We’ve all approached circumstances in life where we react in a similar way: sweaty palms, a quick drop in our stomachs, shortness of breath, racing thoughts. These are all elements of what it means to feel afraid, physically and mentally. Sound familiar? Probably. As well as relating to these descriptions, we also likely have some similar ways of coping or coaching ourselves through these moments: taking a second to steady our breathing, closing our eyes, visualizing good outcomes, etc. Whatever it takes to overcome your fear or worry or nervousness, you begin there until you start to calm down.
But what if you can’t? What if your fear is locked in, holding you back with its unforgiving grip? What if all you can focus on is what might go wrong or how you might fail? How can you break through when it feels like a slow, deadening paralysis?
Sometimes (and clearly not in all instances), I think we recover by actually doing the thing that scares us. Not because it necessarily erases our fear, of course. Many times it might only further confirm the things that you already believed. But what it will also teach you is capability, perseverance and endurance. It will reveal that you can rebel against your instincts (within reason) and still survive.
My face-your-fear moment came on a surprisingly cool morning in mid-July. I squinted at the clock on the dashboard of my car, idling in the parking lot of a local community college: 6:44AM. Despite the promise that the temperature would rise well into the nineties by mid-morning, I was layered up: jeans, heavy boots, long sleeves, jacket with the collar pulled up over my neck. I had a pair of gloves, a few sizes too big, tucked into my back pocket. I smeared a generous amount of sunscreen over my nose. Capping the lid back onto the bottle of SPF 50, I checked my hands: was I shaking? Just a little. I closed my eyes, took a deep, ragged breath and exhaled, slowly and intentionally. Repeat.
I pushed open the car door and stepped outside into the early sunshine; it was a perfectly cloudless day. I slowly walked over toward the tiny tent set up on the perimeter of an otherwise empty parking lot. Three folding chairs were under it, two motorcycles in front of it, gleaming in the early morning light. This was it: today was the day I took my driving test.
I took this moment to myself to review everything I’d learned in the past twenty-four hours: the endless number of facts I’d read in the handbook for safe riding, the many maneuvers practiced in the previous day on the range. I did a mental check of all the terms and acronyms I’d memorized. I closed my eyes and pictured the controls, the clutch, the practiced swerves, the green and orange cones sprinkled across the open lot. And then, without meaning to, I pictured my fall. The one I had the day before. It wasn’t a bad one, sure, and at my slow-and-terrified speed of about 10 miles per hour, not a whole lot occurred other than my overwhelming embarrassment and a slightly bruised up left knee. I tried to push this image out of my head as I envisioned completing the course with ease, if not perfection. I could this. I can do this, I whispered to myself.
While the practice rounds helped to ease my nerves, the test itself remains a bit of a blur. I was so focused that I forgot to really retain the memory of the moment, but the outcome is one I’ll always remember. Why? Because I passed. Not perfectly, but that’s okay. I completed the moves, I didn’t fall (an automatic failure in all states) and I came out the other side endorsed to ride a motorcycle (after lots of parking lot practice, I promised my instructor).
"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect." - Mark TwainTweet It!
This two-day stint of learning a new skill, one that put me rightfully on edge, taught me a lot more than how to shift to second gear. When we’re so comfortable where we are that trying something new feels terrifying, sometimes we have to work harder to face our fears in order to overcome them.
Starting with the obvious: learn something new. Sometimes the sheer challenge of learning a new skill is enough to shock you into the reality of what you can really achieve. Once I was scooting around the perimeter of the parking lot, I realized how long it had been since I had to coordinate my mind and body to master a new skill. It took simultaneous memorization and application of tons of new information in order to make that motorcycle move forward. It also took a number of mistakes and stall-outs. But the point is to learn, not master, and then get better as you go. I thought back to the first time I drove a car (and my instructor/dad sleeping soundly in the passenger seat). Scary, right? Now, it’s something I don’t often think about before I have to do it.
Do more than face your fears. Figure them out. Write them down. Analyze them. Ask yourself questions. Give honest answers. Most of the time, we know what our fears are. But do we know why we have them? True, there could be an underlying cause or circumstance that can illuminate the hidden meaning behind what makes us feel afraid. Or it could be something as simple as falling off of a motorcycle will probably hurt and being hurt sucks. Whatever the real reasons are, dig for them. When we know the answer to “Why?” we’re likely to be better equipped to overcome it. Why am I afraid of falling? Because that will hurt my pride and my knees. How can I stop myself from falling? I can’t. But what will help? Relaxing my arms, remembering the teacher’s instructions, straightening the handlebars, breathing.
Forget what you heard. I think we all have a certain image in our minds of the type of person who rides a motorcycle, right? We assume they have to be a badass with an attitude and a leather jacket. Maybe. But they also have to be smart, constantly aware of their surroundings and composed in their response to any oncoming danger. In a word: responsible. So before you start behaving how you assume you should in a new situation, think about what really matters. Think about what you’ve learned. Know the difference between initial perception and current reality.
Respond to the worst possibility. You know what you’re afraid to do. Now that you’ve thought about it, you likely know why you’re afraid of it. Is it simpler than you thought? Probably. And even if it isn’t, chances are it has a simpler solution than you imagined. Thinking about your worst fears informs your response to them. It also helps you understand that even if the terrible outcome occurs, you’re equipped to handle it.
Visualize your goals. A quick word on the power of positive thinking: it works just as well as fixating on the negative and/or everything that can go wrong. So actively choose your focus and when the bad thoughts creep in (they will), push them out. Repeatedly. Don’t waver. Acknowledge your fear as a necessary part of the equation that doesn’t get to steer your decisions or reactions. It keeps you in check. It likely makes you more cautious. But let your other voices be louder.
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Helen Williams is a Colorado transplant who is passionate about cooking, writing and combining the two on her vegetarian and vegan food blog, green girl eats. She strives, every day, to be less sorry. When she's not in the kitchen, you can find her reading, loving the community at Holstee or trying to pet your dog.
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