It’s Okay to Be Scared

Luca woke me up early yesterday morning. His cries were desperate and tears streamed down his face as he reached for me. It took him a few minutes to calm down, to string together some real words. When he finally did, he told me about his nightmare: “The Grinch stole Grandma and tried to steal me too!”

I held back my laughter as I picked him up and hugged him tight to my chest. We watched the Grinch over and over during the month of December and often talked about the Grinch’s efforts to steal Christmas. (We watched the Netflix version, having tried Jim Carey’s, but Luca let us know “the real Grinch” just takes things too far.) I tried practicing some empathy. I imagined a hairy, sadistic, raw onion-eating, animal abuser holding my own grandmother hostage, and I wondered if I too might cry. “It’s okay, buddy,” I said. “It’s okay to be scared.”

Emily and I are learning that this is a difficult age. Our 3-year-old is on a roller coaster that never stops. His emotions are all over the place, and twenty or thirty times a day I catch myself wanting to say, just stop crying! But before I have the chance, he’s on the floor laughing because Mommy tripped over Daddy’s shoes. The tears on his face haven’t even dried yet.

We’ve developed a habit of telling him it’s okay to be sad or scared or angry or whatever he’s feeling. As parents, we don’t want our kids to feel like their emotions aren’t seen or like they need to be happy or calm before they can be accepted and loved. The last message I want to send my kids is that their emotions are a character flaw or even shame-worthy. 

Yet with ourselves, we’re so quick to judge. We feel an aversion to certain emotions, and we want to shut the whole thing down. When I am angry, I often feel frustrated with myself for not having more patience. When I am anxious, I start to layer my fears on top of each other. What if my anxiety worsens? Now I’m anxious about my anxiety. What if I spiral? What if my worst-case scenario becomes reality? It’s my judgment of my emotion, the story I tell myself about my emotion, that brings me to my knees, not the emotion itself.

A few months ago, leading up to the birth of our second baby, I had my first real panic attack. It came out of nowhere during dinner one night, when I was literally in the middle of telling my wife how at peace I felt, how the anxiety I’ve experienced my whole life has gone away almost completely, and how lucky I felt to work from home during this turbulent time. That’s when it happened.

It’s common for people who experience their first panic attack to feel a strong, heightened sense of anticipatory anxiety, as they fear the possibility of having another attack. I didn’t know this at the time; almost immediately the layering began. The panic attack was over, but now I’m wondering what just happened to me. Is it the new medication? Or worse? Do I have schizophrenia? Bipolar? Did I have a heart attack? (Clearly, I knew very little about all of these things). I would spend the next several months suffering from crippling panic and anxiety as I waited for the onslaught, for the discovery of the real problem. The big problem. What a fun time it was coming up with possibilities, too! They all ended in death.

For months, my anxiety remained higher than it’s ever been. In fact, even after a hospital stay, an outpatient program, a new diagnosis (panic disorder), and a new prescription, I still find myself curled up in a ball on my bed some days, telling myself I just need to get over it, to get up and go for a run or get dressed or make breakfast.

My therapist asked me if I would feel comfortable talking to my son the same way I talk to myself. Therapists are really annoying with their questions.

I’m so gentle with my 3-year-old, so intentional with how I speak to him. Connect then redirect, I say to myself over and over again when he’s having a meltdown and I just want to yell. Connect and redirect, when he throws a toy on the ground in frustration. When he runs away screaming after I ask him to put on his pajamas. What do I do? I get down on one knee and I validate his feelings. I let him know that I understand it’s frustrating when we have to do things we don’t want to do. It can make us angry, and that’s okay. Sometimes we have to do those things anyway or else there are consequences. Does he want to try again?

How would my relationship with my anxiety change if I accepted my emotions as normal, human responses to stimuli? How would my relationship with myself look if I validated and accepted rather than trying to think my way out of my emotions?

Maybe the layers of emotions would be limited to just one? Rather than anxiety about anxiety, maybe I could just have anxiety? Rather than frustration about anger maybe I could just be angry?

So often, we find ourselves replaying situations in our heads, attempting to find a way to feel better about them. That kind of mental gymnastics works occasionally–and there’s a time and a place for re-framing our stories so that we can move on–but most of the time, we’re just making complicated efforts to reject an emotion. We don’t want to feel sad, so we tell ourselves everything is okay. We don’t want to be angry, so we do everything we can to shove the emotion away, telling ourselves we have nothing to be angry about. Why do we do this? Because our own judgment says it’s not okay to feel what we feel.

Mindfulness has been helping me a lot with this (here’s a great podcast episode if you want an introduction to mindfulness). A definition that I really like says it’s the nonjudgemental observation of the present moment. Mindfulness allows us to stay with the first layer of our emotions. It’s a state of being that prevents us from judging our thoughts or emotions therefore preventing secondary emotions.

“The mind is an awful lot like a jar of muddy water. The best way to clear it is to leave it alone.” – Alan Watts 

When the Grinch steals Grandma, I’m working on telling myself it’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to be fearful of losing my loved ones. It’s okay to be anxious about bringing a baby girl into this world. It’s okay to be nervous about our nation’s future and angry about injustices.

I’m learning that I’d be a lot better off if I just treated myself like a 3-year-old (because, really, what is an adult if not a 3-year-old with some practiced survival skills).


2 thoughts on “It’s Okay to Be Scared”

  1. Rebekah Childers

    willie, though being fully potty trained for a long time, has had 6 or 7 accidents in the last 10 days or so. the first time, i just take it in stride – it happens. the second time, in the same day? i think, wow, this is really frustrating. then the third time, two days later, i ask ‘what is going on??’ and then almost as soon as i ask that of myself, i have the answer. being only 4 years old, he doesn’t have a comprehension for what’s going on in the world. he doesn’t know what the word ‘insurrection’ is. but his body does, his body knows our body language, our tones, our emotions, and all of those take up space in our home. his body knows how to take that in, even if he doesn’t understand it. his body doesn’t know what to do with is, so his signals get cut off or lost. and he doesn’t make it to the bathroom, or he doesn’t even know that he has to go. after the third time, all i could think to do was look at him while getting him clean clothes and say ‘i know you don’t know what’s happening outside, but you are safe and i love you.’ then, i thought holy cow, why am i not saying this to myself in the mirror every morning?

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