Monday, October 26, 2009

Does Fear Keep us Small? or, The Flaming Marshmallows of Anxiety

Mrs. Ditter,
I'm stuck in a rut and can't seem to see my way out of it. Part of me suspects that I'm stuck here because I can't quite step up to making a change I know I need to make. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that announced "Fear Makes Us Small". Do you agree? What do you think it means

Dear STUCK: Yes, of course fear makes us small. And fear keeps us stuck. Mrs. Ditter is an expert on this topic, having nurtured a ten-year case of writer's block out of fear of rejection. 

But--fear also keeps us safe. If you burn your fingers making s'mores, if you drive your car off the road, if you fall off a skateboard and break your ankle, you'll most likely pay attention to that little jolt of fear that pops up next time you're tempted to (choose one) flame an innocent marshmallow, drive recklessly, attempt a halfpipe even though you're 53 years old and totally clueless on small, fast, unstable wheeled slabs of wood. You're going to stay safe. And that's a good thing.

There are exceptions, of course, but most animals (human and otherwise) operate in this fashion. And I'm not exactly the first one to have this insight. Way back around 500 B.C.E., Aeschylus said, "There are times when fear is good. There is advantage in the wisdom won from pain." 

Staying safe out of fear carries an emotional and physical cost, however. Linked in with the message "Don't touch the fiery marshmallow!" is a small dollop of anxiety. Living in a constant state of anxiety takes a toll. Again, not an original insight on my part. 

I'm intrigued by the first section of your question, however. You say you can't seem to see your way out of the rut. But you follow that by saying, "Part of me suspects that I'm stuck here because I can't quite step up to making a change I know I need to make."

If you KNOW you need to make the change, make the change. 

And if you're truly not sure, ask yourself these questions first: If I don't make this change, how will I feel in six months? In a year? In five years? If I do make this change, how will my life be different in six months, a year, five years?

A note of caution (not fear!): If other people will be significantly impacted by the change that YOU make, please be sure to review the commitments you've made to them, and to talk with them, and to listen to THEIR fears, before you drop a huge change on their heads. Sometimes what looks and feels like being stuck in a rut is just slogging through the reality of day-to-day delivery on our commitments. It's not sexy, it's not exciting, but it might be where you need to be at this moment.

Thanks for trusting me with your question. And as always, if you have a question for Mrs. Ditter, leave it in the comments section below. I'm looking forward to hearing from you!


  1. Mrs. Ditter, I so agree with you that sometimes it's fear that prevents us from making a change and sometimes it's our responsibilities but do you think that sometimes we use our responsibilities as the excuse for not making the change because we're fearful of the change?

  2. Yeah, Carrie, you're on to something there. Sounds like a blog post to me, and thanks for asking the question.