At the beginning of June, my friend Kimmie and I made a trip to the east coast. We took a red eye (which we always do, and then regret the next morning) to see Hamilton, and spent a perfect first day in New York City. Washington Square Park was full of kids splashing around in its huge fountain, and the sunlight kept forming rainbows in the air around us as we watched. We laid on the grass and read, we talked, and we ate bagels. It was heavenly.
The next few days were a blur of laughter and history and culture and good conversation. In both DC and Philly, we were met with wonderful friends who took great care of us. We escaped from the everyday grind into a wonderland where Uber drivers or buses took us everywhere, and we didn’t have to cook our own meals or navigate difficult work decisions or make small talk. We were with people who knew us and loved us, and we felt safe.
A few days after we got home, I received an email from the USC Marshall School of Business (to which I had applied last winter). One of the administrators had reached out to me requesting a phone call, and it sounded like he was interviewing candidates for an open spot. I called the number in the email without very high expectations, since it was already June 13th and seemed far too late for new students to be admitted to the MBA program.
Instead of interviewing me, the man asked me a few logistical questions, then promptly announced that he wanted to offer me acceptance into the program. I (very) awkwardly thanked him, hung up the phone, and tried not to throw up.
Of course, I was thrilled and thankful and honored. But I also felt something else – an overwhelming sense of fear.
The safe little vacation bubble had been popped, and I suddenly felt the weight of decisions and insecurity weighing on me like a ton of bricks.
For the next week, I floated around in a bit of a daze while trying to make a decision. I robotically packed up my room and moved into a new house, trying to pretend I was totally fine when people around me expressed their congratulations and excitement about this new season of life. I continued to go about life as usual, spending time with friends and getting organized in my new home, but under the surface I felt fragile - as if a single gust of wind could knock me over at any given moment, and I would crumble onto the ground.
The feeling continued to persist throughout the month. I accepted the offer with genuine excitement, and made some changes to my work schedule in order to ensure enough time for studying. But in the back of my mind, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going to go wrong. I started having trouble sleeping (which, if you know me, is extremely rare) and focusing. In an attempt to make the fear go away, I started running more and desperately prayed for it to be lifted. I pleaded with God, essentially asking Him to snap His fingers and get rid of that frustrating voice in the back of my head, but it didn’t work. And I was annoyed.
Sometimes fear hits us out of the blue, and makes it hard to breathe. Other times it creeps up on us slowly, a hidden force that paralyzes us with its incriminating questions: am I good enough? Smart enough? Strong enough? What if I’m not really the person that all of these people think I am? What if I fail?
As frustrating as it is though, it’s not all bad. Fear tells us when we need to be careful or protect ourselves or slow down. And if we listen closely, we can start to understand which fears make sense and which ones don’t.
I recently listened to a great episode of TED Radio Hour, in which various speakers explained their fears and how they addressed them. One of the speakers, a writer named Karen Thompson Walker, suggested a concept that was eye-opening for me: since we were created as beings with emotions, what if we chose to “read” our fears rather than shutting them down? What if we chose to pause, listen to them, and let them speak before classifying them as a nuisance? Perhaps we would learn some important things about ourselves, our pasts, our wounds, and our hearts by doing so.
As the oldest child in my family, I grew up doing my best to squish fear down into the ground whenever it showed up. To me, it felt like a sign of weakness - and I didn’t have time to be afraid. I liked feeling like I was in control, confident and calm. But as with any emotion, when you don’t listen to your fear, it starts to bubble up like a volcano, and you eventually start to lose it. You start reacting to the emotion - allowing it (and only it) to dictate your decisions, your direction, and your level of joy.
I finally decided it was time for me to suck it up and let my emotions speak. So last night at community group, I forced myself to open my mouth and tell the 15 people sitting in front of me that I was afraid.
When I acknowledged it, the fear shrunk down to about half its original size. It’s still there, but it doesn’t hold the same power. When I finally listened to it speak, it didn’t seem like an enemy anymore – it sounded like a protective friend who wanted to make sure I was ready.
I knew that the protective friend, though he had valid things to say, wouldn’t keep me from moving forward if I actually listened to him. He would come with me for a bit – to make sure I was okay – and at the right time, he would let me go on without him.
And somehow, I felt safer than ever.