Fear Is a Story We Tell Ourselves

BearI knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe.
      —Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail

The minute I read this stunning line I recognized Truth in every fiber of my being, not related to any specific personal fear, but about fear in general. In a flash I realized it’s not just huge fears, like plane crashes or being attacked on the trail by a hungry bear, that cause distress. We all have daily irritations we choose not to confront because we fear that speaking out will be worse than stuffing our anger. We mutely mutter on, largely unaware of the story underlying our choices – or even that we are making choices.

The opening quotation occurs at the beginning of her solo adventure along the Pacific Coast Trail. Cheryl had plenty to be afraid of: a woman hiking alone in the wilderness is at risk from both two and four-legged predators (she met both). She might get lost (she did). She might run out of food or water (that was close). She might sustain an injury (she did) or get sick. Perhaps her biggest risk of all was the total ignorance and lack of backpacking experience that she finally admitted to herself as she heaved her unmanageable pack onto her back for the first time.

Cheryl faced most of these risks and other staggering obstacles head-on at one time or another, and  her new story worked. It kept her walking all the way from Mojave, California to the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River.

We can follow her example and use the power of new stories to alter or transform the direction of our lives. For stories with extra punch, explore your fears on the page, even the little ones, and write your new stories as insights emerge.

Why write?

Renowned psychology professor James Pennebaker postulates that a key factor to making expressive writing such a powerfully healing tool is that as people write about a troubling event over a period of days, chaotic thoughts begin coalescing into structured, meaningful stories. Writers who also begin exploring alternate points of view derive the most potent benefits.

Taking this one step further, an obvious conclusion is that those who explore alternate points of view create a new story to explain the past and guide future perceptions and choices.

Cheryl told herself one small story to enable herself to begin moving along the trail. By the end of her journey, she had told herself a new story about her entire life and justify the subtitle of her memoir: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I urge you to pick up a copy of this best-selling book and use her experience as a guideline for a presumably less physically rigorous adventure in restorying your life.

Write now: about a recurring circumstance in your life, preferably something you’d like to change. As you write, pay close attention to thoughts that run through your mind, especially those that sound like messages. These connect you with your underlying “story.” Get that story on the page, then write a few alternative scenarios. Explore options you might consider impossible. You may be surprised at the new story options that pop out of nowhere onto your page. Leave a comment or send me an email about your success with this exercise.

Photo credit: Sharon Lippincott


Karen Walker said...

Oh how I love this, Sharon. I'm going to tell myself a new story right now! BTW, do you intentionally have word verification on - it's a bit of a hindrance.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Karen, I hope your new story works well for you! Yes, I do have word verification on. I was having trouble with spam, but Blogger is getting better at screening it. I'll try turning it off and see how it goes. Thanks for mentioning this.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Sorry about that. Within minutes after disabling that function, I had over a dozen robo spam comments on old posts. I wish the verification were easier, but it needs to be there.

kathleen pooler said...

Your insights, as usual,are spot on. The idea of being transformed (that hot topic again!) by telling a new story is so powerful. Cheryl Strayed's Wild is a perfect example of how reframing our stories can pave a new path. A stunning memoir. I love this discussion!

SuziCate said...

Some times we need to tell ourselves that same story over and over like a bedtime story until we learn it by heart!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Great Point SuziCate. There can be a gap between telling it and believing it ...

glaudius said...

Very insightful. Most of us have developed all kinds of fears for reasons we constructed in our mind. However fear has a purpose, our lives are build on so many little things we take for granted like clean water, electricity , knowledgeable doctor, nice strangers etc. Our fears keep us within that comfort zone without us being aware of it. So it is a balance. Always fight the ever shrinking comfort zone...within reason.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for that point Glaudius. The fears we are aware of, the ones we see, are the easy ones to deal with ...


I am hoping to read "Wild" at some point. Right now I'm reading Cami Ostman's "Second Wind: One Woman's Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents." I have a feeling there will be a lot of similarities between these two memoirs. Taking on enormous physical challenges with the hopes of learning more about yourself, Cami refers to her 7 marathons as a giant "vision quest." She definitely has to face her many fears head on.

I know this is off point but, it amazes me how one book will make it to the top of the best seller list while another equally engaging one won't. I'm curious about "Wild." It seems to be getting about as much press as "The Glass Castle" which for me was a huge disappointment. Often times the very best memoirs don't make it to Oprah's Book Club.

By the way, on my blogs, I have to use my Captcha (word verification) too otherwise I'm inundated with spam. It's a necessary evil, I'm afraid.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Grace, I'll put Second Wind on my reading list. One of the challenges any author faces is finding a crack in readers' available schedule!

If anyone finds the key to Oprah's door, don't publish it. Just quietly email it to me. LOL! But seriously, Wild in my opinion, Wild deserves the acclaim. The writing is as compelling as the content.