What I Know About Fear Now That I'm In My 40s

walking lady in a dark shade...
walking lady in a dark shade...

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 wish I had good news for you. I wish I could tell you, on this side of grey hair and sagging boobs and the beginning of crows feet, that once you hit 40 you stop being afraid. You don't. I'd love to be able to tell you that age conquers your demons, insecurities, phobias, and your darkest nightmares. It doesn't. In fact, you might acquire some new ones along the way. I want to reassure you that 40 holds the key to stepping into life unafraid. Alas, I can't. My forties have brought me many things, but a cure for the things that go bump in the night is not one of them.

Ain't life grand?

But all is not lost. In between checking out my stretchmarks, bemoaning my wrinkles, and complaining about my new aches and pains, I've figured out that while I may not be able to conquer fear, I'm damn sure not going to spend the next forty years cowering in a corner.

Fear expands to fill the space you give it.
Fear is a lot like the crap I have in my kitchen junk drawer. No matter how large or small the space, the minute I my guard down the drawer fills with rubber bands, paper clips, broken tape dispensers, ballpoint pens, business cards, half-eaten chocolate bars and screwdrivers. I've discovered that junk and fear will fill up exactly as much real estate as I give them. If I'm not careful I'll end up on an episode of Hoarders. So, I've learned to stick my fears in a tiny closet and I try to be ruthless about cleaning it out.

You fear in proportion to how much you love.
When I was younger my fears were pretty benign. I worried that a boy wouldn't like me, that I wouldn't get the job I wanted, that I would say something stupid. (For those of you keeping track, the boy didn't like me, I didn't get the job, and I said many, many stupid things.) I had lots of little fears, but looking back, none of them really mattered. It was only after I got married and had kids that I figured out what true fear feels like, because the thought of something happening to my husband or kids can send me to my knees. Although I don't enjoy them, those moments remind me how lucky I am to have found a life that I'm scared enough to lose.

Getting older isn't worth being afraid of.
Wrinkles, muffin top, and grey hair aren't really that scary. I know, because I have all three and, while not ideal, it is not worth losing sleep over. Mostly because a lack of sleep is just going to give you circles under your eyes to go with the wrinkles, but also because we're all going to get old. Which is what made me realize that . . .

You can't waste time being afraid of things that are going to happen.
You are going to get old. You are going to get wrinkly. You will die. If you are afraid of those things you will spend thousands of dollars of anti-aging surgery, lotions, potions and pills and will likely end up one of those creepy people with puffy lips and plastic skin. This is not a good outcome. Please, save your money and go on a fabulous vacation or buy yourself a killer set of earrings. Invest in something worthwhile instead of wringing your hands over something that you can't control.

If you have time to be afraid, you have time to do something productive. Get off your ass.
I recently had a little melty one night over something I was scared might happen. My husband, who is in so many ways wiser than I am, let me have a cry, then encouraged me to get a grip. He suggested that rather than waste time being afraid of something that hadn't occurred (and, in the end, did not come to pass), I make a plan to deal with the potential bad thing. It was great advice. If you have time for anxiety, fear or even terror, you have time to get up out and find something useful to do. Seriously - go volunteer, give blood, make a plan, do some laundry, walk your neighbor's dog, make cookies for your local firehouse, call a friend, garden or play with your kids/grandkids. Keeping busy will distract you (remember - fear takes up as much space as you let it), and something good comes of it. Do not be a slave to your fear.

Fear makes people do stupid, destructive things.
The older I get, the less time I have to waste on niceties. So here's some tough love - when you feel afraid, be careful, because you're one step away from hurting yourself or other people. In my forties, I've seen this most often happen in divorces. The story usually goes something like this: one spouse is afraid of being alone/being poor/being judged/being left/being humiliated/not ever finding someone else to love/being replaced/[insert scary thing of your choice here], so instead of owning his or her fear, that person lashes out. They say things they will regret, insist on ugly court battles, and use their children as weapons or shields. Their fear controls them and they slash and burn years of relationships, financial capital and self-respect. Fear is powerful and scary, but how you act because of that fear can be even more destructive.

What other people think does not matter.
It does not matter, not even one iota, what anyone else thinks about you, your choices, your body, your job, your past, the car you drive, the college you went to (or didn't go to), the clothes you wear, the home you live in, the people you select as friends, the clubs you do or do not belong to, the addictions you fight, or the beliefs you hold. The only thing that matters is what you think about those things. Fearing other people's judgment or disapproval is like being afraid of air. It's always there even when you can't see it. So it's best to get on with things.

You are stronger than your fear
You are. Believe it. I know a yoga teacher who tells her students, "Look that pose in the eye and make it your bitch." I like to think the same about fear.

devon corneal