On Becoming Fearless

I remember in February 1997 taking my then seven-and five-year- old daughters to an exhibition of Shakespeare's "Unruly Women" at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. There was Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who takes on the whole Venetian legal world and uses the law to bring new, deeper insights to it. There was Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind in As You Like It, both of them "take no prisoners" women who ruffled the feathers of those birdbrains mindlessly parroting the status quo.

Fearless women come in all shapes, forms, ages, and professions. As Shakespeare put it, "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety."

I wanted to take my daughters to that exhibition because it's never too early to teach women fearlessness. But now as I watch my girls in their teenage years, I'm stunned to see all the same classic fears I was burdened with: How attractive am I? Do people like me? Should I speak up? I wonder if their fears are more intense than mine were at their age or if they just seem more intense. I had thought that with all the gains feminism has brought, my daughters would not have to suffer through the fears I did. Yet here is our younger generation, as uncertain, doubting, and desperate as we were, trying to fulfill the expectations of others. What happened to our bold little girls?

As Mary Pipher puts it in her bestselling book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, "Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as planes and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves." Fears in teenage girls manifest in many ways: depression, eating disorders, drugs, casual and confusing sex. Young women, fixated on looks, thinness, and sexuality, are losing themselves in trying to gain approval from peers, grown-ups, and the overheated pop culture that surrounds them.


And yet, through the many case studies I've read, through the stories of women I admire, and, above all, through my own experience with my daughters, again and again I encounter moments of extraordinary strength, courage, and resilience, when fears are confronted, even overcome, and anything seems possible. It was my longing to somehow make these moments last that prompted me to write this book - for my contemporaries, for our mothers, for our daughters.

CLINICAL ANXIETY DISORDERS associated with fear affect more than 20 million Americans. Science has shown that fear is hardwired deep in our lizard brain. What differentiates us from one another are the situations that activate our individual alarms of danger. An armed burglar invading our home? A boyfriend not calling? An odd comment from a friend over lunch? An upcoming wedding toast you're expected to give? Starting a new job? Having to ask your boss for a raise? Saying good-bye to a bad relationship?

Fears - such as fear of snakes, heights, and closed spaces - are not biologically specific to gender, but some do tend to be more prevalent among women than men, including anuptaphobia: fear of staying single; arrhenphobia: fear of men; atelophobia: fear of imperfection; atychiphobia: fear of failure; cacophobia: fear of ugliness; eremophobia: fear of loneliness; gerascophobia: fear of growing old; glossophobia: fear of public speaking; katagelophobia: fear of ridicule; monophobia: fear of being alone; rhytiphobia: fear of getting wrinkles.


Every fear has a name. Whatever it is that frightens you has frightened someone before you. Fear is universal. It touches everyone - but it clearly doesn't stop everyone.

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