I used to think about anxiety as something that followed me around and got in my way.
To me, it was something that made certain things feel more difficult for me than they seemed to be for my friends, as something that had the power to paralyze me, to distract me, to stand between me and the things I wanted to do or try.
When I was very little, my Dad introduced a sort of mantra into our lives. It was supposed to remind me, in moments where I felt consumed by worry, that I was actually the one in control. “No Fear, Have Fun” began as a catchphrase and became a mindset. When my family traveled to a resort that had a gymnastics course, I wanted desperately to walk on the tight-rope, but felt far too scared to actually do it. Of course, the way anxiety works means I was terrified beyond proportion — a tiny spark of realistic fear (what if I fall?) grew into totally irrational panic (I will fall, and then what?) that spiraled and spiraled until I couldn’t even put my finger on exactly what I felt so afraid of. I wanted to walk on the tight-rope, but the fear that gripped me made it feel truly impossible. “No Fear, Have Fun,” my Dad said. So, eventually, I did it. I shook the entire way across the tight-rope, but I did it. And the next day, I came back and did it all over again. On the last day of our trip, I recommended the tight-rope to a new friend.
For most of my life, I’ve felt torn between two sides of myself — the part of me that is ambitious and the part of me that fear has made cautious. I’ve been anxious about many things over the years — about staying home alone, about driving, about flying, about countless other things I knew I shouldn’t be so scared of — but the feeling I had when I saw the tight-rope is a feeling I know especially well. It’s this particular sinking feeling that comes just after I’ve gotten excited about something — a tiny signal that panic is on its way.
For a long time, this feeling was enormous. I would decide I wanted to try something new – like having a sleepover – and then the feeling would come, this all-encompassing, overwhelming “what have I gotten myself into” sense of alarm.
I convinced myself that fear was something I had to beat down. That, in order to be brave and to do the things I wanted, I would have to stop feeling scared all together. When I was fifteen and my school announced a service-learning trip to Tanzania, I jumped at the chance to apply. When I was approved, I felt that same familiar panic creeping in. In the months before I left, I felt terrified, and then I felt terrified about feeling terrified. I was so afraid of what being afraid meant — I convinced myself I’d be paralyzingly scared once we got there, and I believed, to my core, that I couldn’t go until I felt not a single ounce of fear.
I was wrong.
Somewhere along the way, I realized the “No Fear, Have Fun,” mantra didn’t actually mean no fear. Being afraid is, whether I like it or not, is a huge part of my identity. I put so much pressure on myself to eliminate fear — the truth was, I wasn’t going to head off into the unknown unafraid. Most people, even those without anxiety, don’t head out to tackle something new without worrying.
“No Fear, Have Fun,” didn’t mean beating down fear, I realized, it meant expecting fear, knowing it would come, and living anyway. When I said “No Fear, Have Fun,” I wasn’t saying I wouldn’t be afraid, I was saying there was no way fear would stand between me and seeing a movie, or going on a class trip, or scuba diving. “No Fear, Have Fun,” reminded me, as I shook in the car on the way to move into my college dorm room, that it made sense that I felt scared, but that I would make my bed and meet my roommate anyway. So, I started thinking of fear as something I could leave a little room for in my suitcase. When I set out for somewhere new, I realized, I could acknowledge that fear was likely going to be part of my journey there. The more I began to see fear this way, the less awful it felt. I had spent so much time afraid of being afraid that I had given fear all of this power; each time I thought of fear as something I could feel and then move on from (or even feel and not be able to move on from, but still do the thing I set out to anyway), I gained a little bit of my own power back.
Fear may very well always be part of how I process things, how I get ready for change or how I anticipate something, but being scared doesn’t make anything impossible. Now, when I think of “No Fear, Have Fun,” I imagine looking fear in the eye and inviting it along for the ride. It has come with me on plane rides, to new jobs, and to last days in places I love, through making difficult decisions, and learning to navigate new cities. Fear, I know, may always join me on my way, but it won’t stop me from going somewhere.