If you’re a Sherlock fan (and you are, whether you know it yet or not), you may remember this exchange that just blew me away. Sherlock, badly injured, tries to find a way to control his pain by going into his mind palace and visiting Moriarty. Sherlock says to him, “You never felt pain, did you? Why did you never feel pain?” Moriarty answers, “You always feel it, Sherlock. But you don't have to fear it. Pain, heartbreak, loss, death: it's all good.” I might not go so far as to say it’s good, but it is absolutely inevitable and I think that fearing it only makes it worse.
Your brain has elaborate systems in place to keep you from hurting yourself. The most basic and elemental parts of your brain control the reflexes that pull your hand away from something hot, that make you scared of snakes, that cause the smell of broccoli to make you queasy if you got food poisoning from it once (if you’re me). It’s vitally important to your survival that you find out quickly what is going to hurt you and you know to stay away from it forever.
Emotional pain actually activates the same brain systems as physical pain, so many of the same principles apply to your experiences of shame, humiliation, and disappointment. We are deeply hardwired to avoid social and emotional pain just like physical pain. While an argument can be made that in some times and places (seemingly including high schools today) social death can lead to actual physical death, in most places and for most people the fear, anxiety, and dread that we build up trying to ward off upsetting experiences can have worse consequences than going through the negative experience itself.
I get it. I truly do. Rejection, failure, disappointing people you care about, all of these are deeply painful to go through. It hurts to hurt, as a wise woman once said. (It was me. I said it in seriousness but it’s still condescending and now I’ll never live it down.) But as unpleasant as emotional pain is, you may be able to blunt it if you remember the following two truths:
It won’t last forever, and it won’t kill you.
Emotions can be seen as waves. They surge over you, utterly consuming, and in your panic or elation (because this is true of both positive and negative emotions) you think that this moment will last forever. Then it recedes, for better or for worse, and your feet are on the ground again. Getting used to the ebb and flow of disaster and triumph in your life can give you some perspective to hold onto when you see the next wave coming: good or bad, it won’t last.
You might find that your fear of failure is more exhausting and painful to live with than failure itself. Just imagine how much more energy you would have to be creating successes if you were't so terrorized by your insecurity, if you could just fearlessly accept the possibility of failure and then get on with doing whatever it is you want to do despite it. I think about quicksand sometimes: you may not know this but with quicksand, it’s only if you panic and fight that you sink. It’s actually kind of fascinating - when you flail your arms up you create suction under them that pulls you down. In quicksand as in life, if you just relax and keep breathing you’ll always rise up.
If you accept that looking foolish, being flawed, and making mistakes isn’t fatal, that the consequences will pass, that you will survive and live to try again another day, maybe you can take a break from fighting so hard to be perfect. Wouldn’t it be amazing to live without the anxiety, misery and dread that take up so much space in your daily life?
Bad things can happen, but living with the fear of them may be worse than living through the pain of them. Next time you see the wave coming, try to take a deep breath and give yourself up to it. Let it wash over you and know that it won’t last. If you feel yourself sinking into the quicksand, just relax and breathe. It’s no fun, for sure, but soon enough you’ll find your feet on the ground again. And once you know how to float, maybe you won’t have to be so afraid of drowning.