I wasn't born a fearful person; life taught me to be fearful. I wonder how true that statement is for many of you reading this. As a little girl, I'm told I was quite the diva. Precocious is how my father described me while my mother claims I was a girl who always knew what she wanted. But my dad wanted to be successful and climb that corporate ladder, so he whenever he got a promotion or a better job offer, off we'd move. Between kindergarten and 8th grade, I attended four different schools. I had many mean teachers throughout my educational career who planted one fear in me: Speaking in front of people. This one fear held me back in many ways throughout the oncoming years.
When I got to high school, I came out of my shell a little. But even there I only tried out for the school newspaper. Writing and reading were two places that I felt safe. Even though all my friends were either cheerleaders or field hockey players, I refused to try out. It was just too scary. When I got to college, I joined a sorority and when, a year later, the graduating officers asked me to run for president, I was flattered. But I said no. The president of my sorority had to travel for two major events and give speeches in front of hundreds of people. There was no way I could do that.
At my sister's rehearsal dinner, I was told by my older sister that as the maid of honor I had to give a speech. Huh? I had no idea. I got up, tinkled my glass and then stumbled through a terrible speech with a shaky voice that ended with my crying, "I love you Courtney." Then my older sister stood up and unrolled a scroll on which she'd written a poem. She read it perfectly, smoothly making eye contact with everyone. That poem was later framed and still hangs above my sister's mantel. I never gave another speech at a wedding again -- maid of honor or not.
Do you see what I'm getting at? Our fears hold us back. Fear is that little voice in your head that whispers, "You can't do it." "Who do you think you are anyway?" "Everyone will laugh at you." If I had to draw a picture of fear, I would paint handcuffs because that's what fear does. It chains us down, keeps us stuck.
The night before the start of my junior year of college, I couldn't sleep. My advisor had been pressuring me to declare a major. I'd started out as an art major, but I was scared by how much better everyone else was. I switched to journalism, but after a summer internship at a TV station in Hartford, CT, I decided that tract was way too boring for me. Finally, at 3 am, I woke up my dad and said, "Dad, I have to declare a major tomorrow and I don't know what to be." He rubbed his eyes and said, "What's your favorite subject?" I didn't have to think about that. "History," I said. "Then major in that. Now go back to bed."
So I did and I loved it. I loved every single history class and teacher I had, and it soon became clear that the only career I could pursue with a history major was teaching. I was terrified of becoming a teacher, but I was terrified of not becoming a teacher too. Studying and teaching history were all I wanted to do. I remember my first day of teaching. I had gum in my mouth and I was so nervous that it dissolved in my mouth. Gone. I can still remember every student's name from that first semester and every single lesson plan I taught. I would write and re-write my lesson plans over and over until I had memorized them and then I would teach it to whoever around me would listen. By the time I got to class the next day, I didn't even need notes. The first week of school I threw up most mornings. I always got sick before the twice yearly teacher evaluations. But by the end of that first year, I knew one thing: I was a good teacher. By the end of the second year, I learned that I was a good speaker.
Having to face my fear and speak in front of people and deal with all sorts of new situations has taught me that fear is the enemy not the imaginary thing you're afraid of. And trust me, I've had to face many scary situations in the classroom. I've had my very own stalker. I've taught three men who were admitted murderers and two who committed murder while they were my students. I've taught strippers, homeless people, drug addicts, angry students, depressed ones, and happy ones. And you know what? They all taught me something. That's the thing about facing your fears. Once you do, you grow and learn and reach new heights that were before unimaginable.
When my dear friend George passed away at the tender age of 27 from colon cancer, I was asked to read something at his memorial. He was a special man, loved by many, so his memorial was held at Kenan Auditorium where several hundred people gathered to say goodbye. When it was my turn to get up and read, I wasn't even nervous. I had already faced my fear. Hundreds of times. I am still to this day so happy that I had already faced my biggest fear and could honor my friend in this way.
When my husband was shot in the line of duty, and I learned that city would only pay his salary for 21 days, I stood in front of city council and demanded one year's salary for all first responders. Yes, I did cry a little, but my voice didn't shake. I made clear, concise points and the council changed the law to 12 months full pay.
Facing my fear has changed my life. The old me could never have imagined hosting a weekly radio show, teaching workshops and classes and giving people advice on how to find and embrace their soul purpose.
Recognize your fear. Say it aloud. Talk about it. Then commit to doing one thing a month that forces you to face that fear. Let's say you're recently divorced and you're afraid of dating again. Sign up for a new class. Join a writing group. Tell a friend or two you're ready to start dating. If you've decided to return to the work force after years of staying home and find yourself afraid of facing a new work environment, take a computer class. Volunteer for an organization that's similar to your specialty. In short, take action. Fear hates action. When it sees you taking action, it slowly withers and dies. Make a commitment this year to kill your fear. Decide that this year at least one of your fears will be done away with. Talk about it. Share it with supportive friends. Take action. And see the wonderful changes that take place in your life.