“You are so full of fears,” my ex-boyfriend said.
He was right. That time, I was afraid of drinking a beer on the beach. I was afraid we’d get caught. Booked. Handcuffed. Tarred and feathered. Unable to be employed ever again.
I thought potential missteps were my kryptonite.
I was wrong. Fear was my kryptonite, because in the end, my fears destroyed my relationship, which I cared about much more than my job.
I wasn’t always full of fear. In my twenties, I moved across the country with no job and no apartment lease, intending to stay permanently. I wrote what I wanted. I said what I thought. Everything worked out.
Then I went to grad school.
I accepted a scholarship that required me to get a particular type of job for two years afterward. As soon as I signed the paperwork, I regretted it. Even after I graduated and got a job, I felt constrained. If I resigned or was fired before two years elapsed, I’d owe a portion of my grad-school tuition.
Fear ruled my life. I was afraid to do anything even slightly outside the lines. Because of strict rules about accepting gifts or credit, I was afraid to do normal things too: split a check at a restaurant with friends; go on a date with someone in my field; even open a bank account. Starting a side business was out of the question.
Eventually, I was afraid to communicate how desperately unhappy I was becoming. My career was going well, and six years had passed instead of two, but I was feeling farther and farther from who and what I wanted to be outside of work. My relationship had failed, I’d had a health scare that impressed on me the uncertainty of life, and I knew it was now or never.
Of course, I was afraid to leave my job. But I was more afraid of continuing to march down the wrong path without taking time to explore alternatives. The farther I’d walked down that path, the more fears I had accumulated. That felt like a “Wrong Way” sign. Life should be a process of busting through fears, not building a monument to them.
After leaving my job, and after the initial jolt of relief and freedom, I kept expecting to wake up and also feel fear about my decision to leave. But I never did. I felt stress, sure, and uncertainty. But the suffocating fear of holding myself back was gone.
The only fear left was, “What would my former coworkers think of what I’m doing?” And, yes, it limited me. It took 18 months for that fear to lighten enough for me to rediscover creativity.
I still feel that fear, but the more I face it and produce my work, the more I realize it is possible to be a full human being and still be accepted. That’s the greatest positive feeling I could have, like a spark inside me that keeps growing the more of myself I reveal. It’s a fact of life that some people are just not going to like me, no matter what I do. So I might as well do the things that are pulling at my soul.
This essay was originally published in Medium’s Hello Fears publication on September 2, 2016.