The driving force of fear

“Fear drives us to do many things in our lives. For me, the fear of losing a loved one, and all those terrifying thoughts of what it’s like to be left behind and feel alone, drove me to conceive and write this story.”

Cecilia Ahern, P.S I love you

I read this book recently on my holiday. Honestly, I’ve read better books but what encouraged (forced) me to keep reading was this first sentence of the note from the author. When I got back from holiday, I also decided to watch the film to see what all the fuss about and I have to say the book was far better (why do Americans overdo Ireland so much?), although the film’s saving grace is Lisa Kudrow.

The quote above resounds so much with me because I have a fear that drives me. A fear of being stuck in a routine, or a lifestyle that doesn’t suit me. I know that something isn’t right when I get a funny urge in my body, one where something inside just wants to leap out of me, take hold of me and shove me into the spotlight. But then my slow brain takes over – the thinker – and it just says, “Not yet.”

I am waiting for the day when the urge is so strong that my slow brain will say, “Now.”

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Being Eva Peron

When I was about four years old, I was cast as Snow White in my kindergarten’s summer concert. I had to wonder around on stage for a bit and then have a bite of a cheese sandwich. When the big moment came to take that bite, I declined. I was too shy. Under any other circumstances, I would have had no problem eating it, but not at that moment, in front of the crowd of proud parents. I was so off piste that my teacher had to come up on stage and coax me to the plate. I recall the “awwws” and the laughter from the audience. I still declined.

My shyness ruined my stage debut then and it has pervaded my life in one form or another ever since. I remember auditioning for the school musical and being too shy to dance my socks off because the boys were watching me. At University, I did not have the courage to join the drama society or the debating societies. Even in my first jobs, I was too scared to ask questions at the beginning because I was too intimidated by my superiors. Shyness, fear, intimidation: same feeling, different packaging. Sometimes I overcame it, other times it held me back.

One of my childhood dreams was to star in a musical. So when the amateur musical theatre company here in Brussels recently held auditions for Evita, I set myself the goal of auditioning for the main part: Eva Peron. This time, I was determined not to let my shyness get in the way.

I am part of a small choir at work. A couple of days before the audition, my choir teacher rehearsed the audition pieces with me. As I performed them, I began to feel out of my depth. I kept apologising for my voice, my lack of expression, my awkward rhythm. There were moments when I felt like quitting. He calmly said, “Gemma, leave your fear at the door. You go in there and be Eva Peron. You are not Gemma; you are Eva.”

Before my audition, I watched this brilliant Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. Her message is mind-blowing: that changing your body language can have a powerful effect on your behaviour, and consequently on your outcomes. She recommends that doing just two minutes of power posing (ladies, think “Wonder Woman”; gentlemen, think “Wall Street”) can immediately change your behaviour because your stress levels go down whilst your testosterone levels go up. In other words, the real you can come out and shine.

With her and my choir teacher’s advice in my head, I knew that my chance of getting the part of Eva Peron lay in actually being Eva Peron, irrespective of whether I believed it or not.¬†On the day of the audition, I dressed, accessorised and made myself-up like her. Before being called up, I went to a quiet spot and stood there in a power pose for two minutes, breathing deeply.

As I began my audition, Eva’s hunger for Buenos Aires and her desperation to escape poverty became mine. I danced, I shimmied, I swaggered; I belted, I pleaded, I mourned. With each song, I was a different Eva: arrogant; naive; redeeming; helpless. What I lacked in vocal range, I made up for in body language. When I finished the audition, I looked at the judges. They looked a bit shell-shocked. Whether it was out of amazement or horror, I couldn’t say.

Looking back, I think the reason why I was so shy being Snow White was because I didn’t believe I was her. In contrast, for one afternoon twenty-six years later, I was Eva Peron. I just wasn’t the Eva they were looking for.

My prerogative to change my mind

“It is a lady’s prerogative to change her mind,” my Mum said to me the other day. For a while I had a big, bold ambition to do something big and bold in the near future, something which I had thought about doing six years ago and thought that maybe now was the time to go for it. But, circumstances in my life changed and I was starting to wonder whether I should still implement this big, bold ambition? I decided, no.

I was intrigued by the quote so I did a bit of googling. It looks like the quote’s original meaning stems from marriage contracts, where a woman was lawfully entitled to “breach her promise” of marriage. Googling this quote then brought up quotes about how women are fickle and change their minds very often. Putting my views on sexism to one side, I started to think more about the subject of “changing one’s mind”.

I used to think that changing one’s mind was a sign of weakness. When I was pursuing my plan to become a lawyer, I had doubts about whether this was what I really wanted to be. However, I had invested a lot of time, scholarship money, hard-work and perseverance into this career that the thought of it all going to waste scared me into submission.

But in the year of doing things differently, I have let my mind wonder free. The other day, when I told my career plans to a friend, she playfully exclaimed, “Gems, last year you were telling me you wanted to do this, now you are telling me you want to do that, make up your mind!” And the truth is, I am still making up my mind. I thought I wanted to be X, and then I decided that perhaps Y might be better, but who knows, maybe Z might be the best? I don’t owe it to myself to stick to a plan which is making me unhappy for the sake of sounding assured to others. I do owe it to myself to give something a go and change my mind if I don’t think it’s for me.

Changing one’s mind is not a sign of weakness or of being fickle; it is a sign of being brave and honest. It means being open to the possibility that what you thought you wanted may not be what is deep-down the right thing for you. Changing your mind means re-adjusting your position from time to time to help you get to where you would really like to be (irrespective of whether you get “there” or not).

One of my favourite columns is the Guardian’s Private Lives, particularly when the clinical psychologist Linda Blair used to respond to readers’ problems. I leave you with her reassuring passage which I like to associate with changing one’s mind: “Make the decision that feels right for you, and be prepared to review that decision from time to time. Remain open to changing your plans, but always base your decisions not on appearing “good” or “promising”, but rather on living the way that you believe is best“.

The prerogative to change one’s mind lies not just with the lady and I, but with everyone.