From Fear to Gratitude
Connie spent a lot of time afraid, and she had many fears - fear of getting sick, fear of financial loss, fear of not being accepted...Even though she described herself as religious, she indulged in fear far more than prayer. She did prayer, but it didn't alleviate her fear. Did she not believe? Was she really saved? It was a vicious circle she could not escape. Fear leads to stress, which leads to eating, which leads to weight gain, which leads to fear of high blood pressure... Help!
In therapy, a fearful client often wants to explain the rationale of their fear, to prove it is valid. An important distinction to make that fear real is different from caution. Caution involves thinking something through, considering possible outcomes, and taking a prudent course of action. Caution does not include being overly emotional or catastrophizing. Being cautious is mature, measured, and centered. Being fearful is dramatic, paralyzing, and sabotaging. We have all heard of the boy who cried wolf too many times. When a wolf really came, no one listened. The fearful client often feels isolated, misunderstood, and lacks social support.
Connie didn't go to therapy to get rid of her fears, rather than to get support. She felt her husband, her siblings, and her children didn't really understand. In order to get a clearer picture, the therapist asked her to include her husband and children in the next session. Her children were young adults and had limited time available in the session, so the therapist decided to see the kids first on their own.
When asked about their mother's fears, the overwhelming response was one of frustration. They felt as if she wanted to control everyone by making them feel afraid. She was always adding a dark cloud to every silver lining. She would start out with appropriate caution but when they still wanted to go somewhere she got more and more "out there" with her concerns. They never asked their mom for permission if they could ask their dad. From talking to her children, it was clear how counterproductive Connie's behavior was. It seemed as if all the caution was ignored because it was always topped with excess fear.
When the children left, the therapist saw Connie with her husband. Her husband seemed put out before the session even began. He was callous and indifferent to her pain. He didn't seem optimistic about therapy and suggested she needed medication. The therapist understood why Connie felt so alone. The more she expressed herself, the more she was invalidated. It was clear she needed support and it would have to be in individual therapy.
One of Connie's therapy sessions involved an exercise called "Then what?" It was in contrast to Connie's practice of "What if?". "Then what" is about following the fear to its final conclusion.
Connie started with the fear of her husband being late for work.
"Ok, he's late for work. Then what?"
"He will lose his job."
"Ok, then what?"
"He can't lose his job! It would be financially disastrous."
"Ok then what?"
"We would be out of money in a matter of weeks or months."
"Ok then what?"
"We would get our house foreclosed."
"Ok then what?"
"We would starve."
"Ok then what?"
"We would die."
The therapist let that one sink in. Ultimately, underneath all fear is the fear of physical death. Physical death is certain. Once you've faced this repressed fear, once you accept it, it loses its power. You aren't trying to avoid what is inevitable. Once you accept death, the question becomes, what do you want to do while you are alive?
When we look at life in the face of death, suddenly life becomes more sacred. We realize the gift of being here. Time becomes precious. The present moment is an opportunity. Over the course of therapy, Connie began to realize how she was wasting the present moment, she was hiding. She was playing small because she thought it was safer. When she realized there is no "safer" way, she began to look at her life and how she wanted to live. She realized the fear didn't make her safer, it only led to regret.
We can all relate to "someday" having that conversation, expressing that emotion, or taking that risk. It comes from living life with the idea there will always be tomorrow. But what if there was no tomorrow? What if all you had was today? What if this was the last time? Even ordinary things like washing dishes would take on a certain joy and sacredness. What if the people you encountered today weren't there tomorrow? Is there something you need to complete? Why not complete it now? Tell them you love them. Acknowledge their contribution. Apologize. Forgive.
Connie was overwhelmed with emotion. She realized how much she loved her kids and how proud she was of them. She wanted them to know this but all that was expressed between them was her fear and their frustration. She was grateful for her parents. She realized how much her parents loved her and all the sacrifices they made to provide for her. She realized how much it meant to have a sister and brother growing up and to share the reasonability of caring for her parents now. She knew she truly loved and respected her husband.
It hit her that she was avoiding these conversations because she thought she had time. But there are no guarantees of time. There is only saying it now or regretting you never did.
It was only by facing the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when, that she recognized what she needed to complete. She needed to express her love, her appreciation, and her gratitude. It started with her family but then moved on to others. It was no longer her job to watch over people and steer the direction of their life. She had her own life to live and she didn't know how long she had. With only this moment, Connie began to live free of fear and steeped in gratitude.