Boredom, anger, sadness, or fear are not ‘yours,’ not personal. They are conditions of the human mind. They come and go. Nothing that comes and goes is you. ~ Eckhart Tolle
Letting go of fear has been one of my most difficult challenges. I am not talking about a healthy dose of fear that keeps you safe, but rather the fear that keeps you from living fully. The funny thing about fears are they tend to revolve around the future, not current situations. How many of us spend time predicting and worrying about things that may or may not occur? In our heads we make up stories and anticipate conversations that we may have. Yet, it ends up being wasted time because the future is what it will be, we cannot control it. Fear holds us back, causes anxiety, and takes joy out of our present.
My decision to leave the 9-5 hamster wheel was one of the most difficult ones I have made. I chose to leave that path for an uncertain one based on a gut feeling that it was how I was going to find true happiness and meaning in life. But it required me to face many of my fears head on. What if this unknown path did not work out? What if I could not figure out how to make money? What if I lose my value? What if I don’t find success in my new venture? What will people think? What if…?
I understood my fear of not making enough money, but why was I afraid of the rest? When did my happiness and meaning in life depend on my job and what other people think of me? And what defines success anyway? While pondering these questions, I realized that the metric I was using to determine my value was based on familial, cultural, and societal expectations. Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher, writer, and speaker states, “If you live only in one culture for the first 20 years of your life, you become conditioned without knowing it.” I was definitely conditioned by my upbringing, community, and society, both consciously and subconsciously. While growing up, whether I would go to college and then graduate school was never a question, but an assumption. Status was held in such high regard that, even as a young child, I knew what all of my neighbors did for a career. Keeping up with the Jones’s is a well-known phrase in our lexicon. “Are you impressive?” and “What do others think?” are very much part of our culture and it is hard to not be affected by it. I have always struggled with this because this perspective of life does not fit with mine, I have never cared about status or money. I never wanted to conform, but instead wanted to find my own path. But over the past few years, I have come to understand that those fears and expectations were embedded in me more than I realized. I had drank the proverbial Kool Aid.
I think a great example is my choice to major in biology. I have no regrets with my decision because it is a fascinating subject and it has taken me to great places. However, my decision was grounded in fear and cultural expectations. My two interests in high school were biology and history and I chose biology in college because it was safe and practical. I knew it was important for me to have a good career and as a teenager I was able to think of “successful” careers stemming from biology but not from history. This has led me to ask myself, “What if I did not feel the pressure, was allowed to follow my interests independent of fear, and figured out life from there?”.
There were even parameters on what my success looked like. I remember telling my mom that I was going for my PhD in biology and she was disappointed. She wanted me to go to medical school despite the fact that I was not interested in becoming a doctor (I hated the sight of blood) and I wanted to go for my PhD for me. And anyway, when did earning your doctorate become “less impressive”? These judgements of success occur often in society. Doctors tend to be more respected than nurses, lawyers more than paralegals. What do you do for a living is the first question when you meet someone and based on that answer, assumptions are often made. Why is the value of someone’s worth or the measure of success based on their title and how much they make? The focus should be on what makes the person happy with the first question being, something like, “What are your interests?”. No wonder it is so hard for people to let go of their fear and figure out their own way. There is so much tied into it.
In terms of my fear of leaving my job because of money, I later wondered why was I afraid? I get that it was a legitimate concern, but why a fear? My first job was at 13 years old when I was a junior counselor at a day camp, and I have been working ever since. I have continuously demonstrated that I can find work. Why would things suddenly change just because I was leaving the career I was in for ten years? It just shows how strong an emotion fear can be; it takes over logic, it can keep us stuck.
What has helped me manage and release my fears is to remember two points. The first one is that when I am afraid, I am living in the future and not in the present. As I was leaving my job, I found a part time job that allowed me to earn money and time to focus on myself. Additionally, my husband and I made financial decisions to allow us to live on our new salaries, such as moving into a house that fits our lifestyle. By being present, I was able to let go of the fear and come up with a solution. I don’t want to feel that fear again, so if things change such as I lose or want to leave my job, I will trust myself that I will find another one.
The second point is that fear is a learned behavior and not one I need to own or keep. Although fear is something I was taught at a young age and is rooted in familial, cultural, and societal expectations, I don’t have to be afraid. Eckhart Tolle teaches that “Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” If I become afraid that I made a mistake by taking this path, I can become aware of the fear, realize it is not part of me, and then release it. There are, of course, other options. I could live based on others’ measurements of success and worth because I am afraid of not being accepted. I could define myself by what I do and not love myself as I am. I could be too afraid that I will never find (my version of) success in unchartered territories and not take a leap. Thankfully, however, I have come to realize that those options are just that, options. So instead, I choose to be okay with not knowing what my future is and instead be present and look forward to the adventure. I choose to trust and value myself based on what I believe is right for me. My choice is to release my fears and live my life fully.