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Oh, The Agony of Freedom!

the agony of freedom

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve stepped away from the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Why didn’t anyone tell me it would be this scary? As I’m quickly reminded, one of the major obstacles of self-employment is processing the concept of freedom itself.

Yes, it’s exhilarating to know that I’m really stepping into the career that best feeds my passion, but at times, it’s also agonizing! Today, we’ll be diving into why that might be the case for more than just me. Consider this an attempt to help us both navigate our fears while we also learn to accept the benefits of freedom.

Freedom defined

When I talk about freedom in relation to my employment status, there’s a tendency to assume I’m comparing my most recent job—teaching at The Matthew Reardon Center for Autism—to bondage or indentured servitude. I assure you, this is not the case. Like many of my earlier jobs, that teaching gig was quite fulfilling. I learned things that will forever shape me, and I built relationships that I’ll continue to nurture.

Instead, the freedom I’m talking about now refers specifically to the changes in choice and leadership. As a self-employed story consultant, I’m able to make major choices, and not just on the managerial side of the business. The major choices I make create a resonant impact on the overall direction of the company. Rather than leading a handful of employees down this ravine or that in my tiny dinghy of influence, I’m steering the whole ship now. If I want to change the course entirely, we can change the course entirely (and the consequences directly affect me). If there’s an iceberg ahead, it’s an iceberg on my watch.

Fear infused

Because I have the freedom now to choose… well, everything, that’s the scary part of the equation. Being directly in charge of my streams of income means if I screw up badly enough, we don’t pay the bills. It means if I pitch Holistic Storyteller to the wrong crowd, I might forever alter the branding. It means when I toss out an offhanded hurtful tweet, the microscopic magnification is so great that I could jeopardize the entire company from that tiny, 140-character space. How in the world can a guy meet his daily goals with all that reality gnawing away at his mind? How can a gal focus on what’s important when, at the corporate level of decision-making, it’s all important?

How in the world can a guy meet his daily goals with all that reality gnawing away at his mind?

How can you meet the daily goals with reality constantly gnawing at your mind?

Fear dissected

Have you ever wondered why we, as a species, actually fear in the first place? Just what was it that first told our brains, “You should be paralyzed right now, and your brain needs to be overclouded, too”?

As our embryonic bodies adapted to the environments experienced by our ancestors, much of this fear still tags along for generations, sometimes manifesting into seriously debilitating phobias. At its core, though, fear does something infinitely valuable. Fear incites change. And change leads to further, life-saving adaptation.

The narrative of fear

You’re probably wondering why it took so long for me to delve into another rant about the narrative structure of a story. What can I say? I blame the paralysis of fear.

In stories, fear and hesitation within a central character’s mind is essential. It happens the most recognizably when we transition from the beginning of a story to the middle. That major fear that risks calling off the whole adventure before it even gets started—that refusal of the call—is important. Without some acknowledgement of a hero’s hesitation, the author can’t convey the stakes. And if the stakes of what I do to start my journey aren’t high enough, nobody’s gonna care to watch the movie or read the book that I write. Without a hint of fear or hesitation within the mind of the main character, the story is inconsequential and uninteresting to the audience. Without the rump-punt of fear, the protagonist is stuck in the limbo of her everyday life, and no one wants to be reminded of that tragic fate.

The nature of fear

Fear is a predecessor to all lasting change. This rings true in many applications.

Fear is the predecessor of all lasting change.

Fear is the predecessor of all lasting change.

Fear is also the greatest impediment to lasting change. What sets the hero apart is really just his choice to embrace vulnerability and step out of the norm. Most people don’t do that. Fear holds them back. But if you acknowledge fear as your major impediment to success, you can be the hero.

Fear is that rush of chemicals that tells your brain, “Get ready to press the ‘save’ key, because this will forever alter your DNA, for better or worse.” It’s a powerful force. Like any powerful force that begins from within, fear requires conscious handling for us to achieve the results we want.

So, how do you solve a problem like your fears, huh? How do you catch that cloud and pin it down? We can start by acknowledging that for at least 400,000 years, the modern human race has survived debilitating fear. We’re here and reading this post today because countless generations with bits of our present genetic makeup figured out how to exist beyond debilitation. We exist because within the instincts and learned behaviors that we’ve accumulated is a foundation for survival in the midst the fear.

Trimming the fat of one’s story

If you’re a parent, you probably won’t be surprised that our own fears dramatically influence the fears of our children. In one study, scientists discovered that 77% of mothers afraid of water had children who were also afraid of water. Most of these kids had no personal trauma associated with water, and yet the fear had been inherited and manifested profoundly. On certain days, that thought alone can push me past the threat of paralysis.

If I want to live out the narrative that best equips my kids to survive, I’ve got to get a grip on my fears. Like my ancestors, I do find value in building a structured rule system inspired, in part, by fear. “I’m afraid you’ll hurt your hand, so you’re not allowed to touch the stove.” “I’m afraid you might drown, so you can’t stay in the baby bath unattended.”

Many of my ancestors (and your ancestors, too) have taken healthy fear into unhealthy territory, though. When the scientific process of analyzing and categorizing differences is applied in broad strokes—without acknowledging the fact that I don’t have all the data—some pretty messed-up, xenophobic fears can take root. Racism, sexism and so many other atrocious “us vs. them” ideologies result from overcompensating these fears.

An alternative heroic path—when faced with the unknown other—is to think, “This person varies from my subjective norm. How can I learn from her and broaden my understanding of life?”

Irrational fears that are directed toward others should be the first to evict from our lives. This subset of fears affects far more than our own productivity. Irrational fears unjustly destroy that person or thing we irrationally fear. Don’t let that be the story you pass down.

Irrational fears unjustly destroy that person or thing we irrationally fear.

Irrational fears unjustly destroy that person or thing we irrationally fear.

Fear embraced in the midst of freedom

The irrational fears we inflict upon ourselves can actually be wonderful catalysts. We prove this when we thrive in the midst of fear. Resonant characters prove this truth by having fear sprinkled consciously throughout their still-heroic journeys.

As it turns out, fear is a terrible new master if you ever get the chance to become self-sufficient.

This was the aha! moment for me that led to this entire post to begin with: I’m experiencing more fear now that I’m free to make my own choices. I’m experiencing this fear because my pattern-obsessed brain craves a boss to tell me what to do. It seeks someone else to blame if my efforts turn out differently than what I had hoped for.

the agony of freedom

I’m experiencing fear because my pattern-obsessed brain craves a boss to tell me what to do.

Realizing this fact, I can empower myself by acknowledging fear for what it is:

Fear is often inherited from the experiences of others. Therefore, I can consciously identify fear when it occurs. I can decide if it’s something I want to keep and pass on to my kids, or if it’s something that needs transcending.

Fear is a signal that my next choices will shape me. Therefore, I can consciously consider my next choice. I can acknowledge that if I fail, it’s rarely a terminal diagnosis. I can remind myself that successful people are characterized by how they handle the inevitable failures that they often bring about themselves.

Fear is a catalyst for a new adventure. Therefore, I can find inspiration in numerous heroes—both real-life and fictional. I can share in their actualized strength by pushing beyond the refusal stage of my journey. Like those heroes, I can accept the call on my life to become far greater than anything I could imagine in my present, fear-addled state.

Fear is a manageable release of chemicals whenever my circumstances change. Therefore, I can acknowledge the shift in chemistry and do great things in spite of my fear.

Fear & freedom wielded as tools

With all that in mind, my challenge to you is this: Identify your fear for what it is. Often you have to peel back several layers before finding it. Keep peeling back your problems until you find fear. I promise you it’s there!

Consciously do that thing you know you need to do in the face of fear. It’s only debilitating if you let it be debilitating. Ask for help if you need it. There’s no shame in seeking out friends or professionals to help you conquer your fear. Storybook heroes do it all the time when faced with their greatest threats, and nobody judges them.


There’s no shame in seeking out friends or professionals to help you conquer fear.

There’s no shame in seeking out friends or professionals to help you conquer your fear.

I know fear is a tough nut to crack. I’m waging war with it today as I type out these words. I also know that freedom is a powerful force to experience. Those who encounter freedom find more power and opportunity to influence society through the resonant stories they tell.

It’s worth it to find freedom in the face of fear. You’re worth it, and your stories are worth it, too.





About the Author Mark Ezra Stokes

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