A Legacy of Fear + A Strategy to Overcome It

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang |  pixelpluie.com  

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang | pixelpluie.com 


I am standing on an empty dirt road surrounded by fields of grass, golden from the heat of the sun. The coins dangling from my belt jingle every time I turn or take a step. Too loud, much too loud. I grip the handle of our black umbrella--an unreliable piece of junk Mom can't seem to toss--with one hand and try to close it with the other. It refuses to budge. I’m alone, the stupid umbrella won't close, and the poj ntxoog is coming.

The hair raises on the back of my neck. My limbs turn to liquid. My breathing--I can’t breathe. The poj ntxoog is coming.

Hide in the grass. Maybe she’ll pass by without a clue. Maybe--stupid umbrella won’t close! I told Mom to throw it away ages ago. This wouldn’t be happening if Mom had just tossed the stupid umbrella--

The poj ntxoog is coming.

The grass won’t hide me. My clothes--pink sash, jingling coins. She’ll spot me right away. Where do I hide? What do I do? THE POJ NTXOOG IS COMING!

I wake up. I’m burning, my heart is racing. I lay there in the dark for a few minutes until my body returns to its regular temperature, until my heart is beating normally again before I slip back into the folds of sleep.

This was a recurring dream from my childhood. A poj ntxoog, a female ghost, terrorized me so much, I learned how to wake myself up so I didn’t have to face her. She only existed in my dreams, but my fear was very real. If my body reacts physically to the delusions in my mind while I sleep, then it can definitely react to my imagination while I’m awake. And I imagine all sorts of horrors about my future and the unknown that lives there.


Change will come and go and come again

When I was in tenth grade, Pineridge Apartments changed ownership for what seemed like the hundredth time, and the new owners wanted to renovate. They were jacking up the rent and many of the Hmong families couldn’t afford to pay, so there was a noticeable migration out of Willows. A lot of families moved to Oregon, Minnesota, North Carolina and Georgia--places where they could find jobs and be with extended family members. My parents decided to go to Chico, a college town about an hour away.

Here’s what I knew about Chico: there was a university, a lotta cars and a Mervyn’s where Dad once spent all his savings on a few pairs of jeans for me and my sister (I felt guilty for weeks). The Chico Housing Authority was accepting applications for Section 8--sounds like a spy agency--a federal housing assistance program that helps pay part of the rent for low-income households. With a household income of just slightly over $1000 (guestimating here), boy did we need it.

On the first night in Chico, we heated cold meat and cheese in the microwave and watched in awe as they melded into a gooey blob. Then we ate the mess and licked our fingers and wondered what else we could heat up. This was our first microwave. Can you tell?

On the second night, I lay in bed and listened to the midnight train pass through town. I couldn’t sleep. I imagined where the train was going--probably some place with big skyscrapers and a lot of graffiti, like in the movies.

I don’t hear the train anymore.

Leaving Willows wasn’t the first time we packed our bags for a better place. When we left our village and made the long journey to the U.S., we didn’t know what to expect. The land of abundance or the land of cannibals? We had heard stories of both and we came anyway. With each change, we learned how to survive and then we learned how to thrive. With each change, we grew more resilient and more equipped to face the changes to come. I think that’s the legacy of being Hmong.


Courage can't exist without fear

I have this memory of a swarm of people heading to the airport from the Phanat Nikhom Refugee Processing Center in Thailand. Moms with newborns strapped to their front while holding on to the hands of screaming toddlers and carrying satchels heavy enough for two people. Dads with red and green striped plastic travel bags filled with treasures that meant nothing to others but everything to the carrier himself. I wore a white T-shirt and blue jeans--nothing fancy, probably all made in China or Mexico or Bangladesh. American clothes distributed by the agencies to help us blend in when we got to the United States.

The flight was a blur. My child mind remembers a brief separation from Mom and Dad on the airplane and a funny-smelling meal of fried rice and chicken as we changed flights. My aunt and uncle picked us up from San Francisco International Airport.

“Are we there yet?” I remember asking as I watched trees and cars zoom by.

“Almost,” my aunt said.

Forever later. “Are we there yet?”

“Almost,” she said again.

That was twenty-seven years ago. Now, my adult mind wonders: Were Mom and Dad afraid? They were in their mid-twenties, three children in tow, far removed from everything they ever knew. Neither of them had been on an airplane before. Except for the few survival phrases they learned in the classes at Phanat Nikhom, they didn’t speak English. So, yes, they were probably afraid, but they didn’t show it. Instead, they showed courage. Mom and Dad are, in fact, the most courageous individuals I know.

I think courage is born on the tail end of fear. Fear of starvation gave early humans the courage to hunt dangerous game. Fear of pain or death give many people the courage to leave abusive relationships while fear of loneliness give many people the courage to stay in abusive relationships. Fear of destitution gave Mom and Dad the courage to face the unknown. So fear is uncomfortable. Fear in itself is scary. But if we find ourselves afraid, we can be sure that courage is not far behind, and courage--sometimes just a few seconds of it--can achieve unbelievable things.


How I overcame fear recently

Fear is an emotional response to threat. Evolution built it into our system and refined it through time, and it has shaped our behavior and, hence, our survival through the ages. It isn’t something we can get rid of completely, and it isn’t something we want to get rid of. Without fear, we’d walk into the streets with cars zooming by. We’d drink and drive. We’d sleep outside. You get the picture. Pretty much, we’d be crazy.

So fear is good.

But what if fear is stopping us from making decisions? What if fear is keeping us from taking a chance on something we’ve always wanted to do? How do we make fear go away long enough so that we can focus on our goals?

Today is my last day in the office as an advisor for the Chico State Upward Bound program, but I’ve been thinking about my transition for two months. Each time I thought about my new position and my new responsibilities, my heart sped up, my limbs became all liquidy, just like in my dreams with the poj ntxoog.

I was scared. I’ve been advising Upward Bound students since I left grad school. What if I can’t do anything else? 

Sometimes these feelings become so overwhelming, I start to doubt my decision to change. Maybe I’m not ready. Maybe I should stay where I know I can do my job. If I ask nicely, I’m sure my boss would take me back.

When these moments happened, the following steps helped me to get past the fear.

Step 1. Bring the fear into the light

I believe the things that scare us are more powerful when we can’t see them. I never saw the poj ntxoog that haunted my childhood dreams. Monsters are terrifyingly real when they’re in the dark. What we imagine is always worse than the real thing. But once we shine some light into those dark places, once we wake up, we see that there is no monster.  

I wrote a post about failure several weeks ago. When it comes down to it, I’m deathly afraid of failure. I’m afraid I won’t live up to people’s expectations. I’m afraid I won’t get the job done. I’m not as good as I think I am, not as savvy as I make myself out to be. But sharing this fear with others--trusted mentors and friends--has slowly diluted its power over me.

Step 2. Figure out why I’m afraid

I recently came across a Psychology Today article titled “Birth Order in the Workplace.” According to the author, first borns--like me (I’m the oldest of seven)--are serious perfectionists, organizers and leaders. We are critical and we want to be seen as confident and capable.

I’m a recovering perfectionist, so the deep, but simple, truth? I don’t want to be seen as incapable. As not perfect.

I’m scared that someone will find out that I’m actually an imposter and they will call me out on it, and it will be horrible.

Step 3. State the facts as I know them

Remember: what we imagine is always worse than the real thing. So the most logical thing to do? Leave imagination behind. Stick to the facts.  

What do I know?  

I know that my core values are hard work, creativity and curiosity. I know that no matter what situation I’ve been in, I’ve always figured out how to make the most of it. This is what I know.

I completed this sentence:

I am afraid of ____________________, but I know for a fact that ____________________.

I am afraid of failing and being seen as incapable, but I know for a fact that I will keep learning, creating and working hard.


Make the unknown known

One of my students once said to me, “I wish I could just know that everything will be okay. That everything will work out.”

Why wait to know that? Know that now.

No one can tell the future, not even the best fortune tellers in the world. But we can be at peace with whatever happens. We can place our trust in God or the Universe or another celestial being. We can also place our trust in the facts. Even if something unexpected happens, we can believe that we have the tools to face it.

And we can remind ourselves that courage is born on the tail end of fear.