The Fear of Becoming More Than Friends

We should be grateful to be afraid. We forget it often, blinded by the fear itself, but the benefits are there. We've survived as a species because a rumble in the bushes meant we fought or fled. There has always been something to be afraid of and there is always something to learn from it. But sometimes, the clock makes the decision for you and you're face-first with your fear. You're almost 30 and denying more than friends.

Chronic scaredy cat Michelle Poler is no stranger to fear. An art student, she set out to conquer 100 Days of Fear as a project confronting the obstacle holding her back from her best possible life. She pierced her ears, smoked pot, begged for money, jumped out of a plan, and ninety-six more things, including a TEDx talk about her experience. Breaking down the emotional stages of facing fears, Poler found most of us spend our time pretending we're not as afraid as we really are. We evaluate the fear mentally and decide not to act because we puff out our chests and claim we're not afraid. The fear is so stupid it's not worth our time. Poler named this the Denial Stage of Fear. It is the last defense. You're brave enough to think about fear, but not to act on it.

Eyeing down my 30th birthday this year, the denial is real. Everything else in life aside, I've told myself I don't date. The truth is I'm afraid to date. I'm not a 30-Year-Old Virgin but the years have been sparse with only a couple shining relationships. Sitting with friends, reviewing our achievements over this past year, the realization was clearer than ever. I largely spent my time alone.

My distance is mine. I'm independent, I tell myself. It's easier. I'm accomplishing so much alone! I figured if I don't bother to meet anyone, I could focus on myself and avoid the hard stuff. I wouldn't need to passive-aggressively argue in the grocery store about dinner. There was even a warped sense of pride inside of me that says I could ignore the whole scene while everyone else debates hookup culture or tries not to strangle their significant other.

Instead I've even grown up dreaming solo dreams. A roadtrip across America, alone. A New York City studio to myself. And I did both. I closed the doors on possibilities. The voices in my head were podcasts jamming in my ears. Porn before bed. Just enough money to scrap by. Only me, myself, and I. 

But I'm done denying. Admitting I'm afraid revealed the defense mechanism in front of me. 

What am I afraid of? Making the wrong choice and being trapped in it. Bill Burr made it clearer for me than ever before:

"Realize that sleeping on a futon when you're 30 is not the worst thing. You know what's worse, sleeping in a king bed next to a wife you're not really in love with but for some reason you married, and you got a couple kids, and you got a job you hate. You'll be laying there fantasizing about sleeping on a futon. There's no risk when you go after a dream. There's a tremendous amount to risk to playing it safe."

How did I arrive here? Almost ten years after it was published, Eat, Pray, Love serendipitously dropped into my hands and me in front of my fear.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert is a woman of my own heart. In Eat, Pray, Love, she was this wandering cowgirl on the ol' dusty trail, traveling around the world after taking her life into her own hands. She confronted her unfulfilling marriage and brutal divorce after turning 30 herself and my heart went out to her. She set out on a year-long journey for Italy, India, and Indonesia, and you guessed it, she ate, she prayed, and she loved.

Flipping pages, my denial melted away. Watching Liz take the trip herself, with no need for a companion, I felt a kinship. I felt right there. She even thought she'd stay single and celibate throughout the year, or even beyond. Of course, she made friends along the way, but fear bubbled up again when she met Felipe, an older, distinguished Brazilian man, doing business in Indonesia. Without giving away the story that everyone should absolutely read, Liz and Felipe dissect love together. And just when I started to think it would be nice and interesting and lovely for Liz to have a companion, Felipe gifted this gem:

"It’s still two human beings trying to get along, so it’s going to become complicated. And love is always complicated. But still humans must try to love each other, darling. We must get our hearts broken sometimes. This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried for something."

My fear blurred. It felt impossible to fear being trapped in a wrong decision when I noticed the decision was being made for me. The fear is missing out. Why not try something that is often understood as the most important thing in the world?

I took a page and an exercise right out of Liz's book and personified my fear. I decided I'd call him Marvin. And Marvin is a bit annoying and neurotic and talkative. He carries lots of spiral-ring notebooks, frayed on the ends. They're filled with stories and moments from my life past. And Marvin can grow bull horns and mountainous trapezius muscles when I question him. Like the Hulk of emotions. And he seems scary but he only shoves me around, not anyone else. That's when I call him Marv. 

And what would Marv say right now?

You haven't done enough with your life until now. Three decades and so LITTLE to show for it. You're almost 30 and you're BARELY making rent. You're going to DRAIN your roommates of their patience and your parents are going to be billed for your student debt. You'll NEVER make enough money to afford things like an adult because you're always running around and experimenting. Buckle down. Drink a gallon of coffee and apply to everything, even the jobs you HATE because they're the ones that will hire you. And if you don't get your entire life under control and in PERFECT working balance right now, no one is going to want you.

I told you he was talkative. But I'm starting to see that Marv's bulging muscles restrict blood-flow to his brain sometimes. I need to cut him off or he'll ramble and scream on without losing steam. There are holes in his words and if I take a second to wrestle with him, I find them. How is it possible to achieve nothing in three decades? Can't I defer my student debt? Is a gallon of coffee safe for human consumption?

The reality is that fear won't just go away. Marv was here, but I'm done denying him. It's okay to be afraid. We're all allowed. The tiny, interesting choice is to do something about it.