“Show me how big your brave is”
– Sara Bareilles

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bravery, and how it’s probably going to be my theme for 2018. Every year for the past few years, I have chosen a theme. For 2017, it’s been Faith. Mostly because I recognized my need to have more faith in my abilities as a writer and faith that if I just keep moving forward on my book, it will eventually become the story I envision it becoming.

So why bravery? I think so much of what holds us back is driven by fear. The amazing writer Elizabeth Gilbert says some really interesting things about fear. That when we procrastinate, or act out of anger, or sabotage our own creativity, it’s always driven by fear. (Seriously, if you haven’t read her book Big Magic, go check it out.)

There’s this pervasive attitude in our culture that we need to banish our fear, kill it, stomp on it, drive it out. But that’s impossible. Our fear will never go away, nor should we want it to. Fear has its place. Fear can sometimes save our lives. But as Gilbert says, fear can have a voice, but it doesn’t get a vote. It can have a seat in the car, but it doesn’t get to drive. It isn’t even allowed to touch the radio.

People think I’m brave. I know this because they have told me. But I don’t feel brave most of the time. Most of the time, I feel like Baby Houseman spilling her heart out to Johnny Castle.

We are all Baby

Here are a few ways that fear shows up in my life:

  • I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching nutrition blogs and double checking all of my facts because I’m afraid I’m going to get something wrong and someone will leave a nasty comment about it and call me stupid. (This has happened before, and it gave me anxiety for days.)
  • I feel paralyzed sometimes when trying to make progress on my novel because I feel like I can’t possibly tell the story right and people will read it and think I’m a terrible writer and just generally a stupid person.
  • I generally don’t speak up in work-related situations because I’m afraid my ideas will sound stupid.

See a pattern? I am generally afraid of people thinking I am stupid in any given situation. This is something I spent a little time exploring recently while reading the fantastic Write for Your Life by Lawrence Block. He explains that we all have one primary personal law (or an agreement, as don Miguel Ruiz would call it), which we picked up in our formative years and have accepted as truth about ourselves. I am not really sure where this fear of being seen as stupid came from. I’m sure with enough therapy, I could figure it out. (I was a 4.0 student and I went to a fairly selective college, so it’s clearly not grounded in reality. In fact, Block says that most people with this personal law are actually pretty smart.)

What is your personal law? We all have one. What’s the fear holding you back, the agreement you have accepted even though it wouldn’t hold up under some serious scrutiny? They can often be hard to identify because they have been with us so long and we have accepted them so completely in our lives.

Block’s book has some great exercises, but they are obviously geared towards writers. Here’s a modified version of the process for identifying your personal law:

Get a clean sheet of paper. Take a deep breath, and finish the following sentence. Write down the first thing that comes to mind.

The worst thing about myself is …

Now try it again with this one:

My most negative thought about myself is …

Now from a different angle:

My biggest obstacle to success is …

Now look at what you’ve written down. You should have three sentences of a similar nature. Read them over and pick the one that carries the strongest emotional charge. As Block says, “one of them may seem to be the foundation from which the others sprout. Pick that underlying sentence and circle it. That’s your personal law.”

Here’s the thing about personal laws: They aren’t true. But we treat them as if they are true, and may even go out of our way to prove that they’re true by sabotaging our own best efforts.

Once you identify your personal law, pay attention to how it shows up in your life. Writing down the opposite of your personal law as an affirmation can be a powerful tool. For example, I created the affirmation, “I am intelligent enough and perceptive enough to write a moving and insightful novel.” I often write this down during my morning meditation practice.

See if you can identify specific fears that are a direct results of your personal law. And then tell your fear it isn’t allowed to drive anymore. Tell your fear to take several seats.

I also highly recommend The Four Agreements for more on how we accept beliefs that aren’t true and allow them to create needless fear in our lives.