I have been helping my son, who is in 4th grade, with his math — specifically, multiplication. He feels like he is a little bit behind, so we are working on it so he can get more comfortable. It is going well now — we have gotten into a routine of spending 15 minutes per night doing a worksheet or a game, and talking through the math.
But when we first started, just a few weeks ago, it was much harder. He really really resisted getting started, or engaging with it at all. When it was time to start, he would shut down, turn away, and basically do anything so that we would not focus on the work.
I got a bit frustrated, because it felt like he was being his own worst enemy — basically making it impossible for himself to learn. This is true, I think, but the more profound truth is that he was afraid. Getting started was scary. Not knowing things was scary. Knowing that he might be faced with not knowing things was scary. Of course that’s what’s going on.
It reminds me a bit of when I was his age. For me at the time, the thing that did that to me was writing. When it came to sit down and write anything for school, I just completely stopped up. My brain went blank. It was inconceivable to me that any ideas, let alone words, sentences, paragraphs and pages, might come to be. I remember sitting with my mother at her computer, with her doing her best to coax any kind of progress out of me. I was my own worst enemy — stuck, and afraid.
I feel it to this day. Sometimes I don’t want to open my inbox, or read that document I know I need to read, or open that envelope on my desk. Of course, once I break through and do it, it’s fine. But there is sometimes a barrier of fear that gets in the way of even starting anything.
What I have found through my work with mindfulness is that step 1 is just recognizing it. Noticing that sensation and saying, “oh, hey, there you are again”. That is the first step to being able to work through it, rather than being owned by it.
It has been a long time since I have felt the level of paralyzing fear that I saw in him, but now that I think about it, I know it and recognize it.
What’s profound about this to me is that sometimes the thing you think is the problem is not actually the problem. Once you are able to identify the real problem, it’s much easier to find a way through. Fear, I think, is often the problem behind the problem, and sussing that out and working on it directly can unlock a lot of situations.