Sometimes, feeling afraid causes us to stop living. But the opposite is equally true: fully living causes us to feel afraid. It takes us into new territory. It pushes us to our limits. It causes us to grow and to change and to leave old, beloved things behind. We end up in the middle of the best things in life, with butterflies and tears.
Kelly M. Flanagan, UnTangled
Since April 2012 I have been pushing my limits with fear. At that time, I left a job I was very good at to explore a new opportunity, to develop my professional skills, and to invest in a new agency. I was afraid. At first I was afraid of leaving the people and community that I held dear. I was concerned about losing friendships and professional relationships. I was afraid that the program I’d built and helped fund wouldn’t grow without me (even though I outwardly assured my boss, supervisees, peers, and Board that it would succeed). I was afraid that I’d be forgotten.
But the new opportunity was exciting; a chance to hone skills I’d been working on. It was a chance to learn something new. A chance to make a difference. I had two days- one weekend- between my old job and my new. Over that weekend I was afraid that I wouldn’t arrive at my new job on time. Afraid that I wouldn’t know what to do or say upon landing. I was afraid that I was a turncoat for changing non-profit agencies. I became petrified that I was a fraud and a charlatan; that I didn’t know enough about fundraising, event planning, and messaging to make a difference.
I started the job anyway: April 30, 2012.
From that point, my life changed.
I cannot say that I thrived in my new position. I lacked supportive supervision and mentoring despite a solid team of colleagues. I railed against a new management-supervision style; one of constant interruption, micro-management, and questioning of judgment. At first, on most days I was afraid that I’d make a wrong decision. Afraid that I wouldn’t make my case strong enough. That I wouldn’t raise the money or engage the donors. I worked in an environment of rash decision-making that relied more on the idea of “we used to be able to” than “we can now” and “we’d like to”. And yet, I grew. I researched. I networked. I made decisions and learned to make my case. I continued to practice the adage “fake it ’til you make it” – a tool shared with me by my first supervisor. I had some successes: the first event and then the second, re-connected donors, increased major gifts from long- and short-term supporters. There were also challenges: a stagnated donor base which had been disconnected for 18 months, a small (though spunky) Board, and unreachable individual giving goals- goals I’d said were unreachable when I joined the team and yet had no choice in refuting.
And I still grew. I became more sure of myself in rooms and in engaging people. I loved the work. I loved to work. I loved the challenge. I remembered that I like to be out with people. I liked to be out in Boston. I liked being the center of attention. I liked being involved. I liked being busy. I liked 5 o’clock drinks after work, dinner at fancier restaurants, and committee meetings. I felt edgy. Intelligent-sexy.
I did not feel that at home. I hadn’t for a while. And, as I grew in my job, I felt the strain at home. I felt dull. I felt useless. I felt alone. I did not feel intelligent-sexy. I did not feel important. I did not feel accomplished. I didn’t feel afraid. I felt stuck.
That summer my marriage officially fell apart as my wife and I realized our dissonance and struggled to find a place to meet in the middle. I developed a crush, which turned into falling for another person. I was able to be sassy with this person; to be funny, flirty and intelligent. And despite flashes of belief that I was making the right decision, I was afraid. Afraid that I was a bad person for ending my marriage- even though my wife and I had been missing the mark for a long while. I was afraid that I was making the wrong decision to invest in myself rather than the marriage. I feared losing our joint friends and losing her family. Some of those fears came true.
I moved out. On our divorce court date my wife and I sat hand-in-hand while crying in the courtroom; loving each other and yet still knowing we were each growing in different ways. I was afraid to lose my wife. I was afraid to leave her. I was afraid of never loving someone again. I was afraid of never being loved again.
I did lose my wife. I did lose her family. I did lose some of our joint friends. I grieved. And, I grew. For months, I’d been afraid to express the feelings of grief, anger and sadness that I had about the ending of our relationship. I allowed myself to feel those emotions: to sit in them, to process them, to box some of them up to revisit later, and to let some of them go.
And, just as my relationship with my wife was ending, I was laid off. The job, in which I grew and was challenged, was over. And it was damn hard to feel intelligent-sexy. I felt humiliated. I felt angry. I felt ashamed. I felt sad. And, I felt afraid. I was afraid of being unemployed and being viewed as “less-than”. I was afraid that in the current economy I would not be able to find a job. I was afraid that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was afraid that my boyfriend- my crush from the previous summer- wouldn’t want to date someone who’d been laid-off. I was afraid that everyone who didn’t want me to leave my first job would say, “I told you so”. I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t working every minute.
I took the first two weeks of unemployment to grieve, sleep, and refocus. In that time, I realized that I needed an opportunity to figure out who I am and what I wanted- both inside and outside of work. Now, this doesn’t mean I got to sit on my laurels. To be on unemployment you do have to be job searching and I’ve certainly had my share of fear and heartbreak with that side of the equation. At first, each job application felt like a litmus test for professional worthiness. I feared sending in applications for fear of being rejected. And then I was rejected. I’ve been called over-qualified, under-qualified, and not called at all. I’ve interviewed for positions I didn’t get. But, I did retain a temporary position adjunct teaching in the Spring and this Fall. I did try on working at a bakery. I discovered that I do have a passion for baking (especially breads), but that I much prefer to do it on my own time and blog about it! And, throughout this time, I’ve looked for more permanent work, worked on resumes and continued my work of self-discovery.
I’m still afraid. I’m afraid because I still don’t have that full-time, permanent solution yet. I’m concerned about what that means for me financially in 2014. I’m afraid of not succeeding in getting that next permanent job. I’m afraid that I’ll be turned down. And, I’m even a little afraid that I won’t be. Having time to practice balance, write, focus on self, and teach has certainly been a blessing. I’m afraid that I’ll forget to keep that balance in my life once “work” is in it again.
Despite these fears or, perhaps, because of these fears, I have learned that fear is omnipresent. It sits in all parts of our lives. It varies in degree and duration. New experiences bring change, loss, and opportunity; fear lives in those experiences. And yet, those experiences aren’t only wonderful, they’re necessary. It was necessary that I grow over the past year. It was necessary that I connect to myself and invest time in identifying my dreams. It was necessary that I give space to my emotions. It was necessary that I learn new coping habits for dealing with success and failure. It was necessary for me to be afraid, to acknowledge my fear, and to change along with it.
It has not been a cakewalk. Over the past 18 months, I have found myself tired, exhilarated, relieved, concerned and every feeling in between. Again, it has not been a cakewalk. But this knowledge I have now- of fear and opportunity, fear and love, fear and loss, fear and grief, fear and change- that knowledge is going to make living with and growing with fear a piece of cake.