In the name of transparency—acknowledging that nobody has all their shit together, even the people that help other people get their shit together—I’d like to give y’all a little taste of how one of my personal Fear Stories tries to butt its way into my day to day. Basically, it offers me helpful little gems like this.
• How are you going to pay your bills working for yourself?
• You need to be making more money!
• It’s unrealistic to think you can make enough money
doing what you love.
• You need to stop dicking around and get a real job!
• Holy mother! Who’s gonna take care of you when the rent is due?
• You’re gonna end up on the streets or in debtor’s prison, so you might as well just lay down and die right now!
As you can see, it’s kind of a buzzkill.
Unlike some of the other pesky stories that haunt the dark corners of my mind, I clearly recognize the origins of this narrative. It is a particularly unfortunate inheritance from my mother’s lineage (sorry, mom!). Essentially, the message was this: “Your creative aspirations and impulses must ultimately lead to some practical and economically viable results, i.e. to getting a respectable job that pays the bills.” The key word here is, of course, practical: that proverbial knife in the heart of all wonderfully inspired products of the imagination. I clearly remember how many an earnest declaration made in the exuberance of my youth, such as the desire to become an artist or musician were met, not with a shared enthusiasm but instead, with an oppressively reasonable response such as, “Yes dear, that’s great…but how are you going to support yourself?” Even as I write this now, I can feel my cortisol levels rising.
Needless to say, the fear of leaving the “cozy” little nest of working for others has been a profound obstacle to moving forward with starting my own business. The self-limiting story that I won’t be able to pay the bills has, on more than one occasion, seduced me into getting part-time jobs under the pretense of maintaining the household, instead of just taking that critical leap of faith into financial uncertainty. But that’s practical, right? Wrong. Not only have these uninspiring suckers-of-valuable-time-and-energy not covered our expenses, they have actually undermined our progress by diverting my creative resources toward things that ultimately don’t serve us. Over the years, the story of Fear has hung over my head like a gloomy prophet of doom: a tireless harbinger of the “dangers” and potential negative consequences of giving up a steady paycheck. It expertly shoots down any new ideas or dreams related to living a life based on meaningful work, and manipulates me into getting jobs that I’m ultimately not passionate about.
And yet, much to my dismay, simply recognizing this story and calling it out hasn’t been enough to change the pattern—it’s too deeply ingrained at this point. And no amount of mother blaming will negate that I am now totally responsible for keeping this story alive. No. Instead, it’s time to take a long, sober look in the mirror and avail myself of one of the central ideas that Jess and I use with our clients.
The basic idea is this: everything we experience in life takes on meaning by comparing and contrasting it to some other experience. In other words, problems only become problematic in relation to non-problematic experiences. Let’s see what this means in terms of my own struggle with the fear around financial security. The fear that is triggered by the uncertainty of entrepreneurship would be in direct contrast to a strong desire to trust or believe that I can be successful working on my own terms. So, with that said, let’s explore this idea in the context of a few helpful questions.
• What are the consequences of continuing to live under the influence of this story?
The immediate response is that this story makes it impossible to envision new and interesting possibilities for work. It also undermines and sabotages my creativity and inspiration. Another effect of this story is the vicious cycle that I get stuck in with unsatisfactory jobs, which keep siphoning off my vital energy and perpetually postpone what I actually want to be doing.
• Whose values, vision, or preferences are reflected in this particular story?
As I said before, this story of Fear was something that I learned from my family of origin. It clearly reflects the values of economic stability, security, and a preference for predictability in terms of employment. The problem is that these are not necessarily my own values and preferences. You see, nobody asked me what my personal values for work were; they simply projected their own onto my young and impressionable mind. I don’t think they were necessarily aware of what they were doing when they did this. More than likely they were just driven by their own fears for my future, or the possibility that I would end up having to live in their basement for the rest of my life.
Another interesting element of this question of values is that the values expressed through my family’s story of Fear are also reflective of several core values that are held by our society at large. Economic stability and financial security are not just ideas invented by a few anxiety-ridden parents intent on depriving their children of their dream to live passionate, creative, and unconventional lives, but rather a consistent message that is often repeated and reinforced in our money-driven, capitalist society. So prevalent and so convincing are these ideas that it can be quite difficult to justify following a life path that deviates from the culture’s established norms without appearing to be recklessly irresponsible. So to make a long answer short, continuing to be a servant of this story of Fear would mean to live my life according to someone else’s set of values, which, at this point in my life, I am no longer willing to do.
• When it comes to the work I really want to do, what are the values that I want to live from and embody?
Now, in contrast to the set of values and preferences implicit in my story of Fear, the values that I want my work to reflect are primarily Trust, Creativity, and Interpersonal Relationships. When I say Trust, I mean trust in life or the universe to provide me with what I need to make a living by doing the work that I find most fulfilling. It means not being ruled by the story of Fear and having the willingness to take risks. In terms of Creativity, I want that value to be expressed in my work through the application of my various, unique skill sets such as writing, philosophical inquiry, and interpersonal relationship dynamics. The importance of Interpersonal Relationships finds its greatest expression in the Unstuck Your Story work that Jessica and I are now boldly throwing ourselves into. I absolutely love the process of exploring, examining, and challenging the ideas that keep us stuck, and working together with other people to find new and more preferable ways of living.
• What is the new relationship I want to have with this story?
The new relationship that I want to have with my story of Fear is one in which I, instead of it, make decisions about how I am going to work in this world. I want to respect that there is a place for caution and decision-making based on practical considerations, but that I am simply no longer willing to allow the fear of not having financial security cut me off from my creativity or scare me into not trying new things. This means that the Prophet of Doom, previously in charge of the decision-making committee in my head, must now be downgraded to mere devil’s advocate, which is permitted to offer considerations, but certainly not authorized to close any “big deals”. In other words, while I may not be entirely rid of the story of Fear, I can definitely change the impact it has on my life and my capacity to choose how I work in the world.
So, the next time you hear your own Fear Story, ask yourself:
What are the consequences of continuing to live under the influence of this story?
Whose values, vision, or preferences are reflected in this particular story?
What are the values that you want to live from and embody?
What is the new relationship you want to have with this story?
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