I started snapping at my husband. Again.
A few years ago, any time that I was stressed out, it was inevitable that I’d snap at him. I’d nit-pick. I’d nag. My voice would take on an edge that was both unattractive and demoralizing to the relationship. My husband is a patient man, and it helped that I would always apologize–but everyone has their limit, and he was hitting his.
The edge that crept into my voice, the tendency to snap off some irritated comment when I was tired, felt so habituated that I wasn’t sure how I’d ever change.
And then, one day, it shifted. I saw very clearly why the pattern was continuing.
I was able to stop doing something that I had been doing regularly for as long as I could remember. It was powerful beyond measure, proof-positive that if you really want to see things change, they can change.
* * *
After having our baby, things were bliss for a few weeks. Then the sleep-deprivation started to kick in. I’d ask my husband to grab something for me–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–he wouldn’t know where the something was located–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–I’d tell him where it was–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–he’d tell me that the something wasn’t where I thought I’d left it–I’d be exhausted; the baby would be crying–and I’d snap at him, telling him he must have moved the something, why do I always have to find the something, do I have to do everything, around here?
Nearly all of my friends have confessed to doing this with their partners, especially in the early weeks of having a baby.
After the snapping, cue the shame (especially after realizing that I’d moved the something I’d been asking him to find).
Why do we do this, if we know better? Why do we snap at the one person who’s on our team, who’s on our side, who just wants everything to work out for us?
Sometimes, my husband would do things like clean the kitchen and get the baby down, and then, there I’d be, seeing the one thing he’d forgotten or complaining about the one thing that didn’t go smoothly.
Then I’d have another shame hangover–God, here I was, doing this again, and this time after he cleaned the whole kitchen AND got the baby down? What was wrong with me?
It’s in these moments when you take yourself aside and sit yourself down for a little talk.
“My love,” you say, “Nothing’s wrong with you other than you’re sleep deprived, and overwhelmed in a way that goes beyond those capital-S Stories you’re always talking about–this is physical. Someone can only handle so much sleep-deprivation before things just start shutting down. Breathe, hon.”
“My love,” you remind yourself, “It’s really hard to not to know what the hell you’re doing. It’s hard when the baby cries because you love her so much–way down deep in places that you’ve never loved anyone, before, and it’s raw and vulnerable and when she cries, all you want in the world is to have an answer, to just know what to do.”
“My love,” you say, “when you don’t know what to do, the defenses come back up as a means of coping. Anger is a defense. It’s an old one. It’s a survival mechanism. You can choose to use it, if you like, but I only want to (gently) remind you: it doesn’t work. You know this. You know this to your bones.”
The Fear of Alone
I realized why I was snapping at him, again, on a random Wednesday. He came home early from work and immediately gave me a big smile and said, “Want me to take the baby while you go out and get some time for yourself?”
He didn’t ask for a thing for himself. He was just excited to be home and eager to support me in getting a break and enthusiastic about spending time with his daughter. Our daughter.
It had been an easy day with the baby; his coming home early had been a surprise. When he walked in, I was in the midst of playing with our daughter and she was looking up at me, smiling. It felt like a gift on top of a gift.
Later, driving home after some time out, I clearly understood that I do this thing, this pinchy, snippy, irritated thing, because in those moments when I snap at him, I feel I am alone. I live in the Story that I am Kate, Alone With This Dilemma Of Figuring It All Out Alone.
Alone on top of alone, the worst kind.
It’s not a true Story. It’s just the one that’s oldest, the one I’ll reach for most easily. That’s what we do–we reach for what is easiest when we are tired.
I came home; I gave him a hug; I apologized and cried. Instead of using it as an opportune moment to really let me know how shitty I’d been, he pulled me close and hugged me.
We create our fears, and we act from there. Later, I thought this to myself, as I tucked into bed beside a man who loves me and loves our baby.
I thought, “This is what contentment looks like. Contentment is not creating the fear by perpetuating the story.” Lights out, I snuggled next to my man under the covers, and we went to sleep.
In the Land of Internet, life coaches claiming that they know the secret to “kicking fear’s ass” and ” becoming fearless ” and “fearless living” or “living fearlessly” or “living life without fear” (the iterations are endless) can seem almost as common as space bar key strokes.
I’m always curious when I see their sales pages: do any of their clients actually ask them, perhaps as part of the initial consult to decide to work together, the tough questions with these claims?
For instance, what if a potential client actually asked: “Are you honestly saying that you never experience fear? Never, ever? Not even a little bit? Are you truly telling me that you are ‘fearless’ and that you know how to teach others to be ‘fearless,’ and that if I work with you, I’ll never experience fear?”
Would these coaches cop to the (very human) truth, and change their sales pages?
Fearless vs. Fear, Less
In my own work, I don’t promise “fearless.”
Here’s what I can help you with:
- Fearing, less.
- Getting to the root of fearful Stories that you tell yourself.
- Not hating your fear.
- Not letting feelings of fear stop you from going after what you want.
- Reframing your relationship to fear.
- Healing the core wounds that make the fearful voices get so loud and scary.
- Helping your inner critic (the fear) communicate its needs to you in a way that is more respectful.
I won’t promise you “fearless”–I will, however, avow that I can help people to “fear, less.”
There is a wide expanse between “fearless” and “fear, less.”
“Fearless” is the domain of perfectionism. It’s striving. It’s putting all of your energy towards some fantasy state.
“Fear, less” is reality. Fear doesn’t have to control your life. Fear can be understood, and the wounds that create the fear can be healed. You can learn how to “fear, less” when you embark on your next bold life move.
You cannot escape fear, entirely. It will come up again and again, in different forms, as you push against the edges of this life experience.
If you’re a life coach, you get to choose how honest you’ll be with your clients about who you are and the very human experience of working with fear. Your biggest qualification as a life coach is not a lack of fear, but rather how powerfully you work through fear when it arises.
If you’re a client, you get to choose who you’ll spend money to work with. Choosing to bypass those who make audacious claims is a beautiful first step in the direction of critical thinking and claiming your power.
Again–you cannot escape fear, entirely.
What’s more? That’s okay.
Would you want it, anyway?
Consider this: If “fearless” were even possible, would you really want to be “fearless,” anyway?
I frequently think that wanting to avoid fear altogether is a form of trying to “check out” of life. Fear is uncomfortable, but the things that are uncomfortable in life are not meant to be avoided, at all costs.
The price you pay for avoiding discomfort is that all of your energy goes into trying to control life so that you don’t have to experience the discomfort. That is its own prison.
When you start working with fear differently, fear has a curiously enlivening quality. Instead of being what keeps you down, the experience of fear becomes something that is both thrilling and terrifying. It’s terrifying because it’s uncomfortable, but it’s thrilling because it’s showing you where there’s something that you deeply desire. It’s thrilling because it makes you wake up, pay attention.
In other words–when the experience of fear controls your life? That’s a problem. And by all means, if fear is running your life, stop sitting on your hands and do something about it.
But–if fear is showing up, at all? That’s just…normal. It’s part of life. It’s part of taking risks.
If you use it as a wake-up call to pay attention? That’s enlivening. It’s cluing you in to your next big adventure.
It breaks down to this simple equation:
“Fearless” = deadening.
“Fear less” = fully alive.
From there, it’s all about what you choose.
Freedom. It’s not only one of my deepest personal values, it’s also one of my Core Desired Feelings (CDFs).
As someone who finds it deeply, deeply important to walk her talk, the question of how I would live out my truest values and deepest desires as I walked through parenthood was on my mind even before I was pregnant.
Freedom. I desire to feel a sense of freedom in every domain of my life–in my relationships, with my money, in how I schedule my time, with creativity and career.
But having a kid? Every parent I ever heard talking about parenthood described things that felt anything but “free.” They described lack of sleep and barely having time to eat; epic crying sessions and every single shirt covered in spit-up.
Every person I knew who consciously chose not to have kids cited “lack of freedom” as their reason why. They wanted to pick up and travel at a moment’s notice. They wanted to pursue career ambitions. They wanted to spend money on decor, not daycare.
They knew that having children, much as they supported others doing so if that called to them, would scale those things back.
So how would I reconcile having a child with my deepest CDFs? How would I create “freedom” in that experience?
Honey, It’s Time to Walk That Talk
Before I was pregnant and when I was still contemplating children, the answer to that question was this: the idea of never having a child felt completely wrong.
While having a child might mean releasing some freedom, not having one felt like straight-jacketing my future to something that wasn’t really, truly “me.” That certainly didn’t feel like “freedom.”
Furthermore, having a child resonated with most of my other CDFs: sacred connection, sensuous delight, powerful.
So, step one: I felt grounded in knowing that of the two options, kid or no kid, I did want to have a child and start a family.
Then, as pregnancy slowly began to limit my options–drastically reduced caffeine, no more triathlon training, my entire wardrobe relegated to the back of my closet as my stomach expanded ever-bigger–I kept returning to this question of how I would integrate “freedom” into my life. Being pregnant, I was already feeling “less than free.”
On Facebook, in grocery stores, at restaurants, people followed their congratulations with a litany of all the things I’d “never” be able to do, again. I’d never sleep well, again. I’d never be able to go out for an evening without hiring a babysitter, again. I’d never get my body back. I’d never know ease.
They made having children sound like nothing but chaos and worry.
And then the baby arrived. In the first few weeks, I really never expected that I would feel a sense of “freedom,” anyway. Most of the time, I felt blissed out, excited to hold her, craving the smell of her and the feeling of her small body in my arms.
After about a month, it began to creep in: a longing for long afternoons spent writing, a leisurely evening at a restaurant, eight hours straight of sleep.
Following the longing, the flashes of resentment. Another bottle? Another diaper change? She’s up, already? But she just went down for a nap!
Focus on the Freedom
You might have found yourself in this sort of situation, before: you tell yourself, “Here’s how I want to live. I’m going to [be more patient; be more compassionate; focus on gratitude; etc.].”
Then a frustrating day happens, or a series of them. You’re feeling pushed to your absolute limits. You’re exhausted with the very process. You’re asking yourself, “When is this going to get easier?” and sensing that the answer to this question is, “It won’t. This is what it is.”
In those spaces, it feels as if there really are no options. You want to reach for something different, but everything that seems to be available is something really, really challenging.
That’s the point I hit, when my focus became noticing the freedom inherent in what I already had.
In my pre-baby days, I could “create freedom.” I could look at my multitude of options, and choose the one that felt most aligned with my CDF of freedom.
Having a baby, I find, requires a slightly different strategy. I have lots of options, sure, but most of them are not really compatible with where my daughter is at, right now. Ditching diaper duty to dine at a Zagat-rated restaurant, for instance, is a wholly incompatible choice with the love that I have for my daughter and my commitment to demonstrate that love through giving her truly impeccable care.
But I can focus on freedom, to amplify the freedom that already exists.
In other words, it’s all there. Instead of waiting for “freedom to happen to me” so that I could appreciate it, or instead of trying to “create” freedom out of thin air, there’s this twist: freedom is here, it’s just about whether or not I’ll notice it.
For example: Every time I do feel well-rested (and there are days where that happens), I can celebrate that. I can notice how freeing it is on that particular day to feel “well-rested” in my bones, as opposed to going to the future and wondering how I can jerry-rig the situation to see if I can make that kind of night happen, a second time.
In other words: when life is tough, and you’re going, “Whatever it is that I want to cultivate just isn’t something I can orchestrate, right now,” chances are good that if you get creative, you’ll find some little sliver of what you desire that’s already here.
Once you discover that sliver of delicious desire, you focus on it. By focusing on it, you amplify the good feelings associated with it.
Then you feel more of what you desire to feel.
The Most Powerful Choice
Really, this is the most powerful choice that we can make. It’s more powerful to look at what’s already showing up and make something beautiful out of those circumstances, than it is to tell ourselves the old story of happiness arising when all of the planets align.
The reason this is such a powerful choice isn’t just that we get to live beautifully, which is your birthright. The reason it’s powerful is because the locus of your power is centered solely within yourself when you make that kind of a choice, not something external.
In The End
I dislike “happily ever after” stories told by self-help types (and I’m an admitted self-help type). This is not a “happily ever after.” This is a day-to-day-to-day. Sometimes, it’s really hard.
But other times? Many times? More and more and more often? It’s getting easier. When you look for what you want to find, you often find it.
Stop hoping that what you desire is looking for you. Get crackin’ on looking around and opening your eyes a little wider. You might be stunned into ecstasy by what you discover.