What I Know About Fear Now That I'm In My 30s

In her new book "Lean In," Sheryl Sandberg notes the ways in which fear can hold women back and the importance of pushing through that fear. She writes, "This book is what I would do if I weren't afraid." We asked women of different ages to share what they've learned about fear so far.

I think of fear as an imaginary friend, but the kind you don't dismiss along with childhood's other phantoms. Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy and the monster under the bed get exposed for the fictions they are. Fear is with you from the beginning and grows more sophisticated and complex as it ages right alongside you.

It took me until my 20s to realize the degree to which fear influenced my life and decisions -- and always had. It took until close to 30, where I am now, to realize that it had become a part of me. At some point we merged, my fear and me, and it became hard to tell who was driving.

It's only as I've begun to disentangle myself, to determine which thoughts are mine and which are products of my fears that I've established the slightest bit of distance between them and me. Here are 9 things I know about fear in my earliest 30s:

1. It keeps you safe -- sometimes too safe.
In its most basic form, fear is a protective mechanism, right? If you weren't afraid of that wave/truck/bear/overly cheerful sales associate moving toward you, you might not think to move away from it, and then something bad might happen.

As I made my way through my 20s and finally into my 30s, I learned that fear can also become a crutch. Instead of challenging or resisting the voice that said, "This is too hard, it will hurt," I listened more and more. I appreciated the shelter fear offered from things that could turn out to be uncomfortable and disappointing. At the time, discomfort and disappointment felt like too high a price to pay for anything. But at some point in my late 20s, the fear itself began to feel more oppressive than the things I was afraid of. It's a harrowing and liberating moment when you realize you've let fear determine the perimeters of your life, and that you are ready to redraw the lines.

2. Know the difference between the fear you should listen to and the fear you shouldn't.
Here's the test I've developed over the years: If you're afraid that the situation at hand could harm you, pay attention to that fear. If you're afraid that you're not good, smart, pretty, strong, experienced or informed enough to do the thing you want to do, do it anyway and don't look back.

3. Talking about your fear helps.
This sounds like mundane advice, but it's amazing how much easier it is to handle fear when you don't feel like you have to keep it a secret. I have one coworker in whom I confide my professional worries and fears and who does the same with me. Letting someone you trust know what's going on in your head can make you feel much less alone and allow you to get some perspective on whether your fear of being fired and ending up homeless are well founded or not.

4. But call it what it is.
In recent years I noticed that I'd developed a tendency to describe any remotely uncomfortable experience as "scary." I didn't differentiate between tasks and situations that were simply anxiety-producing or stressful and those that could actually bring me harm. That, I now realize, is an excellent way to make the not actually scary, just hard things I face throughout the day feel much less doable.

5. The antidote is simple and not.
The easiest way to overcome fear is to do the thing that scares you, as any number of Etsy prints suggest. And you totally would, except for the original fact that you're terrified, and also that some fears are more abstract and don't involve taking the flight or going to the reptile house at the zoo (which, for the record, I would never, ever do). The key is doing it in small manageable bits, just like either Eleanor Roosevelt or Mary Schmich) said. Do not disobey Eleanor Roosevelt.

5. You've already come a long way, even if you didn't try.
If you're a fearful person, chances are you've been scared your whole life. But since you've made it this far, you've likely gotten over some of those fears, maybe even in spite of yourself. That's worth applauding, even if the fears were of things so mundane you felt you shouldn't be afraid of them in the first place. At one point or another in my adult life I've been afraid of: messiness, being imperfect, work, going to the bank or post office alone, eating, exercise, following a schedule. While I'm still afraid of many things, these items are now off the list. And when I think I can't possibly do the thing scaring me most on any given day, I remember that I once thought the same about all of those things.

6. Take stock of what still freaks you out.
Being honest about your fears leads to better decisions -- or at least prevents terrible ones. Fear can make you do crazy things -- leave someone before he or she dies or leaves you because you can't bear abandonment, lie or cheat because you feel you don't have what it takes to get ahead honestly, be unfaithful because you're so afraid of confrontation that you can't voice your unhappiness in a relationship. You do not want to be that person. The best way to keep your fears from taking you over is to admit them, especially the big ones.

7. Name THE fear.
You know the one, the central fear around which all the lesser fears swirl. For years mine has been that I can't do it, whatever it is, that I was born ill-equipped, built wrong to make it in the world. For a long time I didn't realize that was the fear from which all the others radiated, so I focused on lesser terrors, like the ones listed above. When I realized that they all stemmed from that larger source, I was daunted, of course. There I was, finally staring down the Big Fear. I could no longer pretend it wasn't there and that I didn't have to deal with it. But I also felt the relief that comes with knowing that you are telling yourself the truth.

8. It comes from somewhere.
I can trace most of that Big Fear to having grown up in that increasingly unusual kind of family: My mother mostly didn't work because she didn't have to, and my father announced at one point that his greatest ambition in life was to see his two girls married to men who would take care of them. Though my parents encouraged my sister and me to be be excellent students, my mother confessed to me when I was a teenager that she had intended to be a doctor but didn't apply to medical school because she didn't think she was smart enough. My mother has contributed to the world in innumerable ways that improve people's lives rather than their bottom lines, and my father wanted what as far as he knew was the best possible future for us. But their messages -- the example of her self-doubt, his expectation that I needed someone to take care of me -- do shed some light on why a daughter given every possible resource would think she can't hack it on her own.

9. A single sentence can diminish its power.
Right before I took this job, I talked to a close friend who has heard all my stories. I went on and on, listing aloud my weaknesses and the various ways I might fail and wondering if I perhaps should pass on the position. I'll never forget her response: "You know what that sounds like? 'I didn't go to medical school because I didn't think I was smart enough.'"

A lot instantly clarified in a way I hadn't thought possible. When I was younger, I couldn't believe that my smart, resourceful mother had sold herself so short, "settled," as she's described it to me. But as my friend pointed out, I was to a lesser degree doing the same thing, letting fear hold me back, or threatening to. That was when I realized that I couldn't take refuge in fear anymore, for my own sake and I suppose for my mother's, too. I truly don't believe she knew any better, but thanks to her, I do.