Fear — and getting over it

betty ming liu Art, Inspiration, Writing how-to's 33 Comments

the scream thumbnailI just turned 55. And I am scared. The feeling reminds me of quarter-life angst except worse. After all, a half-life crisis involves twice as much emotional baggage. But thankfully, there’s also the potential for twice as much wisdom — which I discovered during a birthday morning visit with the shrink.

My regular Monday session began with the same issues that troubled me at 25: I haven’t accomplished enough with my life. How am I ever going to amount to anything? What if I die a nobody? I’m ashamed of my whining when there’s true suffering in the world.

As the therapeutic conversation warmed up, the 25-year-old version of me didn’t look so bad after all. In 1981, that younger Betty was annoying her mother by dating a black man and working as a rookie in New Jersey’s low-paying newspapers. She went on to exciting times that included becoming the first Asian American staffer at every publication that hired her. The marriage pulled both her and her husband out of their respective ghetto childhoods. They threw themselves into a whirlwind routine filled with resort vacations, four-star restaurant dinners and fancy cars.

Even though I was scared then, my life was still ahead of me. There was a career ladder to climb and a marriage to manage. The conventional structure felt safe. I knew what steps to take —

“You mean, you knew what mistakes to make,” Dr. Shrink interrupted. We both laughed. He was right. After 15 years in daily journalism, I got out. After 17 years of marriage, I got out.

Those two moves left a decade-long void. Today, fear comes from the effort of once again reinventing myself. The issues are different now because I am staring at the horizon line of my own mortality. It’s no longer about landing the first job or looking forward to the first marriage. There is no template for this stage where aging baby boomers like me are wrestling with what to do after multiple careers and relationships.

  • I’m scared because I’ve become a perpetual freelancer. This is the most dismal job market since the Great Depression. Being an adjunct assistant professor means that instead of being on staff and enjoying a steady salary, I get paid by the class. While I love my freedom, there’s no financial security.
  • I’m scared by my creative dreams. Who am I to think that I can become an author and painter at this late stage? At 55, the effort of taking on new roles is exhausting.
  • I’m scared by the prospect of a lasting relationship. My boyfriend has been around for nearly 11 months. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying about being with him — the intimacy of genuine possibility or, the possibility of genuine intimacy.

In talking to Dr. Shrink, I realized that the scariest thing about being 55 is that I’m not actually looking for a new me. I just want the original me, the one I could’ve been if I wasn’t scarred by my immigrant parents’ best intentions. Their defensiveness about being not good enough runs so deep. My confidence always fails when I start thinking of myself as being hopelessly outside the American mainstream…

Blathering about this stuff helped. Eventually, Dr. Shrink got me to a new emotional space. I walked out of his office realizing that the fear I feel is just a part of risk-taking. F-e-a-r might be a four-letter word but it’s not necessarily a negative. Taking creative, emotional and financial risks is exciting — and dangerous. Which means that fear and excitement are a yin-yang package deal. Period.

So I think I can accept the new reality, at least until my three-quarter life crisis. I also know that I’m not alone. There are plenty of folks of all ages who are experimenting. They are my people, my community, my race.

They are called “entrepreneurs.”



Comments 33

  1. Betty,

    Here’s what I always think: no matter what age you right now, someday you’ll WISH you were this age. think this is hard? wait till you’re 75. man, those days of 55 will be just a sweet memory. settle in and enjoy the ride. there are no guarantees. that’s my two cents worth of advice and now you know why i did not become a shrink.


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    i know — 55 isn’t old! and my 50s are turning into my best years ever. but i’m just not used to living with this much open space in my life. after all those years of being on a regimented immigrant kid’s success track, freedom is scary!!! do i sound like a total whiner? :)

  3. My advice is stop paying the shrink. You’re among the sanest, best oriented people around this crazy city. I advise instead discussing personal problems with your cat. I do with mine and am always satisfied – even amazed – at the simplicity and sensibility of her views. Also, her fees are modest – normally no more than a “cat treat” or two – though prolonged sessions may involve additional charges such as a shared nap or extra ear scratching.

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    but toby, i love my shrink!! he’s helped me so much. besides, my cats never listen to me. i would talk to my dog because she’s very patient. but unfortunately, the dog is deaf. then again, maybe that’s a plus — i can keep blathering and she won’t act bored. i hope i get over this phase before i turn 56. otherwise, this is going to be a very long year…..

  5. Well, I did become a “shrink”–actually a social worker “shrink”–and when I woke up this morning after a semi-sleepless night and read about your encounter with fear, it was just the right dose of medicine. Betty, your blog about your encounter with fear and overcoming it inspires me and since I am confronting my own versions of same it is good to be reminded to “settle in and enjoy the ride”.


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    yay! — let’s hear it for the good work of human therapists! and seriously, i am comforted by pets. having the three cats and 1 dog running hanging around all day keeps my house cozy. (even if it’s a bit too furry.) btw, my first shrink was a social worker-shrink too and she was amazing. this is my second shrink and he’s got the degrees. i wasn’t looking for that. i only picked him because he was her former patient and went on to study with her and become her friend. when she died of cancer, he seemed like someone who would understand. the man is a joy to be with — a mellow yin to her diva yang. he also has a cute, little dog who sits in on our sessions. i always know when i’ve gotten into an intense conversation because she goes to sleep. thank goodness he stays awake. if anyone wants his name, just email me!

  7. Omg. This is it. Quoting you:
    I realized that the scariest thing about being 55 is that I’m not actually looking for a new me. I just want the original me, the one I could’ve been if I wasn’t scarred by my immigrant parents’ best intentions. Their defensiveness about being not good enough runs so deep. My confidence always fails when I start thinking of myself as being hopelessly outside the American mainstream…

    For me, this resonates. You can easily take out your age and insert mine. I JUST had a conversation about fear and being brave with my direct reports literally 2 days ago. I just started speaking up/being brave more overtly at work and at home recently.

    Work: reorg. New leader. I had to seize the opportunity to do something for myself and my team. It was too often the case to toe the hierarchical line with fear. I am trying to stick my neck out there, but it’s terrifying because I don’t want to get fired! It is a crappy market out there! I figured that if I don’t say it now, then what good am I to the people who depend upon me?

    Home: same thing. I want my daughters to see that I am a strong person at home, capable of making decisions and influencing their paths. I don’t want to be this shell of a person who just went with the status quo like my mom.

    All the while, the thought that did play through my head was WHAT IF MY MOM WAS NON-ASIAN, how would have this changed things up in my upbringing and shaped my bravery? How would I have been a different person? As we get older, because of the weight of responsibilities grow, bravery wanes due to self-preservation. However, if I want my kids and team at work to go all the way, then I better get over my crappy upbringing and be brave and walk my talk.

    I am trying to not et the fear show on my face, Betty, but it’s hard! Thank you for posting this! Sorry, I rambled along.

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    oh, happy to have you ramble, jackie. stop by any time. and good luck with raising kids + managing work! i feel a little bad about blaming my chinese parents for everything. but…that’s what ALL parents are for! haha! seriously, though, the asian model is terribly flawed. too much pressure to perform & conform. the shrink was right, my folks basically taught me how to make mistakes.

    but i give my dad credit for one thing now. he definitely was an entrepreneur. he dabbled in buying real estate. i learned a lot from watching him — both good & bad. it was important to have a model to watch up close. so the path i’m on now includes him in an affectionate way.

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    p.s. — based on the reaction to this post on my my social media outlets, i’m starting to think that the 50s are the new 20s. anyone else have thoughts on that?

  10. I have a few years on you so not sure have great advice except one suggestion. At the ending of the fantastic book, “Making Toast,” Roger Rosenblatt says someone asked him how he dealt with the tragedy in his life. His answer” “Value the passing moment.” That’s what I try to do and not worry about the wrinkles or the lost opportunities or whatever. Plan for the future but ENJOY the present. Happy Birthday!

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      mary, i thought we were the same age. you’re lookin’ good, girl! and yeah, i agree. it’s all about the moment. the cliche of “life is too short” is so true. :)

  11. No! Please don’t say that the fifties are the new twenties! I am 30 now and keep hearing that the thirties are the new twenties. No, they are not. I really don’t like hearing that…and by how you live and what you wrote, I feel that you don’t need to say that.

    You, right now is you for right now. Some of that will change, but it will only get better. Although it sounds so Hallmark-y, enjoy every moment. The thing about aging is that it is the only thing that goes forward, so you should go forward with it. As my friends (a lot that are older than me) were approaching their thirties years ago, they whined and complained about it and tried to put me in a panic. I refused. I don’t like the idea of trying to be, act, look younger or older.

    I mean, damn, Betty! You have 365 days off 55, that’s it. Why let them pass flashing back on 25? I think you should definitely keep the shrink b/c he or she pointed out that you knew the right mistakes to make and when. Do you want to go back there? Be thankful for what you’ve learned and take it to the 50s, 60s, beyond.

    It is easy to be tempted with fear in this kind of job market, but be comforted by the freedom you said you have. Now, freedom doesn’t pay the bills, but you’ve got a go-getter’s attitude, you will find a way to land on your feet. I pray you do…esp. because I sorta follow your lead on some things.

    Celebrate your past but remember the grace you have right now. Grace is ability, and you’ve been given many abilities. That makes you graceful (full of grace!), full of many abilities.

    I think the journalist or thinker or immigrant daughter in you makes you ask lots of questions, but I know that you know more of the answers than you give yourself credit for.

    What I hooked in on was when you said in this blog that you weren’t looking to create another you. You kind of looked at the you you thought you should or would have been earlier. But you are you right now and you can shake your head at some things, but you can smile back at that 25 year old and say,”Wait till you get here, you’re really gonna like me in 30 years.”

    ‘Cause I like you right now. I probably couldn’t understand you back then, I’m still figuring myself out too. But I love 30 even though my friends lie about their ages. To make a cheesy point, I refuse to shop at the store Forever 21. I have a favorite age in my life but I left that age a long time ago, so I want every new age to become my next favorite age. Only a year to grow in it and enjoy it, so let’s get it right. 30 is the new 30…and that’s okay. 55 is the new 55. Make it new.

  12. Betty:

    Remaking yourself is not limited to those who have lived life against or outside of convention.
    Married for 29 years to my college sweetheart, whom I met my first day as a coed, and the mother of 3–ages 12 yrs, 19 yrs. and 23 yrs.–I, at 50 am wondering where I go from here.
    After 29 years of being a wife, and 23 years of raising children as a stay-at-home mom–I earned my MA in Psychology and garnered my license to practice psychotherapy during my 30’s. Then at the ripe ole’ age of 46 earned my MFA in Creative Writing–I’m still afraid of success.

    But then what is success?

    At 50 my life I have most probably lived over half my life.

    Success frightens me now as much as it did a quarter of a century ago. The only difference is now I know and can name the fear.

    You’re a far piece ahead of me, Betty.
    At least you’re still talking to your therapist. I’ve shut down.
    I’m writing. And not painting as I’d like.

    We’re all afraid of dying. And being forgotten.

    Author Jumpha Lahiri, in an interview with Larry Rose said that among the things many for which she held angst and contemplated was what it means for a family to die, the lineage to end, and all semblance of their presence sink into oblivion. (I paraphrase.)
    I don’t know what to make of this life and our living.
    I fear I never will.

    Thanks for such a stimulating article even though it left me wondering about a lot I tend to push aside..

    Peace and blessings.

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    skye and anjuelle, wow. i can’t even wrap my brain around all the issues you’re both raising. fear is powerful, isn’t it?

    skye, it’s great that you’re happy at 30. brava! the 30s were a rich time of discovery for me. and don’t worry, i don’t really want to be in my 20s again. that’s a difficult decade. i will try to do as you say and enjoy 55. it’s gonna take some doing though. but i expect to grow into it.

    and anjuelle, you can’t shut down! i’m scared of success too. in fact, isn’t success harder than failure? what’s wrong with us?????

  14. Afraid of your late artistic dreams? Come on Betty! You’re doing wonderfully! you know what? My aunt recently picked up the violin. It was 5 years ago when my cousin Thomas started to play. She just bought a 16th century violin to improve herself and wants to be a good violinist. at 51! You can do it!

    Fear is instinctive, we need it, but as I can see, it’s not making you numb! Well, I’m not an example, cause I’m still such an immature kid. But I get you. My mom dropped the shrink because she understood “all they do is to try and and make you understand you’re the only one able to save yourself”. But I feel like I’m going back to the psychiatrists, sooner or later.

    Every age has its fears. As long as is does not block you, they can be vital. A friend of mine calls that “primal instinct”…

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