The Power of Recognizing That Fear Is Part of the Deal

the year I embraced change man repeller

“You have so many rules,” a short-term dating prospect once informed me. He wasn’t wrong. Rules, after all, are based upon behaviors that create predictable outcomes. I used to jokingly proclaim that I liked my life “ordered, numbered and boxed into neat little packages” — a wink toward the obvious to anyone who knew me, delivered confidently to hide my fear of chaos.

Few people knew that I had a chronic pain condition that responded to stress, changes to my routine, or emotional swings. It’s hard to control symptoms provoked by the normal course of life while still actually living. So, when my pain syndrome was at its worst in my early twenties, I started engaging in far fewer behaviors that were new to me.

I’d turn down new cuisines, because I was afraid the ingredients would upset my digestive system. I would refuse travel, because I didn’t know the location, the hotel, how my friends would respond if I had a crisis. I wouldn’t date whenever it caused me anxiety; I’d usually only make it three or four months before needing to shut it down and be on my own. These restrictions gave me a sense of control when I didn’t feel I had much of it.

Then I spent 2016 and 2017 researching, interviewing and writing a book about men and women who had what I wanted: a stable modern relationship. I thought I’d discover dating rules to hang my hat on, or that might offer a shortcut to love, but no story sounded the same. Even successful narratives were twisty, swervy, wild rides. There were a lot of unknowns involved, and a lot of risk. My interviewees often described doing things they never thought they’d do, dating people they never thought they’d date, or challenging themselves to move their self-limiting paradigms in the name of what could be. Scary, yes, but many found fulfillment in the risk.

After completing my initial draft, it took me eight months to accept that I’d have to start taking more leaps, even if I didn’t know the outcome — not just in love, but in life. From there, it was a slow crawl back to the edge of vulnerability, and then, last November, I uncharacteristically showed up to my crush’s 30th birthday party without an invitation, which spawned a new relationship and, ultimately, what I’ve now dubbed my Year of the Unknown.

When the relationship ended six months later, I let myself date someone in the immediate aftermath of our breakup, even though I wasn’t sure I was ready. I took a step back from writing to help launch a new dating app, trading known comfort in publishing for the foggier startup world. I moved in with a roommate, unsure if I could cope with anything beyond the company of my own solitude. I have traveled this past year more than I have in the past five years put together. The keyword was “growth,” and the trajectory was wonky; it’s been the most chaotic year of my life, by far.

Confronting the gray areas hasn’t always been pretty. I experienced crippling Imposter Syndrome just before my book was published in January, as anxiety mounted toward my release date. I had idiopathic angioedema — severe, uncomfortable swelling around my eyes, disrupting my visual field — throughout February and March, likely prompted by the pill, causing my control issues to crop up in a major way; I was on prednisone for a couple months in the aftermath. That early breakup was caused, in part, because I couldn’t cope with my control issues in the face of so much unknown, even after I had already promised myself I’d try.

For me, the fear of the unknown never goes away, and as I continue to push myself towards it, I have to remind myself that maybe it isn’t supposed to. For me, growth is about expanding, asking myself where I want to go and what I think it will take to get there, even if it doesn’t feel entirely safe to do so. “In any given moment, we have two options: to step forward into growth, or to step back into safety,” psychologist Abraham Maslow once said. “Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

If this past year has taught me one thing, it’s that I can’t know my limits until I test them — and that I can live with more vulnerability, and more fear, if I just challenge myself to move. Even if it’s harder. Even if it’s more of a rollercoaster.

There are still a lot of loose ends to tie up. My company is still new. I’m not sure what my writing future looks like. My body is still rebounding from the months of travel and the birth-control incident. And I reconnected with my ex this past month, because sometimes, amidst the chaos and constant lessons, it becomes apparent who you want to have around. I’m not yet sure what our future holds, but I’m becoming more comfortable with that.

I never thought I’d see emotions like fear and uncertainty as signals that I was making the right decision, but today, they’re what I look for. We’re not supposed to be able to predict all the outcomes; life wouldn’t be worth living if we could.

Illustrations by Ashley Jihye

Jenna Birch

Journalist, dating coach and author of The Love Gap.

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