It’s the Fear Again.

I’ve been meaning to write about fear for a while now. I think fear and envy are probably the two most instructive of all human emotions and that self-mastery must include a study of one’s expression of, and ability to navigate, each.

One of my favourite things to do on a Sunday morning is drink coffee while reading the New York Times Sunday Review. Today, I read a great article, ‘Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?‘, written by a woman called Caroline Paul, one of the first women in the San Francisco Fire Department. She was a firefighter for over 13 years.

Caroline makes a strong case for not mollycoddling girls by teaching them that fear is an appropriate excuse for failing to take risk. She doesn’t use these exact words, but I will: when we teach little girls that childhood adventure is not ‘ladylike’, or more precisely, when we encourage them to fear the risks that come with adventure and exploration, we cheat them of opportunities to learn important life skills. She mentions responsibility, problem-solving and confidence, and I will add one more: curiosity.

“When a girl learns that the chance of skinning her knee is an acceptable reason not to attempt the fire pole, she learns to avoid activities outside her comfort zone. Soon many situations are considered too scary, when in fact they are simply exhilarating and unknown. Fear becomes a go-to feminine trait, something girls are expected to feel and express at will. By the time a girl reaches her tweens no one bats an eye when she screams at the sight of an insect. When girls become women, this fear manifests as deference and timid decision making.”

This has certainly been true of points in my career and relationships to date and fear is that one emotion I continue to learn to navigate even as a grown up. My relationship with fear can definitely be unhealthy, and has at different times, to my utter frustration, held me back. Fear particularly frustrates me because it has a unique ability to paralyse.

I was never taught as a little girl to face my fears, or to figure out a way to actively navigate my way through them. I’ve kicked myself in hindsight for making far too timid decisions for someone in my circumstances (I’m not married and I don’t have any children so I don’t have the often valid excuses of needing to worry about certain responsibilities), and I have certainly seen myself show unnecessary deference in the office (arguably, some of that is cultural).

(As an aside, a man made the point earlier that little boys aren’t taught to navigate fear particularly well either – they’re taught to ignore it. My response to that is: of course, men and boys feel fear too. But boys are generally taught to act inspite of their fear, girls are taught not to act because of it. The latter has far more serious implications.)

I was most compelled by two points Caroline makes in her article.

First, after a lifetime of conditioning girls to accept fear, there can only be limits to the potential effectiveness of messages and campaigns like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I agree, although I do also appreciate the spirit behind Ms. Sandberg’s book. A late intervention is better than none at all.

Second, when feminism and maternal instincts collide, feminism will lose all too often. Understandably so, sadly. I want to teach my little girl to be fearless, but I also don’t want to see her hurt. It would take a strong consciousness to remind myself to let her be, and I won’t get that right all the time.

One of my favourite modern philosophers is A. C. Grayling. I’ve been skimming through his book, The Meaning of Things, intermittently this year. He has a chapter on fear that I’ve found myself re-reading a number of times. He writes:

“Fear, said Aeschylus, makes us weak. It subverts confidence, interferes with performance, lames resolve. And it distorts perceptions, creating obstacles and monsters where none exist. Fear has its own inexorable logic: what we fear comes to pass far more rapidly than what we hope, mainly because we make it so.” 

So if there is one thing to fear, it is fear itself. And it’s a travesty that we continue to systematically hand down a dangerous culture of timidity to the same half of the population that is more disadvantaged when it comes to potential achievement.

Fear is also a powerful tool for control. One that I think is most potent when the risks we are threatened with are intangible or feel infinite. It’s one thing to fear a specific threat or action, it’s quite another to fear an impression, a label, judgement or widespread condemnation. That’s essentially what happens when we tell little girls that certain behaviours are ‘unladylike’ – we allude to the risk of societal rejection.

Women have a complex relationship with fear. Arianna Huffington took the time to write an entire book on female fear when she noticed her teenage daughters were beginning to manifest some of the same trivial fears she had grown up navigating (am I attractive? do people like me? do I dare speak up?), and of course, the career implications of a lifetime of navigating fear is one of the central themes of Lean In.

The Huffington Post has done a series of articles written by one woman each in her twenties, forties, fifties and sixties about their relationships with fear, and how that may (or may not) have evolved over time. They’re definitely worth a read (although I have no idea why us 30-somethings were left out!).

I don’t know what the magic words are to wave away feminine fear, but I do know it’s the one emotion I am most keen to get a handle on. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, no doubt, so I am sure I will have updates along the way.

Who knows, one day I might write that missing ‘what I know about fear in my thirties’ article the HuffPost seems to have inexplicably missed out.


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