In 2006, a life coach gave me a couple of pearls about fear. I’ve applied these insights and shared them with others over and over throughout the years.
The first is: “Fear is your sharpest definition of yourself.”
So true for me. I’ve let fear define me for a lot of my life.
When I was in high school, fear kept me from talking to girls I liked. It’s why I delayed getting a driver’s license until I was 19.
In my 20’s, fear kept me out of fist fights. And when I was sober, fear was still in my way of approaching the women I liked most.
In short, fear held me back from trying and doing a lot of things I could’ve otherwise done – more on that later.
For the second pearl on fear, he explained it to me like this:
“Look, here’s the thing about fear – you have to do the thing you’re afraid of so you can find out exactly what it is.
“When you do what you’re afraid of, one of two things is going to happen.
“One, you’ll come face to face with exactly what it is that frightens you. You’ll know it for sure and you’ll own it. So, now that you know it, you can accept it, put it in your bag, throw it over your shoulder, and get on with your life.
“Or two, when you do what you’re afraid of, it’ll be like stepping over an invisible line on the ground – you’ll find there was nothing there to be afraid of in the first place.”
I’d like to share a couple of personal experiences where each of these two paths has played out.
Example 1 – Knowing What I’m Fearful Of
When I was a youngster, I never really learned how to ride a bike. I had a bike, but my Mom was pretty fearful herself, so the only place I got to ride was in the back yard.
I recall going around in circles, trying to stay balanced, but there wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver, so I never got good at it.
Since riding on the sidewalk or street was out of the question, I never really “learned” how to ride a bike.
After a while, I lost interest, or at least that’s what I told myself.
Over the next 20+ years, if a situation called for bike riding, I didn’t go. I always had an excuse. Truth was, I was terrified of riding bike. I think I thought I might fall or whatever else was going on my head.
The real truth – which I didn’t know then – was that I had no idea what I was afraid of. I just thought I couldn’t ride a bike and I was afraid to try.
Moving into my early 40’s, I decided enough was enough. I wanted to dive into this fear and overcome it.
My friend Josh graciously went with me to help me get a good used bike within my budget. I asked him to test it out because I was too afraid to ride it out on the street.
I did sit on it to make sure the height was right and eventually, I rode a block down the side walk with my fingers hard on the brakes in case I had to stop.
I just wanted to get the bike home to where I could practice myself without being embarrassed.
Before my first trip out, I recall telling my neighbor Joe what I was doing. (At that point in my life, it was a pretty big step simply ADMITTING I was afraid of something.)
I said, “I didn’t get to ride a bike much when I was younger and I’m afraid to do it. But I’m going to give it a try.”
I remember him smiling and wishing me well.
So, I went.
I cruised down my street and carefully turned right which put me out on another street where the speed limit is 25, but cars commonly go 40. The bike lane is immediately adjacent to traffic.
As I was pedaling along and working hard to stay within the bike lane, I heard a car approaching behind me.
Instantly, I felt my body tense up.
And in that moment, I knew exactly what my fear was: I was scared of getting hit by a car!
It’s still emotional for me to write this now as I know it’s expressive of some greater love coming from a place deep inside my memory.
At last I understood. I felt so vulnerable on my bike with no protection and cars whizzing by at 35 or 40 miles an hour.
My fear was palpable, but now I knew exactly what it was I was afraid of.
I veered right a bit to give the driver (and me) more space and soon I was off the road and onto a bike path.
The bike path was safe and I followed the trail out along the backside of Portland International Raceway.
It was there that I stopped and got off to sit in the sun. I felt so free out here! I was elated with the freedom of being out, miles from home, on my bike.
It truly was a joy ride!
So, by doing what I was afraid of, I learned exactly what it is that scares me.
I’m not afraid of riding a bike – I’m afraid of getting hit and hurt by a car. I love riding my bike; I just don’t like doing it around traffic.
The funny thing now is when I talk to others about my known fear of riding next to traffic, many people share the same fear. Even my friends who commute regularly on city streets have expressed how scary it is.
So, I’m not alone with this any more. It’s out in the open. It doesn’t control me and it certainly doesn’t stop me from doing something I really enjoy.
Example 2 – Nothing To Be Afraid Of
My second example is skydiving.
For whatever reason, I built the idea of jumping out of an airplane up into this huge fear.
I distinctly remember a couple of times being in a social situation and the topic of skydiving would come up.
I felt myself shrinking away because I was scared and had never done it. I felt gripped by this thing for whatever reason.
Jump ahead again to my early 40’s (I did a lot of shit in my early-mid 40’s :).
I finally decide – I’ve going to jump out of an airplane.
I called Skydive Oregon to set it up.
And when you call, it’s not like you just say, “Hey, I’m coming,” you have to make an appointment.
My appointment was on a Wednesday. Six days away. Six fucking long days away – I get to think about it and worry about it and know it’s approaching.
Why couldn’t I just go today and get it over with. No, I had to wait.
When Wednesday finally came, I got in my car and started the 45 minute drive South to the place.
It was like I was outside of my body and someone else was driving the car. Or, my car was driving itself, and it wasn’t going to stop until it pulled into the parking lot of Skydive Oregon.
I got there. I got out of the car and nervously walked to the office. I completed all the paperwork and waited for my name to be called.
I went through the training where the one thing they emphasize is to get into a swan position – arms and legs up, belly down – right after you jump.
I practiced my swan. Easy. Nervous.
I got introduced to my tandem jumper who suited me up and asked if it was my first jump.
Soon, we were in the plane and my nerves were peaking.
As we approached the jumping altitude, I thought to myself, “I can still say ‘no.’ I don’t have to do this.”
Then someone loudly slid the hatch door open with a thrust and my fear amped to another level.
I turned to ask my jump buddy if we were attached. I felt him yank me back to check as he said, “Yeah!” over the noise of the plane and the wind that was now rushing in.
The first tandem got up and into position. They slid down to the jump area and then they were gone – out in the sky – disappeared from my view.
“Holy shit,” I thought. My jumping partner and I slid up. We watched the next tandem go.
Now it was our turn.
“Holy fucking shit!” I thought as we were in position, my legs dangling over the edge of the plane.
And in the moment my fear was reaching it’s thickest point, he pushed and we were out.
And in the immediate – and I mean immediate – instant when we went airborn, I was awash in the realization, “What the FUCK was all the fear about?!”
I’ll never forget that moment. I was free.
Again, I was write, I’m moved to tears. Tears of love for myself, for doing it. For doing the thing that scares me, so I could find out there was never anything there at all.
It was just some stupid belief that got in my head along the way and snowballed into fear over time.
As we fell through the sky, I struggled to breathe, then remembered how.
My jump buddy tapped me and told me to get into swan position – I’d completely forgotten.
Within 60 seconds, the thing I was most afraid of, was over. He let the parachute and we peacefully drifted back to Earth.
And it was so fucking beautiful.
We got down and I was high.
I rushed out to a nearby convenience store and bought a 6-pack. I came back and watched others come down from the sky, knowing what they must be feeling.
I offered a beer to anyone who’d take one and hang out with me. I wanted to celebrate. I felt I could do anything. I was ready to take on the world.
When I share these stories with people, I usually feel a strong connection. and that feels really good to me.
I hope I always have the strength to do what I’m afraid of, so that it doesn’t own me, and so that I can know myself better.
Even now, it still can take time to work up the courage to do some things. But in the end, it is so worth it.
Love is all that’s left.