Healthy Living

How I Conquered My Fears and Took Risks After 50

I grew up in a family that didn’t know how to deal with anger. The passive-aggressiveness was so pervasive that I wasn’t even aware it was in me until I was studying for my Masters in clinical psychology. My program required students to attend personal therapy sessions and it was in these sessions that I uncovered the layers of my anger. As I peeled away each layer, I felt transformed.

But, after I earned my PhD and began my own practice, I noticed a disappointing trend in the profession: there were hundreds of published articles on anxiety and thousands on depression, but hardly any on anger. The few books that did cover anger only talked about how to verbally communicate it. They said nothing about what to do with the energy anger creates inside of us and gets stuck in our bodies. Because of this dearth of information, I felt inspired to take a big risk: to write a book about anger that used mindfulness skills and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy to transform what can be a corrosive emotion into one that provides us with many gifts––knowledge about ourselves, our needs, our wants, and our boundaries. At the time I didn’t know that writing my book, Mindful Anger, would open the door to more risks, and to more rewarding  experiences.

One of the things people may not realize about publishing a book is that, quite often, writing it is the easy part. I could sit alone in the quiet of my office and write with only myself to judge my progress. Once my book was out in the world, though, I had to promote it. For someone like me, who is used to talking one on one with people or, at most, to a group of ten to twelve, this was nerve-racking. When I began the process, a book signing in front of just my friends and family made me nervous. Then, that small book signing turned into a small speaking engagement and then another one and another and soon I found myself speaking to larger and larger audiences. Suddenly I was doing podcasts and radio shows, too. What helped me combat my fear was reminding myself that as long as I knew what I was talking about, I would be ok. I’ve been a psychotherapist for thirty-five years and I am an expert on anger, so my ace in the hole was the confidence that I knew what I was talking about.

As Mindful Anger gained traction, the opportunities multiplied. A healthcare company on the East Coast got my book from my publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, and asked me to do a talk for therapists in Philadelphia and New Jersey. The success of those talks encouraged others to hire me for more speaking engagements, which meant I had to overcome more fears: the fear that the audience wouldn’t like me or what I was saying, the fear that they wouldn’t believe me, and the fear that they would find me boring. I could have declined the offers and gone back to the quiet safety of my office, or I could have taken the expensive public speaking classes I was told I needed. Instead, I found the approach that worked best for me: I learned how to write a good seminar and workshop. I got on that stage and walked my way and talked my way and practiced mindfulness––taking deep, calm breaths, scanning myself, scanning the audience, taking more deep breaths. The more confidence I gained in what I was saying and the more I felt grounded and in touch with myself, the less public speaking felt like a risk.

At one talk I did, there were three girls in the audience who sat through the whole thing with their eyes glued to their cellphone screens. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy, I attributed their rudeness to their youth and decided to not let them bother me. I ignored them and played to the rest of the audience. At another talk, an elderly man sat in the front and stared at me completely expressionless for an hour and a half, never cracking even a hint of a smile. I went through the whole thing thinking, “Oh my god, he hates me. Why did he choose the front row?” After my presentation, he came up to me and, to my absolute surprise, told me how much he loved it. This lesson was an important reminder to me: your fears can play tricks on your mind.

In the beginning, taking risks felt exhausting and scary. Whenever you do something that frightens you, just doing it will make you stronger in some way. To me now, standing in front of an amphitheater full of people is no scarier than standing in front of my friends at that book signing was. I’ve never felt more alive than I do now when I get up in front of an audience and share with them the decades of knowledge I’ve gained working with people who’ve been weighed down by unexplored anger. In order to get to the feelings of pride and renewed energy that occur when a risk turns into self-mastery, you have to bulldoze yourself through your fears and always, always remember to breathe.

By Andrea Brandt

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    Hello, I need help, desperately. From, Cape Town, South Africa. Emotional abuse, filled with anxiety etc. 52 years old. Please help. Thank you

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