We need to talk about Schaefer: the eternal duel between fear and curiosity.
In the summer of 2020, the pandemic wasn't going away anytime soon. And nor were we.
It was then when we took the fateful decision to adopt a cat. I knew what I wanted: a ginger kitten who'd like the company of people. After a couple of months of applications - 2020 saw a surge in the request for pet adoptions- we finally got to meet Schaefer on a Zoom call.
Schaefer was described as a shy cat. He turned to be a skittish cat. And after a year of blind love and devotion (on my part, of course), I believe there will not be much change. Every minute of the time he spends awake, he has to take the decision to lean into his curiosity or hide under the sofa.
Observing Schaefer, I couldn't help make some interesting connections. Being a cat, Schaefer relies on his instinct and probably some past experiences (he was rescued when he was three months old), and he embodies at the most primitive level the constant battle between curiosity and fear. Something we experience all the time we are facing a new experience or possible threat.
As a coach specialising in transitions, I am fully aware of the toll it takes to oscillate between the prospect of an exciting new reality and the paralysing constant buzzing reminder of what we can lose if we take the plunge.
Curiosity is expansive. The aim is to get us out of our comfort zone. It doesn't care about reason. It comes from the heart: it's all about making our dreams come true. Fear is restraining. It's there to protect us from danger and ensure that we can live longer.
The reason for the conflict is easy to understand. Curiosity is expansive. The aim is to get us out of our comfort zone. It's all about exploring the realm of possibilities. It paints a picture of fantastic new horizons. It seduces us with tales of adventures, discovery and magic worlds we still have to set foot on. Curiosity doesn't care about reason. It comes from the heart because it's all about making our dreams come true.
Fear, on the other hand, is restraining. It's the product of millions of years of evolution. It's there to protect us from danger and ensure that we can live longer. Fear is instinctive. It surges in a nanosecond and helps us to make that quick decision in a high-risk situation. It stems from the gut. Over time it becomes analytic, weighing pros and cons to lead us - or so we believe - to the best decision to protect the status quo.
We cannot help be seduced by tales of successful lives and new ventures, and we yearn to take a bite of the apple, knowing too well that if we don't get out of the endless circle of "what if..." questions, we will never be able to have a chance. Still, we don't want to look back and regret the loss of our Paradise Lost.
Everything new is unknown. A story waiting to be told. It's us who ultimately decide what lays behind the tall green grass.
So, how do we decide to get out of the comfort zone and explore if we're hard-wired to retreat rather than venturing out? It comes down to the stories we decide to tell ourselves.
In the field of narrative psychology, a person's life story is, to cite Robyn Fivush*, "not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning."
This narrative over time shapes who we are and our approach to what is new. If our stories resemble more to "Icarus" stories - a good idea that didn't work out- we will probably be less willing to take risks. If they are more a "Man in A Hole" plots - triumph is snatched from defeat - we will likely be more inclined to lean into our curiosity. We can, of course, find "a redemptive arc" also in the most challenging circumstances. That's why reframing experiences - "what could be a different way to look at this?"- is so important. After all, it's a question of angle and how we interpret our reality.
Here is our most powerful tool in conquering our fears.
Everything new is unknown. A story waiting to be told. It's us who ultimately decide if, beyond the tall green grass, there is a tiger ready to eat us up or a world of plenty and opportunities. We are, in fact, our own agents of change.
Easy right? Not at all. Fear is a word dense with meaning and strong emotions: failure, embarrassment, risk of losing out, wounded pride - you name it. Only if we know what is holding us back we can move forward.
Here is where the help of a coach is incredibly valuable because it can help narrow down where the real challenges are. Not only. It can also help us move in whatever direction we choose by focusing our vision on the benefits and the price of giving in to our fears or spreading the wings of curiosity.
Every choice we make in life has prices and prizes, and any change brings along a certain degree of risk. If we learn how to effectively evaluate those risks, we could be open to exploring new learning opportunities that will allow us to test our creativity and ingenuity and limits. A great learning experience that will ultimately help grow a sense of profound confidence - a belief that we can trust ourselves to do our best in all circumstances.
So, what do you think, Schaefer?
Robyn Fivush is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and Director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts at Emory University, College of Arts and Sciences in Atlanta, GA. She is well known for her research on parent-child narrative (i.e., storytelling and reminiscing) in relation to the development of autobiographical memory. Fivush is affiliated with the Departments of Psychology and Women's Studies at Emory.