Last week I was at my pond writing. It was a tranquil day with no sound other than an occasional bird chirp. My back was to the woods, which surround the pond. I was in the flow of writing when suddenly, I heard the loud sound of leaves crunching and sticks breaking in the woods. I instantly snapped out of my writing flow and froze. The leaf crunching and branches cracking behind me got louder and closer. My mind immediately recalled the story my husband shared a few days earlier, about the bear at the end of our driveway, rummaging through our trash can who he (my husband) scared away.
Oh my God. I thought without moving an inch. IT’S THE BEAR.
For a moment I was frozen trying to decide whether to play dead or turn around, jump up and down, act big, and shout loudly (which is what my husband did to scare it away). I started to sweat and could hear my heart pumping through my chest, as the leaf crunching and branches snapping now seemed extra loud and close.
I wonder if it’s TWO BEARS? I thought, as I slowly turned around with my shoulders hunched up, afraid of what I’d see….
There he was. A squirrel on his hind legs, eating a nut, and staring at me.
I exhaled. Damn squirrel.
How on earth could a squirrel sound as loud as something larger than a human moving through the woods? I’ve seen squirrels in the woods creating quite a ruckus, but in this situation I don’t know if it was loud as my brain perceived it. It didn’t start to sound really loud until I assumed it was not one bear, but two.
How often do we do this in our everyday lives? We have monsters in our closet; you know, those things that we’re afraid to face because they seem so scary. Things like admitting that you’re no longer satisfied in your long term relationship, having the difficult conversation with the employee you need to terminate because she’s no longer right for your business, or admitting that it’s time to close your own business because it no longer serves you or your clients. We’re often afraid to face these things because of the stories we tell about them, which feed our fears making them monstrously huge.
For example, if you admit you’re no longer satisfied in your long-term relationship, you might be perceived as a quitter. If you have the difficult conversation with your employee, you could hurt her and your relationship. If you close your business, you’ll be a failure. These are monsters created from our stories. They have no immediate factual basis in reality, but we believe they do because our stories feel real. We’re afraid to open the closet and actually see that the monster might not be as big as we think. We keep it in the closet, which causes it to grow. The longer we refuse to open the door and face what we need to say, do, or feel, the bigger the monster gets, but here’s the kicker: the growth is only in our head. Just like with the squirrel in the woods, the longer I sat there and contemplated whether it was a bear, the worse the scenario got in my head. It went from one bear to two bears, and had I not turned around when I did, I’m sure I would’ve created an entire family of bears approaching me from the woods.
The longer you keep your monster in the closet, the bigger it gets. But, if you have enough courage to crack open the door and peek in, you might realize your big scary monster is simply a small hungry squirrel. As soon as you take one step to admit the relationship is over or plan the difficult conversation with your employee, the size of your problem, your fear, or your story start to shrink. All you have to do is be willing to take one step toward it and you’ll see it begin to diminish.
I told my husband the story about the squirrel and the bear and he said, “Well, it could’ve been a bear.” That wasn’t what I wanted to hear but he was right, it could have been. Just as your monster might be as big as what you’ve created in your head. Or not. You’ll never know unless you open the closet and look at it. Once you do that, you can slam the door shut and continue to let it be bigger than your well-being, or you can decide to face it for what it truly is: a story in your head that you can change or eliminate.
Yes, it could have been a bear in the woods behind me. If it was I’d probably be writing a different blog, but the truth is, there are many more squirrels in our woods than bears. And I would’ve never known what I had to do or how serious the situation was without turning around to face it.
Open the closet, look at the monster, and take a step toward it. Perhaps in reality it’s only as small as a squirrel. (And if not, I hear jumping up and down, acting big, and shouting loudly can make it go away…)
This blog was originally posted on The Huffington Post on September 27, 2016