By Corinne Ducey, M.A., Ph.D.
As I stood at that blackboard for countless hours in second grade, I never thought the mind-numbing torture of diagramming sentences would one day save my life. I hated the scrape of chalk on the blackboard. The impatient reminders not to wipe the dust on my uniform. And I hated feeling the 18 other kids roll their eyes behind me as the teacher asked me to diagram sentence after sentence.
I stared at the blackboard, trying to ignore my classmates and the fear that soon took up residence in my stomach. That afternoon at recess, the other girls banned me from 4-Square, which we played every day while the boys thew tennis balls at each other against the church wall.
I edged away from the square outline on the asphalt. After a silent eternity, I walked over to the boys and asked if I could play. They looked at me like I was insane. I said I could take it. Their leader said, Fine – The game is Don’t Flinch.
I stood flat against the brick wall as each boy in my class fired a tennis ball at me from 10 feet away. Most of the balls whipped into my body. I didn’t flinch.
From then on, I played ‘Don’t Flinch’ with the boys. I survived parochial Catholic school with its little cliques and petty teachers. Just barely, though.
I threw up every day before school. I stopped eating at age 11. Obsessing over the orange I ate pulp by pulp at 3:30, I barely noticed the teachers’ jabs or the girls’ snide comments.
I simply didn’t flinch day after day.
And that illusion of strength proved sadly helpful the last day of 7th grade when my teacher flapped open an empty paper bag, dropped it on my desk, and called it The Imaginary Lunch Award. The class erupted in laughter. I stared straight ahead in silence.
For 19 years, I strove endlessly to make up for whatever could be wrong with me. I swallowed the lie of achievement. After a 10-minute encounter with another person, I attacked every word that left my mouth, every gesture I made. They walked away and thought about their laundry.
Locked in a twisted game with carrots and the scale, I missed 90% of everything I deeply cared about.
I sat directly in front of the survivors of the massacre at Srebrenica, transcribing their testimony for the International Court of Human Rights at The Hague – and I don’t remember a single word. Only my jeans tightening around my legs in horror at the sausage I ate for breakfast.
A invisible veil separated me from the world – behind which, I thought about not eating carrots and screamed at myself.
At age 30, I decided to save my life. It was up to me to choose – to live in fear or freedom. But I didn’t know how to ask for help. I only knew I had to pivot 180 degrees – to turn away from suffering to find freedom.
The vise in my head snapped open when I realized that every thought is a choice. You could stick me up against the wall, put a gun to my head, and force me to say the sky is green – and I’ll say it, as I don’t fancy getting my head shot off – but you can’t make me believe it.
And that is when all the hours at that blackboard in second grade saved my life.
Finally in charge inside of my head, the grammar hard-wired into me as child took its rightful place and allowed me to think without fear or anxiety.
After 12 years in Britain, I returned in 2011 to a United States consumed by fear – of failure, success, beauty, weight, money, career, the future. I was shocked to find fear had invaded every area of American life.
As I worked with patients, all I heard was ‘What if …?, What if…?’
I started calling ‘What if’ the two most dangerous words in the English language – as they always lead to fear. I listened to language very closely as I didn’t understand the cycle back to ‘What if?’
Then, I realized. A blackhole now exists in the language, leaving only ‘What if?’ So people can’t think in English without fear. No wonder everyone is so scared.
Second grade trained my brain to think using an entirely different formula: “If I were to …, then I would …” A potential scenario and a potential chosen response. No fear.
We need to be able to think without fear. We need to be able imagine scenarios and possible responses without having heart palpitations. We need to not be afraid of one another.
If we were to resurrect the formula, ‘If I were to …, I would …,’ we would be able to think without fear. No matter what ‘he, she, they, it were to do, I would respond.’
We then happen to the world – The world doesn’t happen to us.
And the Certainty so many desperately desire would return.I don’t remember the craving for Certainty before I left the United States in 1998. We had all the Certainty we needed in the formula, ‘If I were …, I would …’ Our thought process itself provided Certainty – the Certainty that we would respond to any potential circumstance. It was enough.
Recently, a patient in her late 20s asked with rising panic, “What if I make a stupid mistake at work tomorrow?” I simply changed her sentence structure.
‘If I were to make a stupid mistake at work tomorrow, I would tell my supervisor so she could address anything that needed to be corrected.”
The patient’s fear immediately disappeared, and she began to think rationally. ‘Of course. That’s what supervisors are there for. The job wouldn’t exist if people didn’t make mistakes.’
We can live free of fear.
We can live free of anxiety.
We can choose our thoughts.
We can feel safe in the Certainty that We Happen to the World – the world does not happen to us.
Because How We Think is How We Feel.