride, it started to rain. I wasn’t yet that far from home, but worrying about the sudden thunderstorms of summer, I decided to turn back and change my route to circle my neighborhood in case the weather deteriorated. While I was riding, I started to think about how this pattern reflects many other areas of my life. When something slightly different or threatening starts to happen, I often become afraid that something much worse will follow, and sometimes I even change my course to not stray too far from what is familiar and safe. How sad is it when I allow my fear of what might happen dictate my ability to leave my comfort zone? And even sadder, what am I missing by worrying that a storm may come, when a good thunderstorm can actually be fun?
In Thom Rutledge’s book Embracing Fear, he proposes that fear is healthy when it is the rational kind and is warning us of some real and imminent danger, yet unhealthy when it is neurotic and based on the past or our imagination. Healthy fear is quiet unless there is something actually threatening our safety, then it is very clear about what we are to do. Unhealthy fear is that constant chatter in our heads warning us about what could happen, even though we may have no evidence to prove it ever will, and it certainly isn’t at the moment.
Back to my bike. Healthy fear was engaged a few weeks ago when a deer ran out in front of me on a bike ride, and I had to make a snap decision whether to go right, go left, or try to stop. The fear was very clear in its message – watch what the deer does, and do the opposite. Unhealthy fear would be in play if I never rode my bike on that road again, because I was afraid a deer might run out in front of me. I have, and it hasn’t. And besides that, if I handled the situation the first time, I certainly could if it happened again.
So today I went on a ride, and was listening to that neurotic fear chatting away in my head about a totally different situation in my life. “What if … You better not … You know what’s going to happen if …” You get the picture.
As is fairly common on my bike rides, I had an epiphany as I started to descend a hill over a section of broken pavement. How much scarier is it for me to go fast down this hill, than it was to climb it about an hour ago? Translation: Even though nothing in my life is a huge struggle at the moment and I’m basically “coasting,” I am more comfortable when things are hard and I’m forced to climb and claw my way to the top. WOW… there is nothing to be afraid of staring me in the face, and yet I had allowed myself to listen to this neurotic chatter about fear that was taking up valuable space in my head, for no reason. Am I really that afraid of coasting along, allowing things to happen, and enjoying the ride?
The answer is NO. I’m not afraid, and I am grateful for the wisdom that came from that descent.
Thom begins the first chapter of his book with a quote by Oriah Mountain Dreamer: “There is only one freedom: the freedom from fear.” Ask yourself this question – do you feel free from fear? Can you listen to your fear and determine if it’s a healthy warning or neurotic chatter? What would you be doing in your life if you weren’t afraid?
At Southlake Counseling, we understand fear and how to listen to it. If you are troubled by fear and want to take the first step in your personal freedom from it, schedule an appointment with us today.