A few weeks ago, I took my kids to the library, hoping to inspire them to put down devices and get out old-fashioned books and bury their noses inside real-life pages.
So did I. I got a stack of books, and I finished a sum total of two. One was Tribe (which you all know I loved and wrote about here) and the other was Harrier Lerner’s Fear and Other Uninvited Guests.
Lerner was familiar to me from my childhood when my father suggested I read (as a teenager) The Dance of Anger. I don’t recall much about that book, but I guess Lerner’s name stuck in my brain as someone trustworthy, so when I saw this title in the self-help section of the library (where I tend to hover), I snatched it up and thought: curious. Fear. Mmmmmhmmmm. So familiar.
When I began reading, however, I was disappointed. It wasn’t hefty enough, and I thought perhaps Lerner had gone down the Brene Brown road of fluffy self-help, so light in fact that it feels like the angel food cake of psychology or mental health rather than the good bran muffin we all know we really need.
I thought: is this even worth reading?
I get it. We all have fears. Fears keep us from moving forward. Fear is holding us back from our best selves. Blah, blah, blah.
Then, Lerner wrote, “There is one final kind of fear we need to decode - the fear we don’t feel at all (at least, not consciously).”
Whoa. Wait. What?
I mean, I paused.
When we can’t fully face our anxiety and clarify its sources, we tend to act it out instead - attacking a colleague, nagging our child for the twelfth time, or working all weekend on a project that we good enough on Friday afternoon - all the while convincing ourselves that these responses are totally rational and warranted.
You can obviously see why I ignored everything else in my life and kept reading.
This book, more than any other, has helped me identify anxiety in myself and others, helped me understand the roots of some of my anxiety, and (more importantly) has helped me to just accept that a certain level of anxiety exists and we can move ahead without having to address it, do away with it or squash it in some dramatic and end-of-life scenario.
It’s there. It will, in some way, always be there. We must continue living anyway, and if we are lucky and work a bit at it, the anxiety doesn’t take hold but realizes it doesn’t actually have a seat at the table.
Before I ramble on and on, here are 10 Things About Fear and Other Uninvited Guests:
This book has helped me so much in identifying my anxiety and my kids’ anxieties and the behaviors associated with anxiety, which I often mis-identified as defiance, naughtiness, laziness, etc. This doesn’t mean the behavior is acceptable, but understanding the anxiety has helped me better address the behavior and be more understanding and patient. As a mom, that’s a huge win for me.
Lerner writes about the anxiety (and fear) associated with change and why it is such a difficult issue for many of us, particularly if one person is changing and it affects others (for example, someone loses a significant amount of weight, which changes dynamics in a marriage). It helped me see how moving with the Army all the time affected so much more than just my own feelings of anxiety, and I better understand some of my responses.
Lerner explores the different ways in which we manage anxiety. The two primary ways include over functioning and under functioning. This was a big revelation for me, as I realize I am an underfunctioner. Seeing and identifying this about myself has helped me notice when I am tempted to do it and stop myself from stepping back into that role/pattern. It will take a lot of time to change altogether (and I may never entirely change), but it’s been empowering to take baby steps. I also see others who are overfunctioners, and I am now able to identify anxiety instead of bossiness or being overbearing.
There’s a whole thing about the vagina vs. the vulva in this book. Go with it. Just go with it.
Lerner provides specific steps in how we can address anxiety in the workplace (and beyond) including taking responsibility, thinking things through, hanging out rather than hiding out (which can make gossip and distance worse), staying present and being direct, and being straightforward. I love that she gets specific, gives examples and gives readers concrete steps to take, which are applicable in various parts of life.
One of my favorite quotes is from page 183, “We can only absorb so much anxiety without becoming sick or symptomatic ourselves.”
Another great quote is on page 113, “Anxiety is contagious. Intensity and reactivity only breed more of the same. Calm is also contagious. Nothing is more important than getting a grip on your own reactivity.”
Lerner also gets real about other people’s reactions and how we can’t control them or have unrealistic expectations of how others will behave. She writes, “When we gather our courage to move in the direction of greater authenticity and assertiveness, it would be nice if the other person would offer us enthusiastic approval and applause. But it rarely works that way” (p. 85).
What Lerner has to say about self-esteem and self-regard is, in my opinion, spot-on. As a mother, I have to remember this all the time. She writes, “Authentic self-regard doesn’t come from comparisons or one-upping anybody. Nor is it the inevitable outcome of a loving, secure, and stable childhood, should such a thing exist. Solid self-esteem in adulthood is hard earned” (p. 70). I appreciate that Lerner doesn’t give us the pat answer that we can all be happy if we just have stable childhoods or that our kids won’t suffer and will be happy and have high self-esteem if we just love them enough.
Finally, Lerner points out that when we are judgmental of others, when we are nasty or critical or short with the people in our lives, that’s our own anxiety speaking. We have some unfinished business to attend. It’s not about the other person. Nothing could be, for me, truer.
I am tempted to purchase this book to keep. It’s already past-due at the library. I have dog-eared at least 20 pages, which I now must un-dog-ear and return it to its rightful place.
For anyone interested in exploring fear, anxiety and shame a bit more, learning to identify it in your life and developing skills to cope and move on, this is a great read.