by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.
It seems we are all either facing fear or acting in the face of our fears these days. A once simple trip to the grocery store is now a strategic undertaking that requires serious reflection on how much personal protection I will need. A recent conversation with colleagues reminded me of this post, from a couple years back, about facing fear, negotiating edges and learning from the process regardless of the outcome. I hope you will find it prompts contemplation. I would love to hear how you are doing with your fears.
I have a favorite analogy I like to use when talking to myself or clients about approaching decisions, people, situations, things that we fear. I remember what it was like to first try jumping off a diving board. For many of us, that is a childhood experience that we can relate to, if not recall vividly.
I conjure up the scene in my mind, seeing the diving board from the part of the pool that is familiar and known. I remember the mix of competing interests, excitement and reservations about taking the theoretical — and actual leap! And then, I think through the physical process of walking towards the diving board, grabbing hold of the railings, stepping onto the first rung of the ladder, climbing to the top, tentatively letting go of the railings, standing wobbly kneed and unsupported, aware of the others behind or below on the ground.
Some of us ran down to the end of the board and leaped in a wave of both panic and exhilaration. Some of us, stood silently and contemplated the distance to the edge of the board to the water below. Some teared up. Some said “no” softly, and backed down the ladder. Some, approached then backed away from the edge repeatedly, marshaling courage at the ladder and then being overcome by dread at the edge. Some, finally, though gripped with fear, managed to inch to the edge of the board and weakly drop off.
We face our fears and cross our edges in many different ways. Approaching the edge between what is known and unknown or what we feel we can do and what we do not yet know that we can do is a universal experience. If you doubt this, watch this amazing video.
Are we able to be who we want to see ourselves as? Do we dare to cross an edge to be something more or different than we already believe ourselves to be? Can we go against the nerve-wracking physical responses, the ingrained social messages or the barely detectable beliefs that lie just out of sight but have a tight hold on us? Or is it even right for us to cross a particular edge at this moment? Can we say no to the peer pressure to “just do it” and back away from some challenges? Some times it takes more strength to accept our limitations and give credence to the risks we are taking than to close our eyes and jump. How we negotiate our fear and each edge we face has the potential to leave us feeling victorious or defeated, wise or reckless, self-possessed or regretful — but hopefully we learn something about ourselves along the way.
Each new fear can be an opportunity to cross an edge and go beyond our known identity, although that is not always the point. As we get close the edge, we start to learn about the barriers that keep us from crossing into to new territory. Sometimes we need to honor our fear and back away. And sometimes we must cross the same edge again and again to gain real familiarity with that passage and truly get it into our bones. These are difficult calls. Each time we negotiate an edge, we can learn what is new in the world beyond who or what we know or believe ourselves to be. All of it is an important part of the learning we do in approaching what we fear. We can look to the other side but nothing and no one can tell us what the experience of being at or crossing any particular edge will be like and what we will discover once there.