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Martha Beck, PhD, grew up wanting to be an ecologist or a professor. However, after bearing three children while acquiring three Harvard degrees, Martha decided she'd rather just lie down for a few decades. During that time she became an author and life coach. Her books include, Expecting Adam, Leaving the Saints, Finding Your Own North Star, The Joy Diet, Steering by Starlight, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World, and Diana Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. Martha has been a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine since its inception in 2001 and has been a contributing editor for several popular magazines, including Real Simple and Redbook.
1440: What is the main thing that holds people back from living their fullest life?
Martha Beck: There are two things: ignorance and fear. Sometimes people are just ignorant that there is another way; they don't know and they don't ask. There are hundreds of cultural stories we believe without question.
You have to have a job.
You have to go to the best school.
You have to eat/not eat a certain food.
Are you sure that's true? Not questioning is probably the worst perpetrator of all.
We're like people who go on munching on something poisonous without paying attention to the way it makes us want to vomit, simply because everybody around us is doing the same thing. Everyone is saying, "Yeah, I know it's horrible, but I eat it every day. It's just the way things are." We go munching onward until we're too sick to move and then maybe we question it. Then fear kicks in.
1440: How does fear stop us?
Martha Beck: One of the things I've noticed is if someone is chronically angry at the world—maybe their passion is dancing but they work as a server in a restaurant—if you say to that person, "Okay, the world is now going to cooperate with you. You get to just dance. Now what are you going to do?" Immediately their anger is replaced by absolute panic. Because if we take the chance to live these wonderful dreams in our heads, we find out that it's actually kind of hard.
It's not hard in the way living a slow death-by-job is hard. It's hard in the way making fire is hard.
To go out and make your way without a job, a relationship, an idea, etc., is terrifying. It's why people stay where they are.
With a job, they are looking for someone else to be the grown up, to give them an allowance. They'll do whatever is asked of them as long as they don't have to face the fear of creating something that might not work.
1440: So how can people work with fear?
Martha Beck: Get used to it.
Fear is not a drive-by visitor. It will be there until you either attain enlightenment or die. You're always going to be scared. It's a natural part of the brain.
It's the deepest part of the brain, and fear of the unknown is universal. It's a biological reality. If you're going to do something different from what you've experienced, if you're going to go into the unfamiliar, then fear will raise its ugly head.
I know that sounds brutal and I'm not talking about fear related to trauma—that needs healing—but if you know what you want to do and you're afraid to do it, do it anyway. You're going to be afraid.
When I was 14, I realized I had a choice between becoming a housebound agoraphobic person or doing things that frightened me every day. I made a resolution to do one thing that scares me every day.
Pretty much everything I've ever done that people are interested in, I did absolutely shaking in my shoes.
I mean I was violently terrified, not just kind of worried! Sometimes I'm right on the edge of "I can't hold it together anymore," and I just got used to it.
After a while, it became like, "Oh, so this is how it is. Here we are again, all right." It doesn't matter.
1440: So you're not replacing fear with confidence or fearlessness, you're learning to live with it?
If you're waiting to feel confident before you do something, you'll wait forever. That feeling only comes after you've done something.
If we avoid what brings us fear, we will never do much. But if we can support each other and say, "Yeah, it sucks! I'm afraid too," then we can experience what the feminist writer Audre Lorde said, "The more I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, the less it matters whether I am afraid."
This interview was conducted on behalf of 1440 Multiversity by Jenn Brown—a freelance writer, editor, producer, and educator.