With the possible exception of white water rafting, fear is usually a signal that something is worth doing, says writer Daisy Buchanan
“You’re afraid of bugs? Get a bug!”
I am enormously privileged. Every time I watch the news, or talk to a friend, or read a book, I’m aware that millions of women spend every day struggling with situations that, frankly, would scare the beejeezus out of me. My newest Instagram crush is a woman named Jaz O’Hara who goes to refugee camps in Calais and documents the conditions and the stories of the people she meets. My friend Helen has been reporting in deep and moving detail about the situation in Greece.
I’m in awe of the women who raise their voices and tell stories – and especially the women who undertake these terrifying journeys in order to make life better for their families and themselves. I’m ashamed that I let fear govern my life when I have so little to fear. I worry about going on the radio, or asking a question at a Q&A or just doing my job, which is usually just me trying to write something timely about feminism with a few jokes thrown in.
However, I suspect that loads of us are also frightened, and we’d be embarrassed to admit what we’re scared of. There’s no doubt that fear holds us back, and if we work out how to stand up to it, confront it, and laugh at it, we’ll be one step closer to making our lives better, which puts us in a stronger position when it comes to improving the lives of the people around us.
The most frightening thing I ever did was quitting my job as a staff writer on a magazine and going freelance full time. It only happened because I didn’t get a hoped for promotion, and my editor gently suggested that freelancing might be “a good direction” for me.
At the time I didn’t have much confidence. The tiny seed that was there was immediately stunted by the fact that no-one at the magazine thought I was worth a pay rise, and after four years all they could do was encourage me to leave.
Yet the seed started to grow. I’d suddenly realised that I wasn’t in a bad book with an unhappy ending, but a Choose Your Own Adventure story. As I thought “What if no-one ever wants to hire me, and I end up homeless?” another idea popped into my head. What if they do want to hire me? What if it ends well? At the time, I was broke and bored. If I went freelance, at least I wouldn’t be bored.
With the possible exception of white water rafting, fear is usually a signal that something is worth doing. The more extreme the fear, the more likely it is that you’ll change your life for the better once you’ve conquered it. I suffer from anxiety and I’ve found that my fear is bound up with my low self esteem. I’m endlessly listening to this looped, internal toxic trilogy: “Something dreadful will probably happen”, “If it does, it will be all your fault” and “It’s safer not to try. Don’t risk it.” These are the words that stopped me from thinking about carving out my own career for years. But when you’re thrown into the bottom of the ocean, the fear of drowning becomes bigger than the fear of being criticised for your terrible swimming. And you can’t keep hating yourself when you mange to reach the surface. In fact, you’re punching the air, taunting the sharks and shouting “How d’you like me now?!”
As soon as I left my job I didn’t have the time or the headspace to fear the future because I was spending all my energy on trying to stay afloat. I was more successful at freelancing than I dared to dream I’d be – because that’s what happens when you conquer fear. It always goes better than you could possibly have hoped it might, and having your low expectations surpassed is like being given steroids for confidence. The successes and the rejections helped my tiny seed to bloom. No matter what happened I knew I was getting a little bit stronger every day, just because I kept trying. I got better at taking people’s words at face value – “Not right for us just now” meant that, it wasn’t a coded message for “I can’t believe you thought you could get in touch! Never darken my inbox again!”
I took little risks that got bigger. After a week when none of my pitches could get me arrested, I was asked to write a book. Then I was asked to write another one, which got cancelled. I did a panel event which went brilliantly, and another that went so badly that I cried all the way home. I went on This Morning with the gorgeous, gregarious Amy Willerton, even though I was terrified and convinced that I might be too fat for TV even when I wasn’t sat next to Miss Universe. (I’m sure some viewers thought that, but happily they didn’t find my Twitter handle.) Quickly, I learned that I wasn’t bad and I wasn’t brilliant. But breaking free from fear, trying and trying again and saying yes to everything, no matter how frightened I felt, meant the opportunities kept coming my way.
Fear still follows me. Every time I sit down in front of a blank word document with a feature to file, the terror turns up. It’s homework, it’s my finals, it’s the hell of the recruitment agency Excel proficiency typing test, and I seize up. I am unprepared, my fingers have blagged their way into the corps de ballet and now they’re on stage, alone, looking like proper idiots. But they can choose their own adventure, like me. Eventually, the fear of not writing becomes bigger than the fear of being thought a fool, and I make something happen.
I’m inspired by the brilliant women I know – the medics, lawyers, volunteers, activists and mothers – who tell me they’re not fearless at all, and sometimes fear threatens to hold them back. But they all manage to fight fear with fear, by answering their own, anguished “But what if it goes wrong?” with a louder “And what if it goes right?!”
Find out more about our #BREAKFREE from Fear campaign.