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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fear

I seem to spend large chunks of my daily life dreading things.

Here are some examples of Things I Dread:

  1. Situations which require me to speak a foreign language
  2. Travelling/dining out/attending social events with my children
  3. Social events generally
  4. House guests, especially people visiting from overseas
  5. Answering my own phone, even when it's a close friend 
  6. Having to complete multiple tasks/commitments within in a limited time
  7. 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.


10 comments:

  1. I was wondering how you were going......I wanted to tell you that I was reading a book the other day about brain plasticity. It recommended one of the best things you can do as an adult to defer dementia, illness Alzheimers etc is to learn a foreign language! See- not only do you have to do it because you are immersed, but you are created positive changes in your brain at the same time!! lucky you! the rest of us need more time doing sudoku! lol.....

    I am sorry that you experience this fear. I think my son is pretty similar to you in this way. I know you will work through it, but as always, If you want any recommendations let me know.

    love

    K

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    1. I have to say that all this time I never realised I was increasing my brain plasticity :)

      Thanks so much for the recommendations you sent me about overcoming these fears. I'm working on it...

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  2. I wish I had some words of wisdom here. I am the opposite, I love to be home, reading, writing, working, cooking...whatever. Though I will attend social events and enjoy them marginally, I cant wait to get back to my home!! I do applaud you though, because you certainly take on tasks I wouldn't dream of - and obviously accomplish them with aplomb. Best of luck is about all I can say!

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    1. Karyn, you're so sweet. I wouldn't say I accomplish any of these things with aplomb, but I do really enjoy doing them, despite the dread with which I anticipate them! It's so nonsensical, really. I do love quiet moments at home, too, but after a while I itch to be out with other people, doing stuff!

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  3. I have written a similar post about dreading The Unknown. I was born a planner and was raised by two planners. I used to plan my life years ahead. I saved up money for 3 years before I could finally go to Finland for the first time. Even a close friend of mine used to say how crazy it seemed for her - this planner mind of mine. Ever since I moved to Finland, though, I had started becoming more relaxed 'coz there was nothing I could have planned for - dunno when a Finnish course would start, dunno when I could get a job, etc. etc.

    However, I think in my case the fear of the unknown isn't due to fear of failure, but 'coz I don't want to disappoint people. Over time, though, I think I've started to let go of this ideal bit by bit 'coz I realize even more now that I can't please everybody no matter how much/hard I try. What matters most is just try to do my best and try to be as thoughtful as I can be. If that's not enough, then I can't do more than that and that's a fact I should just accept.

    Sorry, now I'm rambling here he he...anyhow, I LOVED the conclusion of this post and that everything worked out well in the end. I'm actually more like Elena. I'm not a people person and I get mentally exhausted if I spend too much time with other people that I don't know very well.

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    1. Amel, you seem like such a kind and thoughtful person that I can't believe you ever disappoint anyone. You're right, though, that no one can please everyone all of the time, and to be honest I think that's part of my whole fear of failure thing - I fear that my "performance" in given situations won't meet my expectations, or those of others. As you say, all we can do in life is to try our best. Our best might be something different depending on the day, and that's ok.

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    2. Ohhhh...I made SO MANY mistakes when I first started working in my current workplace, but I find that many people are really forgiving towards my mistakes, so I was thinking to myself, "Why do I beat myself up when they've probably forgotten my so-called failures?"

      But even without making mistakes, I learnt that you could still find the wrong things to say/do not because I do want to hurt that person. For example: one time I gave a compliment to a friend. I meant every single word I said, but she didn't take it too well 'coz in her mind, the quality that I mentioned was viewed negatively. From then on I realized that I can't please everyone and I'm bound to disappoint someone in my daily life (they may not let me know that I've done so, but still...)

      But anyway, now I think I've accepted that fact better than before. I must tell you that the compliment incident really opened my eyes. :-D THANK YOU SO MUCH for your kind words. I've been surrounded with SO many kind and thoughtful people and I'm trying to learn from them as best as I can. :-D I've got so many wonderful teachers along the way. :-D

      This is one example: Ruining My MIL's Tupperware

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    3. Your MIL sounds absolutely wonderful. ah, I could totally feel your anxiety about the Tupperware, and how you were dreading telling her because you felt she'd be disappointed. People like your MIL are such a great influence on panicky types like me - they teach us all to put things in perspective. When people (like you) are kind and considerate and respectful, small mistakes involving Tupperware should be overlooked!
      btw, I only just figured out why you refer to your husband as "R2"! :) duh!!

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  4. Oh I know how you feel. I hate answering the phone and sometimes I get worked up by new challenges. But I have learnt to stand back a bit and say, well, what's the worst that can happen if I organize some social event? Someone says my food sucks hairy balls, so what? And it sort of puts it all in perspective. I am an introvert some days and an extrovert on other days - I sort of bounce from reclusiveness to excessive sociability every frew months - sort of bipolar mum I guess!

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    1. EmmaK, thanks so much for stopping by! You're absolutely right about the need to step back and get perspective. A friend of mine who found herself stressed out at work (in IT) at one point started writing "No One Is Going To Die" at the end of her emails, to remind herself and her co-workers to keep things in perspective. It worked! :)

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