Michelle Obama on facing one’s fears | Inquirer Business
ALL IN THE FAMILY

Michelle Obama on facing one’s fears

/ 02:10 AM December 08, 2022

(Second of four parts)

In 2006, Barack Obama told his wife Michelle that he wanted to run for US president—but only if she agreed. She agonized for months. She knew he would make a great president, but she was comfortable in her law firm and she wanted a peaceful life for their daughters. She did not want their family to be scrutinized by a whole nation.

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She decided to decode her anxiety, until “there it was, finally laid bare, the thing my fear was trying to excuse: I didn’t want change. I didn’t want discomfort, or uncertainty, or loss of control,” she says in her latest book “The Light We Carry.”

“There was no predicting—no imagining, really—what lay on the other side of the experience,” she adds.

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Michelle was no stranger to overcoming fear. As a preschooler, she was terrified of a giant stuffed turtle in a show, but the director did not coddle her: either perform beside the turtle, or not. The little girl ended up twirling onstage, and found that “the turtle wasn’t as big as I’d thought it was. Its eyes didn’t look nearly so mean once you got up close … It was soft, inert, and unthreatening—and maybe even a little cute.”

When she was five years old, her mother insisted that she walk by herself to school and back. “My mother understood the importance of setting aside her fears and allowing me the power of my own competence, even as a kindergartner. And because she had faith in me, I had faith in me, too. As scared as I was, I felt a sense of pride and independence, which became important building blocks in my foundation.”

In parenting their two daughters, Michelle imitates her mother. “Every step of the way, I’ve wanted to shove off their enemies, bat away their risks, and escort them past every threat. It’s a basic instinct, and a product of my fear … [But] I watch them go and wait for them to come back, even as my nerves thrum and my heart pounds out of my chest. Because what my mother showed me is that if you try to keep your children from feeling fear, you’re essentially keeping them from feeling competence, too.”

Barack and Michelle had dealt with infertility, loss of loved ones, racial discrimination—and they had become “more competent, more adaptable” after the crises.

So to Barack’s crucial question about the presidency, Michelle finally said “yes,” and her yes—a tiny one compared to Mary’s yes to bear God’s Son, which we celebrate today on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, but a yes, no less—changed the course of history.

If we are in mortal danger, fleeing is wise (i.e., social distancing in a pandemic is essential). But usually we do not face life or death, and many of our fears are imagined.

Too much anxiety paralyzes us, I tell college students, who overthink in simple situations (“I am scared of making a mistake so I will not recite in class,” “I prefer to do the homework on my own so no one judges me”) and business families, who fear change (“Let’s just keep things the way they are because revisions are costly,” “Why do we need a constitution if the patriarch gets his way all the time?”).

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If you give in to your fears, “you don’t sign up for a class that’s going to challenge you or engage in a conversation with someone whose political or religious views you don’t already know,” says Michelle. “In trying to spare yourself the worry and discomfort of taking a risk, you’re potentially costing yourself an opportunity. In clinging only to what you know, you are making your world small. You are robbing yourself of chances to grow.”

Face the fear, even as you feel the scary emotions, even if you need to go against your instincts, your upbringing, your peers’ judgments. So my resilient students participate in class even as their voices tremble, and after a month, they speak up more confidently. My wise clients listen non-defensively even as their families bring up difficult stuff, and after a time, they learn to trust each other.

“Practice past those fears,” says Michelle. “The more you practice, the better you get at it. Each leap I’ve taken has only made the next leap easier.”

Next week: Michelle Obama on the power of small

Get “The Light We Carry” by Michelle Obama at National Bookstore (nationalbookstore.com).

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