A few years ago, I came to a turning point in my parenting journey — I chose to be human. Instead of holding myself to an unreasonable standard or pressuring myself to have all the answers, I began to be open about my struggles and mistakes. As I was learning to accept all parts of myself, even my insecurities and weaknesses, I made a healing discovery that’s become a lifeline for my family in times of distress.
The momentous discovery is this: Fear wears disguises — and it feels especially poignant for the times we are living in right now.
This gem of truth came to me during a whitewater rafting experience in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As my family navigated its first set of raging rapids, I feared my younger daughter was going to fall out.
So, what did I do? I began barking out orders, sharp and gruff.
My husband, Scott, turned to me and said, “Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad; I’m scared!” I declared, holding back tears.
And that's when four miraculous words came from my mouth: "This is fear talking!"
Our family eventually made it through the tumultuous trip, even laughing at the expressions on our faces in the photo captured as we navigated the river. Yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about those four powerful words:
“This is fear talking.”
Suddenly, I was able to look back on some of the most shameful incidents of my life and see them in a whole new light. I’d always wondered how I could be so mean and controlling to people I loved so much. To understand that those behaviors were caused by fear and that it was anxiety talking lifted my shame and provided awareness that was life changing.
Our family began naming the underlying emotions that presented themselves as unbecoming behaviors. For example, when I was being controlling, Scott said things like, “I can see you are feeling anxious about this…” When my daughter was moody and curt, I responded with statements like, “You must feel really sad about what happened; how can I help?”
Such responses communicated a powerful message: “I am an ally who is with you, not against you.” From there, defenses went down, awareness increased, and solutions opened up. Although this knowledge was helpful for the everyday upheavals of life, being able to detect fear, anxiety, and despair was a lifesaving gift during the spring of 2017 when my father-in-law unexpectedly passed away.
On the way home from the funeral, I prepared myself. I acknowledged there was going to be a great deal of unbecoming behavior due to grief, and my role was to be a detective—not a reactor.
I reminded myself:
“Fear wears disguises.
Grief wears disguises.
Depression wears disguises.
They do not always look like I expect them to look. Sometimes they look like overreaction. Anger. Irritation.”
Over the next several weeks, my predictions were correct. Overreaction? Check. Irritability? Check. Moodiness? Check.
Having the ability to look past their behavior and see my family members’ pain helped me maintain a calm mind and compassionate heart, which opened up conversations and created solutions. Yet, nothing could have prepared me for the solution Scott offered himself after one particularly difficult moment.
He’d had an over-the-top reaction about missing socks. Now, that might sound silly, but that’s what grief does. It turns little things into big things.
In the moment, I stayed calm. I told myself: “This is not about you. This is grief talking. Be peace in the chaos… be steady in the storm.”
And that is exactly what I did. What I wasn’t expecting was Scott’s response to his own pain.
After a few minutes, he came back to me and apologized for his overreaction. Then he said this: “Next time I’m having a hard time, can you just tell me that everything is going to be okay? Can you just put your arms around me?”
That’s when I understood the ultimate gift of recognizing fear wears disguises. Not only does it enable us to see the pain beneath the surface, but it enables us to identify what we need most in our moments of distress.
"Tell me it's going to be okay."
Moments of emotional instability are not a time to lecture, turn our back, or seek revenge against the person who is struggling—they are a call to love.
As we navigate an incredibly traumatic time in our personal lives and in our world due to COVID-19, it would serve us well to remember grief wears disguises … fear talks in unbecoming ways … anxiety gets controlling and mean. In this moment, we are being called to love in ways we never have before. But with awareness and a bit of effort, it is possible to answer that call.
Rachel Macy Stafford is a New York Times bestselling author with one goal: to help people choose love as much as humanly possible. Her newest book, Live Love Now, comes from her background as a certified special education teacher and also from her own drive to live out her message as she raises her own daughters. In Live Love Now, Rachel tackles the biggest challenges facing kids today and equips 21st century parents with tools for 21st century parenting. She shows us how our homes can be safe havens, even when the world feels disconnected, divided, and uncertain. Preorder LIVE LOVE NOW before April 28, & receive 4 tools of connection along with Rachel’s 21-day Self-Care audio series. Click here to preorder from your favorite retailer & grab your bonuses.
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