Here are some examples of Things I Dread:
- Situations which require me to speak a foreign language
- Travelling/dining out/attending social events with my children
- Social events generally
- House guests, especially people visiting from overseas
- Answering my own phone, even when it's a close friend
- Having to complete multiple tasks/commitments within in a limited time
- Big life changes and unfamiliar tasks/situations (actually, my fear of The Unknown goes beyond dread, and is practically a phobia)
In short, I dread just about everything except sitting at home by myself and communicating with no one. All this irrational dread bothers me, especially since many of the examples above are regular, even daily occurrences in my life.
Let me clarify one point. Most, if not ALL the things that I dread, are things I truly enjoy doing once I’m actually doing them. It’s just the thought of doing them that makes me shudder.
Recently, I finally unearthed the common thread running through the things I dread. They are all things that require me to exert myself – mentally, socially, physically, or emotionally. Deep down inside my psyche a belligerent little voice badgers me constantly, insisting that anything except 100% exertion and a perfect performance equates with failure. In consequence, just the thought of doing stuff makes me anxious and exhausted. What a fricking surprise.
No wonder I bloody-well never want to do anything.
Recently, I was invited to be on the board of the Japanese school that my daughter attends once a week. I was additionally offered the responsibility of organizing the school’s annual excursion. In the spirit of doing my fair share, I felt compelled to say yes.
I was instantly filled with dread.
I panicked myself with visions of endless meetings and correspondence in Japanese, rife with awkward moments and shameful linguistic errors. I worked myself up over the fearsome challenge of meeting the exceptionally high standards of the Japanese school community (who are known for their obsessive attention to detail and their quest for perfection in all things). What did me in most of all, though, was the fact that I’d never done anything quite like this before, making it that most feared of fearful things – The Unknown.
Long story short, I made myself almost physically sick worrying about all this Board stuff. I am embarrassed to admit that I actually thought seriously about taking my child out of the school as an avoidance strategy.
As usual, I dealt with my fear by launching myself into girly-swot-type feverish over-preparation. I made lists, I printed out a stack of relevant correspondence and documents, and I found myself a neat little file in which to store it all. I spent an inordinately long time composing a polite email in (what I hoped was) reasonably correct Japanese to the five other parents who had volunteered to help out as Excursion Committee Members. I planned what I would wear to the initial meetings of the Board and the Excursion Committee. I was determined to do anything I could to avoid “failing”.
Finally, I was as ready as I’d ever be to throw myself into the fray. I was still terrified, but at least I had charted the four corners of my fear. I was ready to be laughed at and criticized and pitied.
And quelle surprise, yllätys yllätys - the dreaded First Meeting of the Excursion Committee did not result in my painful death by cruel Japanese firing squad. It was a lovely chat with five friendly, funny, terrific mums. At the outset I apologised for my poor level of Japanese and was instantly swamped with kind comments about how nicely I wrote/spoke. Everyone had great ideas about where we should have the excursion, and we had a productive discussion. The meeting was, frankly, enjoyable, as was the initial board meeting. I was incredulous to realise that I was possibly even going to enjoy this new role.
Why the hell couldn’t I have cultivated that level of positive optimism from the outset?
I don’t get energy from staying at home quietly by myself, doing nothing. I am an extrovert who literally NEEDS constant social interaction to remain happy and invigorated. I get a kick out of succeeding at difficult tasks and projects. I am irresistibly drawn to language-learning, and have lived literally half my life in countries where English is not a national language.
Why, then, can I not stop the cycle of fear and pressure which prevents me from looking forward to all the things I enjoy doing? It's ridiculous that I get crippling performance anxiety even though I truly love the performing.
Obviously, retraining my psyche will be a long-term project. What I need to learn is this: there is, actually, no such thing as failure (unless I keep bloody telling myself that there is). Every day, human beings hit rock-bottom and resolutely start again from scratch, and they end up doing just fine, and if I’m honest, I have never in my life experienced anything even close to “rock-bottom”.
It’s ok to want to do things well, and it’s ok to prepare diligently for situations where preparation is necessary or possible, but after that life is just life. There will be days when I don’t try as hard as I could at particular things, because that day something else in my life is occupying a higher priority, and because it is inhuman and freakish and unenjoyable to put 100% into everything all of the time. And even when I do put in a stellar effort, sometimes situations will play out in a way that leaves me bitterly disappointed in myself or others. None of this is good or bad. It just is.
If I live in dread I will die having lived in dread.
That would really suck.