I remember in February 1997 taking my then seven- and five-year- old daughters to an exhibition of Shakespeare’s Unruly Women at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. There was Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who takes on the whole Venetian legal world and uses the law to bring new, deeper insights to it. There was Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind in As You Like It, both of them “take no prisoners” women who ruffled the feathers of those birdbrains mindlessly parroting the status quo.
Fearless women come in all shapes, forms, ages, and professions. As Shakespeare put it, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
I wanted to take my daughters to that exhibition because it’s never too early to teach women fearlessness. But now as I watch my girls in their teenage years, I’m stunned to see all the same classic fears I was burdened with: How attractive am I? Do people like me? Should I speak up? I wonder if their fears are more intense than mine were at their age or if they just seem more intense. I had thought that with all the gains feminism has brought, my daughters would not have to suffer through the fears I did. Yet here is our younger generation, as uncertain, doubting, and desperate as we were, trying to fulfill the expectations of others. What happened to our bold little girls?
As Mary Pipher puts it in her bestselling book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, “Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves.” Fears in teenage girls manifest in many ways: depression, eating disorders, drugs, casual and confusing sex. Young women, fixated on looks, thinness, and sexuality, are losing themselves in trying to gain approval from peers, grown-ups, and the overheated pop culture that surrounds them.
And yet, through the many case studies I’ve read, through the stories of women I admire, and, above all, through my own experience with my daughters, again and again I encounter moments of extraordinary strength, courage, and resilience, when fears are confronted, even overcome, and anything seems possible. It was my longing to somehow make these moments last that prompted me to write this book – for my contemporaries, for our mothers, for our daughters.
Clinical anxiety disorders associated with fear affect more than 20 million Americans. Science has shown that fear is hardwired deep in our lizard brain. What differentiates us from one another are the situations that activate our individual alarms of danger. An armed burglar invading our home? A boyfriend not calling? An odd comment from a friend over lunch? An upcoming wedding toast you’re expected to give? Starting a new job? Having to ask your boss for a raise? Saying good-bye to a bad relationship?
Fears—such as fear of snakes, heights, and closed spaces—are not biologically specific to gender, but some do tend to be more prevalent among women than men, including anuptaphobia: fear of staying single; arrhenphobia: fear of men; atelophobia: fear of imperfection; atychiphobia: fear of failure; cacophobia: fear of ugliness; eremophobia: fear of loneliness; gerascophobia: fear of growing old; glossophobia: fear of public speaking; katagelophobia: fear of ridicule; monophobia: fear of being alone; rhytiphobia: fear of getting wrinkles.
Every fear has a name. Whatever it is that frightens you has frightened someone before you. Fear is universal. It touches everyone—but it clearly doesn’t stop everyone.
My Own Battles with Fear
There have been many, many moments of fear in my life, but seven of them were critical-times when the fear was overwhelming but which taught me that it was possible to break through to the other side—to fearlessness.
The first experience of fear I remember was a particularly strange one. I was nine years old. Over dinner one night, my mother started telling my younger sister and me about the time during the Greek civil war, in the 1940s, when she fled to the mountains with two Jewish girls. As part of the Greek Red Cross, she was taking care of wounded soldiers and hiding the girls.
She described the night when German soldiers arrived at their cabin and started to shoot, threatening to kill everyone if the group did not surrender the Jews the Germans suspected (rightly) they were hiding. My mother, who spoke fluent German, stood up and told them categorically to put down their guns, that there were no Jews in their midst. And then she watched the German soldiers lower their guns and walk away. And just hearing it, I remember the fear rising inside me, not just fear for my mother and the danger she faced but fear for myself. How would I ever live up to this standard of fearlessness?
It was 1967, and a group of Greek generals had just staged a coup and established a dictatorship in Athens, where I lived. There was a curfew, and soldiers were stationed at every corner. I was seventeen years old and afraid—torn between the fear that paralyzed me and the desire to ignore the curfew and walk to my economics class so I could fulfill my dream of going to Cambridge University. I ignored the curfew and walked to class.
When I finally got into Cambridge, I instantly fell in love with the Cambridge Union, the university’s famed debating society. But, to put it mildly, the Cambridge Union did not instantly fall in love with me. Even before starting my unrequited love affair, I had to overcome the barrier of having a heavy Greek accent in a world where accents really mattered. More important, I had to overcome the fear of criticism and ridicule. If I didn’t, I knew I would never be able to speak fearlessly in public. In 1988, when I published my book on Picasso, I found myself in a battle with the art establishment. My sin was that I had dared criticize Picasso as a man, even while acknowledging his artistic genius. The book was called Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, and the art world would not forgive me for exploring the destroyer part—a not inconsiderable facet of Picasso’s life. And this, after all, was a biography. My Picasso experience elicited two fears: the fear of being disapproved of by people I liked and respected, and the fear of being caught up in a public controversy.
The most heart-wrenching fear—confronting the possibility of great loss and one’s own powerlessness to do anything to stop it—hit me when my younger daughter, Isabella, was not yet one year old. One night, completely unexpectedly, she had a fever-related seizure. I was alone with her. Seeing my baby turn black and blue and realizing she was unable to breathe brought me face-to-face with a chilling fear.
In 2003, I ran for governor in California. During the campaign I was confronted with the fear of being caricatured and misunderstood. Of course, it’s in the nature of political campaigns to turn your opponent into a political caricature. But I saw firsthand how different—and how much harder—it is if you’re a woman, how much more exposed and vulnerable you feel. I remember sitting at the airport, waiting for a plane to Sacramento, deep in thought about all of this, when a young woman put a note in my hand and then disappeared:
I didn’t want to intrude, but I wanted to thank you for your statements during the September 24th debate. You helped make it clear why women in particular should not vote for Schwarzenegger. While some have complained that your behavior was inappropriate, I realize that well-behaved women rarely make history. Thanks for taking on the fight.
My mother, who lived with me most of my life—through my marriage, childbirth, and divorce—died in 2000. Her death forced me to confront my deepest fear: living my life without the person who had been its foundation. I did lose her, and I have had to go on without her. But the way she lived her life and faced her death have taught me so much about overcoming fear.
How Fear Limits Us
Beyond the major moments of fear in our lives, there are many other times we sacrifice our personal truth to go along, be approved of, or just plain be “nice.” Because despite all our advances, there’s still a huge premium on women being “accommodating” and “team players” who don’t “rock the boat.” As Marlo Thomas once said, “A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold.” Or, as a friend of mine operating in the treacherous political world of Washington’s Beltway told me, “It’s good to be a team player, but you also have to know the difference between all of us standing together and all of us jumping off the same cliff.” If you let them, the hungry little gremlins of compromise will devour your soul bit by bit and come to dominate your life. They feed the fear of being left out, the fear that survival will be impossible outside the tribe. No wonder fear shoots through our veins, constricting our blood flow and shutting down our creative energy—we are in survival mode.
When we are in the grip of survival thinking, the dominant illusion is that once we vanquish the enemy facing us, overcome the obstacle in front of us, get over the next hill, life will be secure, free of problems, perfect. Then we will be fearless. Then we can start the life we’ve been planning on. But that long-awaited day never comes because there is always another enemy, another obstacle, another hill.
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 most common response to this crisis of self is conformity: “The individual,” Erich Fromm writes in Escape from Freedom, “ceases to be himself; he adopts entirely the kind of personality offered to him by cultural patterns; and he therefore becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be … This mechanism can be compared with the protective coloring some animals assume.”
So, ironically, the woman who appears well adapted may be the one who has simply become most comfortable being governed by her fears, while the “neurotic” one is still gamely struggling to reach fearlessness.
Fearlessness is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s the mastery of fear. Courage, my compatriot Socrates argues, is the knowledge of what is not to be feared. Which is to say, there are things we should be afraid of—we want to stay alive, after all. We will never completely eliminate fear from our lives, but we can definitely get to the point where our fears do not stop us from daring to think new thoughts, try new things, take risks, fail, start again, and be happy.
Fearlessness is about getting up one more time than we fall down. The more comfortable we are with the possibility of falling down, the less worried we are of what people will think if and when we do, the less judgmental of ourselves we are every time we make a mistake, the more fearless we will be, and the easier our journey will become.
I remember once talking to my eight-year-old daughter before a school performance. She kept saying she had butterflies in her stomach because she was afraid to go on the stage. What if, I asked her, the butterflies were actually there because she was excited to go on the stage? She considered the idea. In fact, it became a little joke between us. “I’m not afraid, Mommy,” she would say. “I’m excited.” The more she repeated it, the more she believed it and the less afraid she was. Since fear is such a primal reaction, making the choice to move forward despite fear is an evolved decision that transcends our animal nature.
In the chapters ahead, I will provide a road map for achieving fearlessness in every aspect of our lives, a straight-to-the-point manifesto on how to be fearless. How to be bold. How to say what we need to say and do what we need to do in a way that has us embracing, not fearing, the reactions of others. Why speaking out is almost always better than silence. How to assess what’s holding us back from being our best, most honest selves and what we must do to change. Why the world will be a better place if we actively work for the things we want and believe in.
I have my own key to overcoming fear. I look for the still center in my life and in my self, the place that is not susceptible to life’s constant ups and downs. It doesn’t mean that I don’t lose my head and that I wouldn’t rather have success and praise than failure and criticism, but it does mean that I can find my way back to that center, that secure structure of inner support, so that all my negative emotions, and especially my fears, become opportunities to achieve fearlessness. If we can find that greater inner freedom and strength, then we can evolve from a fearful state of living to a state of freedom, trust, and happiness.
We have so much potential, yet we hold ourselves back. If my daughters, and women of all ages, are to take their rightful place in society, they must become fearless. This book is dedicated to them and to that goal.