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The Fear of Showing Up

It's a topic that comes up a lot in sessions with my clients and students.   The fear of showing up.  The fear of being seen.  The fear of being subjected to judgment, scrutiny, merciless evaluation, degradation, or just plain being ignored.  It's a pretty common fear, and one so crippling for many people that they don't write their books, sing their songs, frame and hang their artwork, or show the world who they really are.  The fear of showing up can create, over time, the sense of living behind a mask, of being authentic, of a deadening of vitality and purpose.

I can relate.  As a dancer, one of the things I've always liked about my craft is that it doesn't require me to talk.  I've written as a personal practice since the age of 15.  About a decade ago, I was awarded a fellowship to study with Natalie Goldberg for a week at Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos.  The idea was to spend a week meditating and writing.

It didn't take me long at this retreat to figure out that I was in the company of many seasoned writers who were published, or publishing, their work.  As I always had, I remained mum, spoke little, and wrote.  On the second or third day, Natalie walked up to me and said, "You've done this before.  You have a voice.  Are you publishing?"

I shook my head.  She said, "Why aren't you publishing?"

I just shrugged.  I didn't even know how to answer the question.  It was as simple as this:  I couldn't imagine "showing up" that much.  Write so that other people can see it?  Are you kidding me?  Why would I do that?  Writing was a safe place, a haven from everywhere else.  I couldn't imagine anything I had to say being seen by others.  I knew I had to write--and did--but beyond that the idea of having others read it had never occurred to me.  I didn't want to show up.

I'll never forget the long, hard look Natalie gave me after I made this noncommittal response to her question.  Finally she said, "Well, all right.  You don't have to do that, nobody does, but you should think about it."  She turned on her heel and walked away.  I don't think I spoke to her the rest of the retreat.  I sat and wrote and wrote and sat, and at the end of the week, I went home.

Flash forward 10 years to my first-ever pieces of writing submitted for publication to News Taco.  Two of these pieces, Race and Craigslist Dating and Tall Women Can't Hide, fed from News Taco to Jezebel.  I experienced nothing short of a full on panic when I realized that my work would be featured on a news site of this size.  I was afraid to click on the links that the lovely Sara Ines Calderon sent me to the articles when they appeared, and when I finally did so, I had another bout of anxiety upon realizing that there would be comments posted underneath the article that I could see.  Comments? On my first ever pieces of writing put "out there" for the world?   Both pieces arose from informal conversations I'd had with Sara that she'd asked me to write about.  I'd never thought about the content being seen in this particular way; I just happen to really like talking to Sara.

I was immeasurably anxious about presenting myself as a creative writer separate from my professional identity as a healer, especially given that when writing creatively I take on a "lens" that is not reflective of the more encompassing view of a topic that I hold as a whole human.  While I'd love to express ALL of what I think in a piece, good writing for a news site needs to be concise and topical, and by default must leave out more deeply shaded nuances for the sake of navigable length.

Then there's the whole information streaming thing.  It seems like another world, one I'm not versed in, one informed by high-speed information exchange and Tweets and Facebook and who knows what else.  Tweeter?  Twitter?  Flitter?  Fodder?  Fleeter?  Go on, hit those buttons.  Data flies around the globe while I sit here with my 7 year old laptop running Windows Vista wondering what, if anything, I'm supposed to do next.  I see words appearing on the screen, other writers speculating about my thoughts, feelings, and views, or perhaps my age or marital status.  It's rather wondrous.  It's very odd.  It's unnerving to be talked about rather than talked to; part of me, rooted in the old school, wants to wave her arms and say, "if anyone has a question, I'm rather reachable you know."  I was strangely, and genuinely, comforted by the fact that when I posted the link to the second piece on my personal Facebook page, hardly anyone noticed.

I've learned--am learning--a lot from these experiences.  For one thing, I've realized that a practice, any practice, strengthens our souls.  When you've spent a lot of time in the weeds with poems, letters, dances, songs, paintings, there's a shedding process that's already happened in creating the work.  You know for yourself whether or not it's good, whether or not you feel you have something to say, whether or not it's an accurate lens on how you see the world at the time you created it.  Artists already know the harshest critic of all, and it's ourselves.  If we can survive our own censorship, we can survive that of others.  It doesn't have to sway us.  We don't need to fear that others will say anything worse than what we've already said to ourselves 100 times over at 3 a.m.

I always encourage my clients to show up.  Always.  This hiding and masking of the best parts of ourselves, I understand it, but it isn't the truest expression of who we are.  We can build the strength to withstand and respond to the perceptions of others with calmness, humor, wit, and warmth.  We can learn and practice the patience to correct misperceptions, state limitations, explain when needed without being defensive.  We can afford to be patient.  We can afford to listen.  We can be strong enough for all of that.

I feel that a lot of what I do as a healer is to help people first uncover, then strengthen, their true identites.  Those identities are multi-layered and fluid.  But the core is the essence of this person--their values, strengths, loves, convictions, what's inside to be offered.  I believe in that.  I believe that the journey toward strengthening and liberating the true person is time that is never ever wasted.  I've seen many many people unfold into being both more vibrant and centered as the layers slid off.

Showing up is not only about being seen; it's about being, period.  It's about being ourselves, authentic, strong, compassionate, fearless.