MeiMei Fox is one of the most dynamic human beings I've ever encountered. She's one of those people who can work a 12-hour day, go home to meditate and do yoga, then party all night, and get up and do it again the next day. After studying psychology at Stanford, MeiMei became a depth-psychotherapy-trained life coach, a yoga teacher, and a prolific writer -- and still somehow finds time to volunteer in service projects around the globe. MeiMei recently wrote the New York Times bestseller Fortytude with Sarah Brokaw. Her most recent book project is Bend, Not Break, Ping Fu's memoir, which comes out this January. MeiMei's mantra is "fear less, love more," so naturally I had to interview her for The Fear Project.
Jaimal Yogis: How did you become so interested in the mind?
MeiMei Fox: If you've ever heard of the "wounded healer," I definitely find that archetype to exist in the world of therapists/self-help experts/yoga teachers/coaches and, yes, writers. As a teenager, I watched my parents bicker with each other often. They were incredibly loving and generous people, and I feel blessed to have been born into such a supportive, smart, amazing family. But seeing that unhappiness in my household made me wonder: Why do we fight? Where do our ideas of right and wrong come from? Does it ever serve us to be angry, vengeful, or snide? How do we find access to love and forgiveness?
As an undergraduate at Stanford, I had access to many of the top minds in the field of psychology. I studied the psychology of mind control with Phil Zimbardo, who did the Stanford Prison Experiment. I studied decision-making with Amos Tversky, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics. The list goes on... I loved gaining insights into the mind, what makes people tick.
After graduating, I spent a couple of years in the business world as a management consultant with McKinsey and Company. I was pretty much miserable. I found myself craving more meaningful work. So I went into writing self-help books.
The way I look at it, psychology, life coaching, teaching yoga, writing, and meditation are all about the same thing. They all offer ways of gaining access to our hearts, escaping traditional patterns that trap us in unhelpful behavior, and connecting in a deep, meaningful way with other people.
With your clients and students, is fear something that comes up a lot?
Absolutely. I believe that fear is the number one factor undermining most of us in our lives: trapping us in behaviors that we want to get rid of, preventing us from taking risks and following our dreams. With every life coaching client I have worked with, fear has been the root issue that we need to address before they move forward. They almost always say: "I want to change my life, but I can't." The "can't" = fear.
One client whom I'll call Sarah was miserable in her job at a bakery. She wanted to work in a socially conscious business, and to have more responsibility. I asked her why she didn't quit. The more we talked, the more it became clear that she was afraid: I will run out of money; I won't find a new job; no one will want to hire me. After a couple of sessions, she overcame her fear enough to quit. Within two weeks, she had found a fantastic new opportunity at a bakery that helped train high school kids in a disadvantaged neighborhood to grow organic fruits, then bake and sell pies. She was thrilled with the job. But she never would have gone looking for it if she hadn't overcome her fear.
Others are afraid of change. They say they want their lives to be different, but then they're afraid to move or get more training in order to switch careers. People are often afraid of failure, of course. But they also can be afraid of stretching themselves outside their comfort zones, pushing themselves to work hard, learn new skills, put in extra hours. In the end, when they summon up the courage, they are always, 100 percent of the time, pleased with the outcome.
Hence my mantra: "Fear Less, Love More."
I love that mantra and use it myself a lot. What's an example of a time you had to stretch your comfort zone and how did you deal with it? Do you ever find it's difficult to apply your own advice?
Absolutely! While overcoming fear can be the greatest obstacle to our happiness, it also can prove the most difficult to overcome. I experienced so much fear in my mid-30s about being single, when I knew that I wanted a family and terrific life partner. One of the most challenging aspects of fear, for me anyway, is the way that it takes us over physically. When I was having an anxiety attack, my heart rate would skyrocket, my breathing would grow shallow, I'd shake like a leaf. I had to engage in deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, on a daily basis to keep my fear from spinning into panic. On a practical level, I completely quit drinking caffeine because it mimicked the symptoms of my anxiety.
Once I had the physical symptoms under control, I focused on the mental aspects of what was going on for me. I was "running out of time" if I wanted to have kids of my own. I could either 1) accept that it might not happen 2) choose to have kids on my own with a friend or sperm donor or 3) freeze my eggs. I chose to freeze my eggs. This took a big financial sacrifice and a ton of courage. I had to go to lessons on injecting myself with couples going through IVF -- when I was the only single person in the room. Then I had to give myself shots. It scared me, but I did it, and I felt so empowered afterwards.
And thank heavens I did! Just six months after freezing my eggs, I got together with the Love of My Life, Kiran. We are trying to have a family, but may very well end up using those frozen eggs!
I hear you and the love of your life, the talented Kiran Ramchandran, are on quite a fearless novel/screenplay adventure. I've found fiction writing to be one of the scariest things a writer can do. How did you guys decide to leap?
I am actually really scared of writing fiction. I came up with excuses for months for why I shouldn't do this book. But he talked me into it. He's been a screenwriter for over a decade and he kept telling me to have faith in myself. He believed that if I could write someone else's memoir, then I could write fiction. Eventually, I listened to him. We plotted out the entire first book, which quickly turned into a trilogy. That part still felt familiar. Then we began writing. I felt intimidated -- I still do! I hear those negative voices in my head saying, "You're a nonfiction writer! You can't do this!" But then I remind myself of Kiran's faith in me: I can do this. I keep telling myself, "Just write. Put words on the page. You can always change them later." And lo and behold, some pretty good stuff has come out! It's also really fun and freeing not to be constrained by nonfiction. I feel my creativity taking flight!
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