Don’t Let Fear Have the Last Laugh

I used to think fear and fun could not exist together. Now I’m wondering if it’s possible to embrace any life or seize any day if they exist apart

fear and fun

Photo Credit: theloushe via Compfight cc

I’m writing this at an altitude of thirty-thousand feet.

The plane is bouncing like Jell-O.

We’re flying toward a Chicago winter storm, and we’re flying away from our adventure in New York—away from our appearance on the TODAY Show. The turbulence is a fitting end to an anxiety-filled week in which nothing was familiar or comfortable or predictable. As the plane jiggles, I try to make my fear go away by running through my bag of psychological tricks:

Deep breathing. I take long, slow breaths and try to create feelings of relaxation. It doesn’t work.

Visual imagery. I visualize a smooth landing in Chicago and tell myself it’ll all be over soon. But the phrase “it will all be over soon” isn’t terribly comforting when your plane feels like a roller coaster.

Cognitive restructuring. I try to challenge my fearful thoughts by recalling reassuring statistics— didn’t I read somewhere you’re more likely to get killed by an alligator at the North Pole than get in a plane crash? But that isn’t very helpful, either. Because it reminds me that crazy things do happen, like alligator tragedies in the Arctic Circle.

With my eyes shut tightly, I’m making my fear worse by trying to control it.

When Fear Rides Along

I used to think the goal of therapy was to help people vanquish their fear. Now, I think a goal of therapy is to help people vanquish that idea.

Fear thrives—and lives shrink—in the midst of this fundamental misconception: as soon as I get over my fear, I’ll start to live and seize the day and lunge for my dreams and listen to my heart and embody the passion I know is alive within me. When we buy into this lie, we spend our lives trying to rid ourselves of fear. At best, we end up sitting in the waiting room of life, while all the while our name is being called. At worst, the effort to control the fear only makes it grow bigger and scarier.

If we want to really live, we’re going to feel fear. It will be with us in almost every good and beautiful moment of our lives, as we break new ground and head into new territory.

So, do we just grin and bear it?

Yes. But with a big, crazy emphasis on the grin.

When Fun Rides Along

As the plane to Chicago rattled and shook, I quit trying to banish my fear. Instead, I opened my eyes and I looked to my right, where my daughter was sitting.

She was looking back at me with a silly grin on her face. Then she inserted a finger in each corner of her mouth and tugged them in opposite directions, sticking her tongue out at the same time, making the “goofy face” she showed Willie Geist and Natalie Morales right before our segment on the TODAY Show. Then, as the airplane shook her from side to side, she let loose a belly laugh and started singing a song of her own imagining with nonsense lyrics.

My daughter was having fun. Right next to my fear. In the midst of my fear.

And as she did so, she reminded me how I got through the anxiety of an appearance on national television: I didn’t find peace by making my anxiety go away—I found peace when I realized I could be afraid and have fun, all at the same time.

To be honest, I wondered if taking my whole family to New York for the show would be a distraction. But they weren’t a distraction—they were my salvation. They showed me the opposite of fear isn’t fearlessness. In fact, they showed me fear doesn’t need an opposite, it just needs a companion: fun.

I brought the fear, and they brought the fun,

when we stepped off our accidental elevator ride with Mitt Romney and my oldest son fist-pumped his way down Central Park South like he’d just won an NBA trophy,

when my kids descended upon the green room continental breakfast at NBC Studios like a plague of locusts,

when they danced on the subway like it was their very own sound stage,

when they left me no choice but to embrace silliness and whimsy and adventure.

In the midst of my anxiety about national television, my kids showed me: There is another world existing right in the midst of our fear, a world in which fun is waiting to happen. And fun has no prerequisites: the fear doesn’t need to be controlled, managed, or eliminated first—in fact, those efforts leave us too preoccupied and too exhausted to have any fun at all.

Turbulence in Life

The dictionary defines turbulence as “disorder or commotion.” By that definition, life itself is turbulent, often disordered and full of mess. In the midst of life’s turbulence, we often find ourselves on the fearful side of the aisle, trying to control the anxiety. But if we stop long enough to pry our eyes open, we might just look across the aisle and discover that fun is riding along with us, too.

We don’t have to be fearless to enjoy it.

We just need to be unashamed. Willing to make a goofy face and sing songs that don’t mean anything and laugh like it’s our first time and our last time, all at once.

If we want to live fully, we need to stand tall in the aisle of life, shaken about by turbulence, holding the hand of fear on one side and the hand of fun and and whimsy on the other. At the same time.

If we can do so, smooth landings will stop mattering so much, because we’ll be too busy enjoying the wild, beautiful, turbulent, joyful, scary, delightful ride.

Question: Can you think of a time you were anxious, but you embraced fun and whimsy anyway? How did it turn out? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Audio: Audio will resume with next week’s post.

Next Post: “A Post About Hope”

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Kristen Cagwin

    Kelly- We so enjoyed watching you on the Today Show and hearing what you had to say about the role of beauty and the role of fathers. Proud to know you! Your post today made me think back 8 years ago. It was about 2 weeks after our daughter, Autumn, was stillborn at 40 weeks. Our lives were devastated and full of fear. Gosh, I have a lump in my throat just thinking about it…. Anyway, a friend had come from Kenya to stay with us and help care for me while my body and soul healed. We were flipping through stations on the TV and somehow landed on The Jerk with Steve Martin. It was so ridiculous to be watching that movie after the road we had just journeyed. But, I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard with such freedom in all my life. In that way that those who are in the depths of grief cry so hard and also laugh so hard. The thing that makes it so memorable, though, is that a lady who we didn’t know well came to deliver us a meal in the midst of the movie. She came with her sad and sensitive face on (understandably) and we were busting up laughing. On the one hand, it was so inappropriate (I never did explain to her what was going on), but on the other, it was perfect. In that moment, we chose to not be overwhelmed by our grief in fear for her sake. We chose to to see the ridiculous in life and laugh until our sides hurt. Years later, when the friend from Kenya (who was staying with us) was going through a dark valley, we sent her that movie as a reminder that sometimes you just need to laugh at the most inappropriate times and not let fear overwhelm.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kristen, it’s good to talk with you here on the blog. And thank you for sharing this story. My one hesitation in publishing this post was the use of the Today Show as an example of “turbulence,” when obviously there are far scarier and more painful things going on in the world. So, I appreciate you sharing such a personal story in which grief and laughter were present in the same space. Please say hi to Joel for me, and I hope you all are well!

      • Kristen Cagwin

        Thanks, Kelly 🙂 No worries about not posting our story, although I don’t think my post included that language about the Today Show and “turbulence”. Just wanted you to know in case there was a different post you wanted to watch out for. I will greet Joel! All the best!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Kelly, thank you! As I was reading your post this morning, I was struggling to put my finger on what it is that lets us move from being boxed in by our fears to being able to find the fun in the uncertain circumstances that have our stress hormones on high alert. I think you nailed it: we must be unashamed.
    It is no small thing to embrace not only our circumstances but ourselves so thoroughly that we can be unashamed to be afraid and bravely willing to silly, fun and funny in times that don’t feel like any of those things. In the same way that we only really laugh at ourselves with good humor when we are secure in our worth, it seems right that we can’t really embrace the wild, wonderful ride of life if we can feel the fear of what could be — and then get in there anyway knowing that we build our own joy.
    Your insights are fast becoming a highlight of my Wednesday mornings, Kelly.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Shel. Your comments are becoming a highlight for me. Keep them coming!

  • Brett

    My kids have often been the unintentional inspiration for letting go of anxiety by embracing fun in the moment. Some shoppers from the mall in Milwaukee may remember us back in the early ’90s. We were the dad and three kids lying on the floor in the middle of the mall. My daughters fought leaving most places and did so by mimicking the best of the non-violent protestors–they just sat down. Truth is, I could have tried to carry them both out of the mall, kicking and screaming. I was tempted, especially when wondering what other parents thought of my inability to care for those two cute girls. By letting go of the anxiety and turning the moment into something fun (and funny looking), we spent the end of many trips to the mall staring at the ceiling. It was nice up there. The light shone through frosted skylights; the support beams created interesting patterns; and the occasional bird made for interesting ceiling gazing. And, I’m quite sure, we left happier and faster than had I given in to anxiety and forced the girls to leave.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Great, great story. Brett, you make me want to be a better dad. Thank you for sharing!

  • Lee Ann

    My mother passed away after 30 years of being very sickly and having just as many operations. After the funeral my sister , father and I were at my father’s house. He started going through her purses. My mother had a purse for every outfit. Every time my father and her went out she would say “Give me a fiver just in case.” She never gave them back. She also got an ‘allowance’ every payday. She budgeted her few work costs and saved the rest for gifts. She hid it well. By the time we finished going through the purses, there was $500.00 on the table. Some had been hidden in old lipstick cases. By this time we were all laughing. Looking at the age of the bills, she had started saving like this the first year they were married and had forgotten where she had hid her stash! The fear of what the rest of the day was broken.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Lee Ann, thank you for sharing your story of grief and laughter. Kristen also shared a story of grief and laughter. And I can remember connecting the most through laughter around various losses. I wonder what it is about loss that paves the way for us join each other in this way. Maybe Kristen already said it, “Choosing not to be overwhelmed by grief.” Does anyone have any other thoughts?

      • Christina Haas

        It’s the extremes, right? On the one hand, we need to let the sadness out, but laughter gives that grief some balance, a chance of hope that we won’t stay there forever. And I think it helps with loss to see the love through the eyes of laughter. Maybe.

    • karen

      Lee Ann,
      I sure can relate to your story since my dad did the same thing as your mom. I think it must have been a generational thing since he grew up during the depression and served in WWII and he needed the security of having money around. My kids and I were afraid to throw anything out when he died since we never knew where we would find money. He hid it all over the house and in the most unusual items or places. It became like a treasure hunt. But it was just the thing we needed since a few hours before he died my daughter and granddaughter had escaped from an abusive husband who threatened to kill us all. The hunt gave us some fun to blunt the fears. In the end we found $10,000-enough for my daughter to get a fresh start. Even in death my dad was watching over us

  • Em

    I am a musician: every time I perform I feel fear, and every time I perform I have fun! Really enjoyed your article, as there are heaps of other areas (less familiar) of my life i which I do miss out on the fun because I am intimidated by the fear.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Em, it sounds like your creative endeavors have given you a template for how to handle fear in the rest of your life. I hope you can take the template and run with it!

  • Sharon Kerslake

    When I decided, at 50 yrs of age, to take up road cycling, group cycling & participating in a 370km event over 3 days, including a mountain range & rolling hills. The training prior to this event involved many hundreds of kms, various weather conditions experienced, not a few tumbles,lots of hills & many, many scary moments. That sense of achievement was euphoric!!
    To date I have meet a large number of truly inspirational people & made many more wonderful friends. I have participated in this ride 5 yrs in a row & 2 other shorter 2 day events & am planning on participating in both again this yr. Throughout this time despite 2 viscous falls, on to the road at speed, I have not quit. The overall fun & purpose of the rides has won out over fear of falling again or of being killed doing something that I love.
    Fear & fun going hand in hand.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Fantastic story and an inspiring life. Thank you, Sharon!

  • Karen

    Have you ever thought about the fact that within the word fear is the word ear. It is so often that when we listen to our fears, use our internal “ears” that we can gain a better perspective on whatever situation we are presented with.. And yes it is often when I feel a little fear that I give my best presentations, be it puppeteering or teaching my Matter of Balance class-it drives me to be a little more creative so that my audience gets the maximum benefit – we all have the fun while we
    are learning..

    • drkellyflanagan

      As always, I love the observation, Karen. Had a great conversation last night with someone about learning to turn off our minds and listen to our bodies, where fear is often wisely expressed.

  • kirsten kelly

    Dude!.. er.. Dr. Flanagan- I can honestly say I look forward to reading your perspective and insight on every single post. There are a lot of crap blogs out there, yours is not one of them. Thanks for taking the time to write and share.

    Fear is interesting in that it can be paralyzing- which is possibly biological, chemical to protect us. Admittedly, I have a lot of fear, fear of man fear of failure and I let it keep me still, frozen. But I’m finding that for every step I take in allowing myself to have “fun” working past it, the more successful the outcome. Pressure is released, chemicals go back to normal. This tends to create a trust that the next obstacle will result in the same. Fear + fun –> establishing trust.

    Thanks again for sharing your valuable thoughts with us! Can’t wait for the next post.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kirsten, you can call me Dude. : ) And you nailed it: a trust begins to build that we’ll be okay, and maybe even better than okay, if we keep moving through the fear. Good stuff. Thanks!

  • farha

    Please do a post on mothers 🙂

  • GA_Caver

    When I was younger, fear was a strong influence in my life. I missed out on a lot of opportunities and a lot of fun and spend a lot of time unhappy. About 10 years ago I found myself in a place where I had to make a big decision and that decision changed my life. Today I no longer allow fear to rule and I live life full of fun and happiness.

  • Swan Isis Etiquette

    The name of ur website sayz it all…..UnTangled. I had to embrace my truth. Although it seemed to piss off alotta people around me. That truth would speak out with a little girl’z voice each time I waz in an anxious time of this or that…..actually I have found that at 44yrz of age….I agree with a buddhist simplicitor (my word~ha) that sayz this iz ALL an illusion……I have been in situationz in where it seemed the right reaction to be afraid or anxious when in fact I behaved like ur daughter & began to embrace the anxiety with a silly song of this & that……getz me through everytime…to just leave it alone & not try & control the uncontrollable!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    And when I forget this simpleton ideal….my headache of rememberance restorez me to sanity……….LOL
    Some say losing ur mind iz a grand place to be…..loose it to gain a new & refreshed one….trick iz I find the more I give up the old one in the face of said anxiety & stressful worry…….the less I forget tooooooooo……Eeeeyabadaba Dooooooo

    • drkellyflanagan

      Simplicitor is a great word, Swan! Thank you for sharing.

  • yasmin

    I struggle with crippling anxiety of a night time that revolves around a fear of people/having someone break into my house even though this has never happened to me. This means i often sleep only 2-3 hours a night, obviously not ideal. Its posts and comments like these that make me realise that anxiety can be overcome, which gives me hope for my future. Thank you Dr Flanagan for your wonderful words, and to everyone’s shared stories 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      You’re certainly not alone, Yasmin. I hope you will find a professional to help you through your fear!

      • yasmin

        Thank you, i am seeing someone regularly now and he is great. He is only fresh out of his masters degree but as a psychology student myself i feel it works.
        On another note it turns out my current anxiety may actually be related to a physical health problem I’ve had for the last year and a half.
        Regardless, these stories still help me get through, i remind myself of them at night when i am on the verge of a panic attack and it really seems to help calm me down

        • drkellyflanagan

          Wonderful, Yasmin! Indeed, goodness of fit is the best criteria when connecting with a therapist. I’m glad you feel like you’ve found the right one and may be getting some unexpected but much needed answers to your situation!