I spent the last five years trying to change my relationships. I gave myself permission to pursue and experience deep intimacy instead of staying in a marriage that had run its course. My husband and I separated, then got a divorce. (I could write a whole article about how to overcome fear of ending a marriage but the truth is I didn’t overcome fear. I did what I had to do despite the fear that I felt.)
Then I was with someone else for a few years, and when that felt frustrating because the relationship wasn’t fitting well with the life I wanted, I spent lots of time and energy thinking about whether or not I should end it. How I should end it. Whether or not I would regret ending it. (I don’t.)
Now I’m in another relationship and I’ve tried to improve it, repair it, change it . . . See a pattern here? It took me a while, but I see it now too. (Thanks to a brilliant podcast episode of The 29th Day.)
Here’s the problem with this pattern. (Or perhaps I’m the problem. Or perhaps there isn’t any problem at all . . .) All of that time and energy and vitality that I’ve poured into trying to transform my relationships could be used for creating the life that I desire.
My ideal lifestyle is to work, write, and create, from anywhere in the world. That means I can travel, and have the means necessary to do so. At the very least, I have a career where I can either work from home, or a local coffee shop, or the beach, etc . . . You get it. Total freedom.
And while living this super creative life that is not bound to one particular place, I also experience deep connection, intimacy and pleasure. Tall order? I don’t think so. I think it’s our birth right. (Feel free to argue with me about that on social media. This week I experienced my first ever right wing troll who told me to stop talking on my Instagram and it was pretty hilarious. Do trolls realize they are actually helping our content get more traction?)
So here’s what I’m thinking. What if instead of trying to get my relationships to meet my lofty standards, I simply go about my own business and do as I please? What if I put all my energy into work, creative projects, writing, going to interesting places, meeting interesting people, and so forth?
Eventually, the relationships will adapt or transform to accommodate my life, or they won’t. Instead of me directly trying to change the relationship, as if the relationship is some sort of scaffolding or requirement that I have to get right for my dream life to exist. It isn’t.
What if I allow myself radical freedom? What if I allow my lover radical freedom? What if we both just do whatever the hell we want?
Will everything fall apart?
Maybe my relationships won’t magically transform into something compatible. Maybe they will end. Maybe new ones will begin. I won’t know unless I try this experiment.
I suspect it’s fear that prevents us from doing what we want and pursuing our desires. We are afraid that if we do that, we will lose something. If we actually do the things we want to do in life, we will somehow be unlovable. We will make people angry. We will hurt people. Our fear tells us about all the terrible consequences that we will face if we act upon all of our desires.
Of course the content of our desires matters. For the sake of this exploration I’m going to assume that you aren’t a serial killer and that the principle of do no harm guides your ethics. What I’m getting at is that our perception of where harm will be done to ourselves or others isn’t accurate.
Fear tells us that there’s going to be a certain outcome, and sometimes it’s right. Jump off a cliff and you’ll fall. It probably won’t feel good at the bottom and you won’t walk away looking pretty.
But fear isn’t omniscient or correct all the time. Life is complicated and nuanced and the outcomes that we experience from taking certain actions are often unknowable. They aren’t exactly what we thought they would be. Let’s get comfortable with uncertainty. Oftentimes the fears that we had don’t come true.
What if fear is lying to us? What if the opposite is just as likely?
What if by doing whatever we want we actually empower others? Inspire others? What if by granting permission to ourselves we encourage others to also be who they want to be?
Here’s an example from my own life: When my husband and I separated our children were still very young. I was terrified about the idea of “losing my children” if I could only see them half the time.
Well, it turns out that shared custody has been a blessing for me and my daughters. The time that I have with my girls without their father around is deeper, more authentic, and more nourishing than the time we spent trying to succeed as a family. When we were all together, there was a lot of tension. The kids competed for attention. There was awkwardness and strain. Nobody was actually having any fun.
Now when I have my days with my daughters, we sit together and we decide what feels like a nourishing day for us. We go shopping or roller skating or out for coffee. We speak more freely about life, the way only mothers and daughters can communicate.
The thing that I was so afraid of, the thing that seemed like some awful horrible consequence for forsaking my marriage turned out to be a blessing. And I know from my conversations with their father that he’s also having an easier time parenting. Five years later, we have both experienced loving relationships with people that are far more nourishing and compatible for us than we were for each other. And we are still friends. The world didn’t fall apart.
The truth is that we don’t always know what the consequences will turn out to be.
You can see by now that this isn’t an article about how to overcome fear. It’s about being afraid to do something and doing it anyway, despite the fear. Give yourself permission to pursue your desires. No one else can do that for you.
Liz Gilbert has a wonderful passage in her book Big Magic about inviting fear on a road trip. The point is that fear exists, but she’s never going to let it drive. It’s not even allowed to touch the radio. It can come along, enjoy the scenery, chime in with its opinion, but it has no say in how the journey will unfold.
I suggest we treat shame the same way. It’s going to tag along in much of what we do and tell us that we aren’t doing it right, or good enough. Or that we already did it wrong, like when we have a conversation with somebody and spend the evening thinking that we said something stupid. Certain people make me feel like that all the time, but really it’s not them “making me feel” anything, it is just shame tagging along like an evil sidekick telling me I’m lame.
Let’s not give fear or shame permission to drive our car. I propose we take Fear, and it’s weird goth friend Shame, and we put them in the backseat, strapped into little kid booster seats. (No offense to weird goth friends, I was one of those once too, I get it, it’s cool.)
We can even give them some crackers to keep them occupied. They will make crumbs everywhere but I’d rather deal with a messy back seat than having to listen the whole time about what I’m doing wrong, and how whatever idea I’m about to pursue is a really bad idea.