Someone told me the other day that I was fearless, and I almost spit out my Aperol Spritz.
Whatever the opposite of fearlessness is, that’s what I have: It’s called anxiety.
I get anxiety when I don’t finish reading a book in a reasonable amount of time. I get it if I don’t push myself to exercise and eat right. It creeps in if I weigh too much. Or when my Spanish tutor is scheduled to come over and I’ve done absolutely none of the assignments she’s given me. I get anxiety if people from out of town want to stay at my house. Or if I have to go to a dance party. I get it when I have to sit down and write an article.
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My anxiety manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes it’s just in my head and feels overwhelming, as if I’ve agreed to do too much. Other times, when I’m really nervous, my leg shakes, and then I look like a real crackhead at some luncheon where I’ve been asked to speak about being a powerful woman.
But it’s not a new thing—it’s always been part of my life. When I was younger, I thought I would be less anxious when I grew up. If I could just grow up, then I’d be OK. I wouldn’t have to worry about fitting in at school. Or being popular. Or if my parents had any money in their savings account. Or if my brothers and sisters would get married, start their own families, and forget about me. I wanted things to be different. I wanted my own life, my own rules, my own money. I hated being dependent on anyone.
Ten years later, when I did my very first stand-up set, I was 21 years old, and I was anxious. Alcohol helped. I started doing comedy at all the places you could in Los Angeles, from open-mic nights at coffee shops to booked gigs at the Hollywood Improv. There wasn’t a time when I didn’t consider leaving right before my name was called. I thought it would get easier the better I got or the more successful I became. I kept thinking my anxiety-free life was just around the corner and all I had to do was get there.
When I became well-known and was doing comedy in front of thousands of people, my confidence level changed, but there was still that sense of stress and dread. I would tell myself over and over again that the people in the audience had paid a decent amount of money to come see me and that they were already on my side. Then I would tell myself that half the audience were men who were dragged there by their wives or girlfriends and would probably hate me.
One morning a few years ago, when I was avoiding my Spanish homework, I started looking through old letters and pictures and found a note my mother had sent me when I moved to Los Angeles: “Don’t ever complain about where you are, because you’re the one who got yourself there.”
My mom always said silly things that never seemed to mean anything, but her words meant something to me that morning. Even though “anxiety” isn’t the same thing as “complaining,” it’s almost as if your mind is complaining. Your mind is stressed about the commitments or responsibilities that you have chosen to have.
So I decided to do what I had been waiting my whole life to happen on its own. I grew myself up.
Anxiety doesn’t have to be such a dirty word. It can be there for us to harness and turn into something fierce. I also feel strong when I’m stressed, because I know I have the drive to push through it and come out on the other side. I know I can flip that worry into something powerful.
I still get anxiety about things I have to do professionally, and I’m pretty sure I always will. Knowing that’s part of the process helps me focus not on the worry itself but on the sense of accomplishment I’ll feel afterward. I get more from going through with something than from walking away.
Whether I’m stressed about working out, or speaking publicly, or showing up when I feel too tired, I always tell myself, “Push through. This is only temporary.” Time goes by. Even if you have something you’re dreading, that feeling will not last forever. The workout will be over in an hour. The party will stop. The day will end. And if you push past the fear, you’ve accomplished something and you’re a stud again.
Then people will start calling you fearless, and you’ll think, “If they only knew.”
Handler’s talk show, Chelsea, airs Friday nights on Netflix.
For more, pick up the June issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download May 12.