When I was three or four, my mum had a minor operation and had to stay in hospital overnight. I was fuzzy on the details, scared she wouldn’t come back, and afraid to tell my dad how much I missed her in case it hurt his feelings. So I ran upstairs and squeezed myself into the space underneath my chest of drawers so I could cry without him knowing.
That one memory sums up my entire approach to life: when things get rough, curl up in a ball, contain your feelings, and hope nobody notices you. In my career, I long for some steady gigs so I don’t have to keep trying to sell myself. I want my health to improve, but I’m scared of the consequences it could bring. When I’m fully participating in the world, it feels like I’m standing naked in bright sunlight, with all my flaws exposed. (But that could be because I’m always nude.)
When I try something new or different and it goes wrong, I feel much worse than if I’d never tried at all. As horrible as my horrible symptoms are, they provide some security, or at least the illusion of it. I get to do the same things, day in and day out, and feel relatively OK. When things change, I assume everything’s going to hell, and descend into panic.
And it doesn’t have to be a big change. Starting yoga might seem pretty minor — it’s just a 90 minute class once a week. But it’s meant reorganising when I work, rest, shower, have shopping delivered, all kinds of stuff, because otherwise I’d be too exhausted to go.
When my yoga teacher told me it would help if I did Supta Baddha Konasana at home every night, I felt anxious all over again because I knew I was going to have to change my evening routine. What if I shook things up and ended up exhausted? What if didn’t have time for the things I needed to do? What if it actually led to me feeling better and meant I’d have to transform my whole life?(!!!)
I knew there was no real substance to these worries, that my mind was just doing its usual ticker tape of FEARFEARFEARFEARFEAR, but it felt real. It’s been such to struggle to get here that I’m reluctant to do anything differently. One of the reasons it’s so hard to make meaningful long-term changes is that when you start, for a while there it feels like life is getting worse.
I’ve got to the point now where I’m OK with doing yoga almost every night (I aim for five days a week so I have a target I can exceed, rather than one I’ll inevitably occasionally miss). But at first that one little change made me shake with fear.
Things were different, I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I had to lie there with no distractions. It brought up all my negative emotions, made me aware of just how far I have to go, and I’d lie on the mat with tears rolling down my cheeks. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that that I didn’t have to enjoy it, I just had to DO it.
Then, via Twitter, I came across an old post of Danielle Laporte’s about change, and it was exactly what I needed to read, especially this:
“When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, there is a stage in its metamorphosis where it is completely liquified… You can’t tell what it was, or what it will become.”
It’s a great metaphor, and a reminder that nature works in weird ways. Now when I feel terrible about making a change or doing something that might make me feel worse in the short term, I remind myself that this is how it’s supposed to be. I take a deep breath, and I think: LIQUIFY.
Of course, that one insight hasn’t changed how I feel or made me suddenly able to cope with things I find challenging. But it is helping me to edge forward. It helps to think of my main life goal as “progress” rather than “never feeling bad”.
I’m constantly being called back to that safe space under the table of drawers where no one will find me. But the thing is, I haven’t got time. Life goes quickly and one day I’ll look back and see all the things I’ve avoided out of fear, and “But someone might be mean to me!” will seem like far less of a good excuse than it does right now.
Once you realise that any life worth living is supposed to feel all shaken up instead of settled and safe, things start to seem almost as potentially exciting as they are potentially terrifying.
I’m not forcing myself to do every scary thing I can think of, but I am starting to entice myself back into the world I’ve spent a long time trying to escape. I’m choosing to believe that my life can improve, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I’m taking a deep breath, and I’m letting myself melt.
Image: Morgue File, which sounds gruesome but isn’t. (+ a teeny bit of Photoshop).
After words:: Serendipitously, after I’d finished drafting this post, I saw Martha Beck had shared an old post of hers on Facebook, The Willingness Factor: Learn to Avoid Avoidance, and it’s typically brilliant. (“…Life, as Melanie so astutely commented, is dangerous. It’ll upset you every few minutes or so, sometimes mildly, sometimes apocalyptically.”)