Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Accomplished Women Have Fears Too: What Do They Do About It?

Book review: On Becoming Fearless: Love, Work, and Life by Arianna Huffington, founder of

Many of us have had our fill of traditional self help books. Sure they are helpful but after a while they all seem the same. Arianna's book, Fearless, sounds like a self help book but it breaks the mold. This book is calming and invigorating at the same time. She fills the pages with examples of women pushing through their fears whether they are fictional characters, historical heroes, or modern day leaders. She flawlessly blends anecdotal stories that struck to the core of my psyche.

So why pick up a book on fearlessness? One reason fear holds us back is our failure to recognize we have fear. Fear implies weakness. No one wants to be perceived as weak so we distract ourselves by exploring our psychology, read self improvement books, and make ourselves better in every way except one. We ignore the elephant in the room – fear.

Arianna writes: "To live in fear is the worst form of insult to our true selves. By having such a low regard for who we are – for our instincts and abilities and worth – we build a cage around ourselves. To prevent others from shutting us down, we do it for them. Trapped by our own fears, we then pretend that we're incapable of having what we want, forever waiting for others to give us permission to start living. Pretty soon, we start to believe this is the only way."*

The statement "we build a cage around ourselves" stuck me deeply because I've been feeling the constriction of my own cage as the years roll on. Many women like to nest. We like to live and operate in a certain type of environment that reflects our personality, interests, and accomplishments. We create the same environment in our own minds but here we also include our fears about whether we are good enough, concerns that we behaved foolishly, doubts as to whether we'll achieve those dreams and goals we've always had. We include all these concerns, using them as beams to construct a cage around ourselves. This cage serves as a protection, a little home to keep us from becoming disappointed or hurt.

But lately I've found that for myself, the less I express myself, the fewer risks I take, the stronger my cage becomes. I thought this was a good thing at first. I relished in the fortress I was building, but the cage didn't expand outwards because I wasn't expanding outwards. Instead, the beams became thicker as they grew inward. I am finding myself constricted by my own cage.

The metaphor of a woman in a cage has been used before. Poet and writer Maya Angelou wrote "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" many years ago where she explored a different perception of freedom, one that transcends. But I find that in speaking with other women, more often than not, they are in cages of their own design – not society's. How comfortable is your cage? Is it getting tight in there? As the personal development coach Tony Robbins asks: What purpose does your cage serve? What benefits does your cage offer? For me, the answer is that I am ready to fly to coop.

So how can one start to push past secret fears? I found one exercise Arianna suggested fun. This exercise is especially good for someone who feels as if life is passing them by and they are not "getting" to do the things they want.

Make a list of everything you ever thought you wanted to do. Include things like travel the world on the QE2, write a Broadway play, learn belly dancing, speak another language, open a school for disadvantage children, become a millionaire. Whatever it is, no matter when you dreamed of doing it, write it down.

Now, look at your list. What items on your list no longer appeal to you? If they are no longer important, cross them off. I always wanted to learn Russian. I always expected that I would speak Russian. I was motivated to learn Russian because one, it sounds kind of cool, and two I love Russian literature. But I've never been to Russia, have no immediate plans to do so. I do not know any Russian speaking people. I do not plan to negotiate a business deal with a Russian company. Also, when I took an introductory Russian class, I barely studied for the class. It sounds to me like I simply have a romantic notion of learning Russian. If I could learn by plugging a wire into myself and downloading the language like they do in the movie Matrix, then I absolutely would learn Russian. But if I have to go through the motions and learn it myself, well, I don't expect I'll ever get around to it. I decided to cross it off my list of what I want to do.

Why is it important to cross things off? Because when we want to feel bad about ourselves or our lives we turn to that long list of things we want to do and lament that we haven't made a dent in it. I, for example, discount all the wonderful things I've accomplished and have and say, "Well, I haven't even learned Russian yet." Feeling bad about what we haven't done in life is a great way to distract ourselves from what we truly value and what is truly important in our lives. If you see an item on your list that truly doesn’t seem important anymore, that no longer resonates with who you are as a woman, then cross it off.

Arianna says, "When we start to let go of things that we’re not passionate about, we're free to initiate new projects and pursue new passions. This is one of the best ways to become truly fearless about aging."

A word of caution. I performed this exercise and started crossing off old dreams and goals left and right. A few days later I looked at my scribbly list again. I saw that I crossed out dreams that are actually still very important to me but they are dreams that I have considerable doubt about whether I can achieve them. This exercise isn't about what seems feasible based on your current circumstances and resources. It is about examining who you really are and want you really want. It takes considerable courage and honesty to do this exercise. Think of it this way. You are cleaning out your closet and getting rid of shoes, jewelry, and clothes that you know you will never wear again because they no longer reflect your personality or lifestyle. The bonus is that you make more room in your closet for more shoes and for more goals.

I could continue writing all the valuable nuggets Arianna shared in her book but the best thing is to pick up a copy for yourself. Although I heard the name Arianna Huffington before, I didn’t know who she was or what she had accomplished in her life. That just goes to show how much time I dwell under my nineteenth century rock. From what others have told me about her, she clearly speaks her mind and has learned to move forward in spite of any fears she may have or had.

She leaves us with an excellent question. "But are we really any safer because of all the fear? Have we gained anything by it? More important, what have we lost?"

Arianna Huffington truly wrote the book I long to write. She beautifully integrated many women's stories and experiences in an intimate way. This isn't a traditional self-help book. It is much more than a plunge into psychology. It is an encounter with women who feel fear and who still accomplish great things.

Arianna Huffington is a politically active writer and media mogul. Her books include political commentary and biographies of Picasso and Maria Callas. In 2003, she ran for governor in the widely publicized Gray Davis recall election in California. She now operates the online media outlet,

Allison Frederick believes that Role Modeling is one of the most effective ways to launch a program, improve a product, and personally achieve a higher level of success and goals.

*p. 7, Becoming Fearless: Love, Work, and Life by Arianna Huffington
**p. 144, Ibid.
***p178, Ibid.

1 comment:

Pam Walter said...

Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I have heard Arianna on television interviews and been impressed by her knowledge and intelligence.