So yesterday, I was listening to Glennon Doyle’s new podcast, We Can Do Hard Things. The first episode was about anxiety, and I was so curious because I have always wanted to know what it was like to have Actual Anxiety, as opposed to just being a scaredy-cat all the time. Like me.
But it was very confusing, because she just kept describing the normal terror of human-ing, and I kept waiting for her to describe the Actual Clinical Anxiety part. Like what delineates an official panic attack from just the general everyday cold sweat paralysis gasping that is a normal part of being alive?
It wasn’t until I came to the end of the episode— which was wonderful, of course, dammmit Glennon— that I realized something.
It dawned on me, slowly.
Then it shook me, like an earthquake.
Later that evening, I said to my husband Nick, “Hey babe? I was listening to a Glennon Doyle podcast and now I think I have Anxiety!”
He looked at me with raised eyebrows and kept stirring and said, “Yeah, and sometimes I think I might be an empath.”
This is an inside joke going back to the very beginning of the two of us knowing each other, when we were new (and 100% platonic) friends. I was visiting Nick in his beautiful pristine midcentury modern palatial suburban house and our kids were jumping on the trampoline outside.
We were having one of those incredible conversations where your soul just rolls out, and then he paused for a long minute. Then he said, hesitantly—
“Sometimes I think… maybe I might be a little bit of an empath too.”
And I didn’t have ANY grace or diplomacy, I just laughed so loud and long that eventually he went from being a little offended to laughing, too.
Because of COURSE he’s an empath. As in he is verifiably the most empath-y of all empaths, an open porous loving soul whose innate empathy was then forged in the fires of erratic and unpredictable adults.
He is an empath who learned to read everyone not just because he could but because it was essential to his survival.
“Yeah?” I finally said as I wiped away actual tears of mean mirth. “You think you might be an empath?”
And now here we are, years later, married, in our shabby little humble kitchen making dinner for our five kids, and he drops it back to that moment with a delicate arch of an eyebrow.
“Yeah, babe, I think I might be an empath.”
“Wait! Really???” I say. “You think I have actual anxiety?”
“Babe. You wake up every morning with your heart pounding, with a sense of dread and doom and panic.”
“Well yeah. So does everybody.”
“No! Not everybody!”
“Well they would if…I mean…I think a lot of us do.”
He wasn’t super convinced by this very excellent argument of mine, and I’ve been pondering it ever since.
The point is not me looking for a diagnosis. It’s that I want you to know that I am still scared, all the time.
Sometimes when I tell people I’m scared of everything, they think I’m joking because I do things that look brave. I share my heart on the internet, I started a business out of thin air, I moved to a different country for love, I write vulnerable things about my spiritual and sex life in books, I shared my abortion story, I make art even though I’m not qualified, and I let cameras show my raw moments on screens.
And yes, sure, I am brave!
I do. I think I’m brave.
But not because of those things. Because of all the terrifying things I do every single day that don’t apparently even scare most people.
It turns out that scared people have a LOT of practice being brave. (For more on this topic, listen to this rather wonderful interview I did with Heather Vickery on the Brave Files. I’m not afraid of feelings and being vulnerable. I’m scared of spreadsheets and insurance and hospitals and paperwork and passports and basements and permits and offices and elevators and airplanes and bugs and the dark and receptionists. For starters.)
I’m brave because I’m scared and I keep trying anyway.
(I don’t understand how people can NOT be scared. Do they even SEE WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?????? HOW PRECARIOUS THIS HUMAN BUSINESS IS????)
I’m brave because I’m terrified out of my mind most of the time but I keep breathing anyway. Maybe you too.
I thought for a long time that I could MUSCLE myself into being braver. I could shame myself into being less scared.
I beg you, let me save you ten years and tell you that that is a very bad approach and it doesn’t work at ALL. Really. Just skip it. Trust me.
What does work is being really, rreeeeaaalllllyyyy gentle with myself. Like, comically gentle. Like, if you could hear the way I talk to myself all day long, you would think it was a satire. But it’s not. It’s how I keep breathing.
It goes like this:
Hi honey. Hiiiiii. Yep, here we are, scared again— that’s right, life IS terrifying! I know! It’s unbearable! Terrible things ARE HAPPENING at this moment! You’re not being hysterical! They are. They are. That is a fact. But I want you to notice that right now, they aren’t happening right here, to you. Right here, it looks like you’re pretty safe. Four walls. Nothing on fire. No one banging down the door. Maybe later, sure, but not right this very moment. Right? Okay, so just take a breath for a moment. I know, it IS happening to someone else, yes, even a mom and her babies, and you can grieve about that later and of course you care. But remember that when you’re crying on the floor, you aren’t helpful to that mom from down there either. Yes. When you come back to your big self, you at least have a SHOT at being helpful. So come back, deep breaths— more breaths— ok. Ok. Hey look, a flower. Yes, flowers are very brave. SO brave! Just all OUT there with their petals where anyone can shred them. And we love them so much for it, don’t we? They are so beautiful like that. So we are going to be brave. So very, very brave. Okay. Now I’m going to remind you that you have done scary things before. Like REALLY scary things. So you have a lot of practice being brave. And you’re going to need to be brave now. Because what you’re going to do next— it’s big. It’s major. But you can do it, I KNOW you can, and I’ll be right here with you the whole way., and afterward if you need to, you absolutely can go cry in your car and listen to Folklore again. But for right now you’re going to breathe INNNNN two three four, OUTTTTT two three four. And then, you’re going to type the number into your phone. You have it right there, right? We prepared for this yesterday by looking up the number and writing it down on today’s compass so that all you have to do is just make the actual phone call. That was Yesterday You taking care of Today You. And this is Today You taking care of Next Week You. Okay, so you’re going to tap it in. With your shaky, trembly, numb fingers. And breathe some more. And then pick up the phone, it’s okay that you dropped it, that’s why we have a big soft case on it, right? Because you drop things when you’re scared and that’s often and that’s okay. Okay. So push call again. Good. And then the phone will make some sounds at you and you’re going to just sit there and breathe while your stomach churns and they will ask you a bunch of questions and your job is just to keep breathing, and keep pressing things until you talk to a human, and then when you get a human, you’re going to say, “Hi, I need some help figuring out this terrible banking problem.” And then you’re going to breathe some more and try to save the crying for afterward, because it just goes better that way. And all the times you’re on hold, and they transfer you, and the music plays, you’re just going to sit there and breathe. You won’t check email, you won’t fold laundry— calling the bank is more than enough terrifying things at once. You’ll just sit there and be there with yourself while you do this really scary thing.
So that’s what I did. With great ceremony and flailing. And eventually? I did get that terrible banking problem solved. It took three weeks, and paper mail, and two more phone calls.
(And then I tried to use my card again and now it’s frozen again because living overseas is complicated but that’s another story. And I feel as much dread about calling again as I did the first time. Well…almost as much dread. Maybe 1% less. But that’s something. That’s an inch of progress.)
All that for one phone call.
A phone call I’ll have to make again.
Isn’t life absurd? It is TOO RIDICULOUS.
So instead of mocking myself for being such a privileged brat who doesn’t even have any barbed wire real problems in her life, who uses up so much of her own energy just trying to be a grownup, I keep trying to see these moments of everyday true terror and courage as practice. As the place where I get to build my own compassion muscles for myself, on my own behalf. And then, I have those muscles that I can use for the whole world, if called on. I hope. I try.
All this extra drama, all these Big Feelings– they have some gifts, too.
For instance, all these long intense conversations with my scared self mean that I have a very sure voice when it comes to talking to people who are really, really scared. I know how to help them be persistent enough to find a path through the things that are scaring them, because I also know that leaving them stuck there isn’t actually a kindness. And I have walked many miles myself through thorny thickets of fear, which means that I have some good maps.
Can I embrace that? Can I own the gifts of my own fear and also just keep showing up for my life even though it is so wildly, absurdly terrifying? Even though it kicks me in the shins but also kisses me with wild fleeting heartbreaking beauty?
ONLY JUST BARELY. But I do.
And all this happens in the tiniest, one inch increments. Deep breaths in the checkout line, which is basically Lord Of The Flies. Feeling my feet when the doorbell rings and startles me to death. Patting myself on the heart when the mail comes. I just keep practicing keeping myself gentle, fierce company EVEN WHEN it’s terrifying and also embarrassing.
Which is good because here is a funny thing. When you stay with yourself like this, while life is still generally terrifying, it also gets more interesting. But also MORE TERRIFYING. But also…more interesting.
So this is how I keep doing things that scare me. In one-inch increments.
It’s how I got us a mortgage that let us move to this island: with so many cold terror sweat phone calls. With heart pounding emails and documents and uploads and scans and tight-throat questions. It’s how we made a documentary: with sick fear in the belly every step of the way. It’s how I wrote my memoir: I got in the shower and sobbed first, every single time I wrote, and then I wrote anyway. It’s how we fixed up our falling-down house and shot a TV show about it in the middle of a pandemic: by talking gently to the scared parts of ourselves in our biggest kindest grownup voices.
Because after a certain point, I learned that if I was really really gentle with myself, even if I couldn’t get up jauntily, I could almost always slide myself across the floor one inch at a time.
You can do it, sweetheart! Just one more inch! Yes! Just one thirty-second tiny brave thing, and then you can rest! Good, you did it! Yes, now you can cry all you need to! You did it!
One inch at a time feels ABSURD when you’re doing it.
Ludicrous, laughable, embarrassing, pitiable. And maybe the world will laugh at you. And at me.
But I won’t.
Because you know how far one inch at a time will get you?
As far as you want to go, dearheart.
P.S. Shameless heartfelt plug for the RichJuicyStarryBeauty community, which includes access to my full Secret Mystics program for free which is both a love letter AND A HANDBOOK for all us with the Big Feelings and pounding hearts. That’s why you can get it with a $20 membership instead of paying $399– because life IS terrifying and I want you to find your own gentle voice too. And this is my best map to where that voice lives.