Listening to Butterflies:Using Fear to Move Forward



A reverie of childhood:

I lie in the double bed where I suspect Grandma sleeps when I am not visiting.  The nubby white bedspread is turned down and rests like a lightweight dog on my feet.  I’ve read a chapter or two in my Judy Blume book and turned out the goose necked lamp.  A soft breeze lifts the sheer curtain and mingles with traces of Grandma’s White Shoulders perfume.  Boxes of the perfume reside in the top drawer of the bureau; yearly Valentine’s gifts from Grandpa.  I’ve explored (snooped?) all hiding places in this guest room.  It’s night two of my annual week-long stay with Grandma and Grandpa.  All is quiet.  Sleep wanders outside my reach but homesickness settles on my chest (right over my heart) like the penny-shaped paperweight I gave Dad for Father’s Day.  Everything is different here.  I have to get up tomorrow and do all the new and strange things again. I know Grandma and Grandpa will be waiting for me in the morning at the Formica-speckled table with the ridged edge.  Between the two of them there will be a plastic cup of juice filled to the brim next to an avocado colored bowl. I’ll get to choose a tiny box of cereal from the assortment Grandma bought special for my visit.  Grandma will take me shopping for outfits of my choosing and Grandpa will introduce me to menu items like walleye and tripe.  I couldn’t ask for more loving hosts but still the joy of attention and adventure is mixed with an untethered longing for the familiar.


Joyfear, Bittersweet, Fearward


My solo visits to my grandparents’ house two and a half hours away from home were not  huge risks but they were an act of courage for a ten year old. Without a familiar foundation I floated on my own breath and bravery.


Every single defining moment in my life has been filled with Joyfear, with a mixture of intense joy and intense fear into one ball of powerful emotions that both lift me up and make me see things clearly when I hadn’t before.

Leo Babauta, Joyfear, June 7, 2011


Leo Babauta of Zen Habits wrote a short essay about the experience he coined, Joyfear. The birth of each of his children and walking away from his day job are examples of circumstances containing this phenomenon.  He recommends not shying away from the conflicting duo because joyfear resides in all endeavors resulting in self-growth.


I have a friend who says, Let love guide you, not fear.  I still believe this is best practice but I am increasingly aware of the presence of fear in life-changing moments.  Perhaps fear is there to cut through the headiness and bring reality front and center.  Perhaps joy is there to help push through fear and touch your dreams.


Joyfear is akin to bittersweet.  I know many mothers who found the first day of kindergarten for their little darlings to be bittersweet.  I’m going to be honest, the scale  tipped toward sweet at my house. I can see the joy in a peaceful house and independent Mommy AND I sort of understand the bitterness or longing for a child departing babyhood.


Another word in the same vein as joyfear and bittersweet is fearward.  My friend, Roxanne, heard the term fearward at a conference for psychoanalysts or yogis or some group concerned with the human condition.  Move toward what scares you and grow.  An example sentence using fearward: I am terrified of criticism but my dream is to connect with the world through writing, so I must go fearward.


Personal Growth, Blossoming, Self-Evolution


Every action I have taken with butterflies in my stomach and possibilities in my heart has allowed me to expand in mind and soul.  When I first began working out with a trainer I felt like I would throw up before each session (and sometimes after ;).  I knew he was going to push me outside my comfort zone, push my limits and possibly go too far, but I survived and became stronger and healthier than ever.  I faced fear and felt joy in the same activity.  I wrote in What I Learned from a Guitar Guruabout my shaky fingers and overall nervousness about being observed while I play guitar, yet the music and learning awakens my spirit.  In How Charlie Sheen Got Me Off the Fence, I discuss how writing made me feel exposed and vulnerable but also gutsy and at home.

 I now see all those butterflies and qualms as signposts pointing to a better me.


Alive, Alive, Alive


Another benefit of situations that produce joy and fear is an increased feeling of being alive.  Senses become acute. I could go on and on about the scent of the candles burning in the music school or the burning in my quadriceps as I do seated leg lifts.  Every week when I hit the Publish button to put my post out into the world, my heart flip flops.  Sensations surface from somewhere deeper than everyday.  Life is heightened.


The visits to my grandparents’ house are some of the best memories of my life.  If I ever need to visualize a happy place, there it is.  I can see the 1970s kitchen and recall the candy and coloring book cupboard in the corner.  I can smell the picnic ham in the kitchen and the Ivory soap in the bathroom.


When stress or worries settle on my chest and I can’t sleep I think about Grandma and Grandpa’s house and the joy of my budding independence and the fear of my budding independence.  I remember I blossomed there.

 Where could you find joyfear?  Is there a dream calling you?  Is there a place where you could increase your independence?  Someone who gives you butterflies?


If you liked Listening to Butterflies… then you may also enjoy:

Is It Selfish to Choose Passion and Work Over Family?

The Engaging Introvert: Socializing Admirably with Exes, Extroverts and Complete Strangers

How to Remedy Anxiety and Stress When You’re an Introverted Feeling Type

First One Over the Wall:What It’s Really Like to End a Marriage and Start Over


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Leave a Reply


  1. LEN
    December 18, 2012

    I just found your blog, and the little I have read felt like a healing salve on my soul. So much I identify with and strengthened through your vision, journey, and strength. I have been wandering and found a bit of a path back to my own heart and home. Such a comforting and healing feeling! Thank you for writing.

    • LEN
      December 18, 2012

      P.s. how did I get that avatar?! :p

    • brennagee
      December 19, 2012

      I think we are supposed to wander and seek our path. Sometimes we get lost for a bit.;) I am so happy you are finding your way back to your home. It’s always there but sometimes it’s easier to see everything external and forget we have a light inside. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Much peace and pleasure on your journey.

  2. wealthyandloved
    November 27, 2012

    I am so happy you re-posted this! I may not have known to find it otherwise, and it couldn’t be more timely in my own little life today. xox

    • brennagee
      November 28, 2012

      Serendipity! I’m thrilled it resonated with you. It was a good reminder for me as well. Fearward we go! :)

  3. Debbi
    August 2, 2011

    I’m adventurous so my life is one big chain of joyfears. I think the most wonderful things I have, achieve, get, etc require joyfear. The things I want most, I am afraid of not being able to attain…or screwing up the route there and not being allowed to try again in a different way, but they are so important to me or I want them so badly that I prepare myself beforehand if possible (ex.research), suck in my breath, and leap anyway. It’s a euphoric feeling when I succeed…ex. I volunteer in a high level position and people not only love what I do but look up to me to teach them my skills…sometimes just happy and content…ex. when I obtain a place in life that makes me happier every day from then on.

    In obtaining a new job, I am always looking for a position that utilizes my favorite skills which are also my most successful, one I think I will enjoy, and one that is in a healthy environment of people. I take so much time, research, and general effort to choose a team and position that I think will suit me out of those teams that also choose me that, when I start, I am EXTREMELY excited to dig in and also very fearful that I will not meet expectations.

    Meeting new people gives me extreme joyfear…I LOVE meeting people and seeing all the way down to their souls, but I’m also leery of allowing someone into my inner circle too soon and being hurt by that person or leery of what people outside of my inner circle will learn from him/her should that person not be as discreet as I had perceived when finally trusting. (side note – I am learning in that dept. too…if I am always who I really am, saying what I really truly believe, there may be thoughts I prefer not to share with the world but if addressed by someone, I’d say, “Well, yes. That is what I think.” and choose to or not to explain myself. I have been thinking through this scenario lately and realized that I want to think consistently and be true to my thoughts whether inside or outside my safety circle…comfortable with myself. Not saying anything at all to the outer world is one thing. But saying one thing to the outer world and another to my inner circle means I have a conflict within myself.)

    Anyway, a new apartment is a joyfear…want to make the move, whether to expand, change locations, and/or save money means I’m glad it’s making one of those aspects of my life better, but, “Will I be able to make it “HOME”? …a place that relaxes my body when I walk in the door or wake up and look around me in the morning?”

    Dating, God help me, is a MASSIVE joyfear! How fun to have a “potential” how stressful to wonder what they’re thinking at every new step…as I write this I’m now realizing…wear your best…bring your best…if he’s a dud…so what…it was an hour dinner…if it’s good…have another drink and extend it. Wow Brenda…this was a good one…you’re provoking revelations for easier ways to deal with life…what are the small potatoes type thing…I think it’s easier after certain experiences though to change your mind about ideas you’ve reviewed and nixed in the past.

    The first time I dog sat, I was so afraid of screwing up and not satisfying the owners…now I’m getting offers left and right, comfortable, and have methods for going about how to keep the dog happy AND the owner happy…if you don’t know what they prefer to the point of dwelling on the answer…call and ask…they want you to. If they don’t want you to call, they have put the answer in your hands for that week and will not be dissatisfied with a judgement call they allowed you to make…requested that you make…in their absence. The dog…just needs a lot of lovin’ :) …pet them and give them attention, you’re getting paid for it.

    My biggest joyfear…caving…I stared down at the entrance to the cave for 1/2 an hour while we prepped to go in that vast, underground wonderland. I almost proposed sitting in the car for SEVEN HOURS while my team/friends went down to see and feel all the wonders. I held my breath until I walked into the cave…the point of no return…I will NEVER regret that choice and will ALWAYS treasure the physically brutal and mentally surreal experience.

    Sorry for the temporary absence…Love Ya…I’d make a heart but that only works on Facebook :) ~Debbi

    • brennagee
      August 3, 2011

      Thanks for sharing so many ways you experience joyfear. It is obvious the most meaningful decisions/actions are fueled by joyfear. I think we spend a lot of time trying to eliminate the fear factor but it’s a necessary ingredient. In the end it enhances the joy. Keep on leaping Debbi! Thanks for your support.:)

  4. Diane
    June 28, 2011

    I love the words “fearward” and “joyfear” : ) Thanks for sharing Brenda. Been experiencing this lately, both on the mat and off the mat and loving it !

    • brennagee
      June 29, 2011

      Oh I love hearing that Diane.:) Go fearward my friend. It’s all within. Awesomeness.:)

  5. BeccaFetz
    June 26, 2011

    EXACTLY!! Yes I have experienced “Joyfear” many many times as well!! I love that word..thanks for sharing this Bren. LOVE IT!! :)

  6. Jill
    June 25, 2011

    My first stepfather used to (drive me nuts) say, “Onward and upwards.” I think I’ll change it to something like, “Fearward and upward!”

    • brennagee
      June 25, 2011

      Love it! I know you are no stranger to joyfear.:) Go Jill!

  7. Roberta
    June 25, 2011

    Joyfear! So that’s what you call it! I feel that way many, many times. Thanks for your insight, Brenda!

    • brennagee
      June 25, 2011

      Sure! Now you have a word to go with the feeling experienced.:) I hope you have many more brushes with joyfear Roberta. You come out a little richer each time.:)

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