A Conversation With My Therapist About Fear
After two years in Germany of being desperately in need of a therapist to help me through my issues, I finally found one that offers sessions in English and didn’t have a 3-month waiting list. Finding her felt like the heavens smiling down on me.
We were onto about our seventh session, which started much like our previous ones. I listed a few things I did that week, some feelings I was having, and what I was thinking or worrying about lately.
I told her about how I don’t like the way I look in pictures anymore. Three years ago I started a weight gain journey to recover from an eating disorder, and that was good and necessary, but in recent months I’ve noticed that the weight keeps piling on even though I don’t need to gain weight anymore. I’m not “overweight”, but the clothes I like don’t fit me and when I look at pictures of myself, my eyes are drawn to my too-round face and my stubby looking legs.
I told her, “The past few months I’ve been thinking about starting running again to get fit and lose some weight, but the ground has been icy and I didn’t really feel like falling on my face. But now the ice has melted and I don’t have that excuse anymore, and I’m just scared I’ll start running and eating healthier, and it won’t be enough.
What if I do all the right things and it doesn’t work?”
Then we moved on to my career concerns. I’m unemployed right now, and looking for work, but because of a number of factors, including location, language, and COVID-19, my options are very limited and nothing good has come up yet. But I’m still trying to make money online, picking up work wherever I can, and I was excited to tell my therapist that I made my first €19 on Fiverr, moderating comments for someone’s YouTube channel.
“It’s not a lot, but every time I make money from a new revenue stream, I get excited because it’s proof that it can happen, I can make money doing this.” I thought for a moment, then added, “I’ve been thinking of offering more services on Fiverr, like video editing, photo editing, and social media management. I mean, I’ve been doing it for my own social media channels for years. I know how to do it. But I’m not the most tech-savvy person. I don’t really understand algorithms that well, and I’m not as good at editing as I could be. There are so many people on the platform who do these things better than me, so I feel bad charging money for it when someone else can do it better.”
My therapist interjected. “But why don’t you try?”
I thought about it. “I guess you’re right. I mean, I might be better than I think I am. Or I might learn a lot and get better by doing client work… Plus I read this thing once that said you only need to be about 10% better than the average person at something to teach them, help them, or provide value in some way.”
She chuckled and said, “That’s probably true.”
And then, as often happens during therapy sessions, I launched into a tirade about how much I suck. About how I don’t make the best YouTube videos I could be making, and I don’t take the best care of myself I could be taking, and I don’t spend as much time job-hunting as I could be, and I’m an expert at coming up with excuses and procrastination techniques disguised as “self-care” or “being productive” or “taking a mental health day” but they’re actually not helping me in any way, and even though I’m unemployed and living with my mother and have all the time in the world to dedicate to my passions, I don’t do it, and I waste massive amounts of time doing useless things like watching Netflix, and blah blah blah …
We were nearing the end of the session and I guess this pile of self-loathing wasn’t going anywhere, so she interrupted me. “Okay, but that’s not helpful. Why don’t you do it?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’m just lazy.”
And that’s when she said the thing that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“I don’t think you’re lazy, I think you’re scared.”
Whoosh. Wind knocked out. Dumbfounded. A moment of silence while my brain processed. Then fireworks. Planets shifting. Angels singing. My whole perspective changed.
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
I was disappointed in myself for those words, “I’m just lazy,” because I’m super into personal development and I’ve read a ton of books on self-help and psychology, and I know all about the fixed mindset and the growth mindset, and I absolutely believe that people can change, but this was a very fixed-mindset thing of me to say. I had essentially called myself a bum, and stuck a negative and disempowering label to my forehead, which plants me squarely in the middle of a road leading nowhere good, even though that’s absolutely not what I actually believe about myself and my potential.
My therapist continued. “Right? Because if you don’t do it, you can always say that you failed because you didn’t try hard enough.”
I connected the dots to the fear-of-mediocrity theme we’d touched on earlier in the session. “Yeah, and if I give it my all and it still fails, then I have to be confronted with the realization that my everything is not enough, and I’m just mediocre. And that’s terrifying.”
I left this session feeling inspired and probably having had the most helpful revelation I’ve ever had about myself, my life, and why I behave the way I do sometimes. I already knew that I had issues with anxiety and panic attacks, and that my fear was something that held me back in countless ways. I also knew that I had always, ever since I was a kid, wanted to do something exceptional, like being a rockstar or an actress or a YouTuber, and traveling the world and being super-mega-rich because that seemed like an awesome life.
But I never made the connection between my big fear, my big dreams, and the mediocrity that lies in the middle of where I am now and where I want to be. My therapist told me,
“You’re thinking too big. You have to be mediocre first before you can get there, where you want to be.”
And that’s true. I didn’t see that before. I might give it everything I can and find out I’m just mediocre, or I might find out I’m extraordinary. But I’ll never know where my ceiling is until I try going full speed ahead and risk failure and disappointment, and I’ll also never reach the extraordinary if I don’t get to the mediocrity first.
At the end of their lives, most people regret the things they didn’t do, more than the things they did do. And every time I’ve done Tim Ferriss’ fear-setting exercise, I’ve ended up drawing the same conclusion; that the cost of inaction is almost always greater than the cost of failure. The pain of living with untapped potential is a thousand times worse than the pain of being average, because if your full effort gets you average, then at least you can be content in knowing that you did your best, but if your half-effort gets you average, you’ll always be left wondering if you could have had, been, and done more.
The avoidance of pain is a much stronger motivator than the seeking of pleasure. And obviously, so far in my life, the pleasure of success hasn’t excited me half as much as the pain of failure scares me. But with the help of those paradigm-shifting words from my therapist, I have found a new thing to fear.
“I am more afraid of never trying than I am of failing at___________.”
How do you fill in the blank?