There was this one time I tried para-sailing. I boarded a speed boat, was strapped into a parachute harness then told to step off the back of the moving boat. I floated into the air above Puget Sound, the skyscrapers of Seattle shrunk to model size and there was nothing between me and the dark ocean aside from depth. My hands turned white from gripping onto the straps and I shook from the effort of trying to keep frozen still.
There was this other time I went ice climbing. It is similar to rock climbing or absailing in that at some point you have to stand on the edge of a cliff and lean backwards. The rope is invariably slack because you’re about to be lowered to the bottom of said cliff. Again, depth is involved.
I am unquestionably afraid of heights. When I am in a situation involving heights my heart-rate goes up, my palms get coated in sweat, my breathing becomes harsher and I feel dizziness from all the hormones suddenly getting pumped into my bloodstream. All these symptoms are classic fear response.
Yet I voluntarily do rock climbing, para-sailing and adventure sports involving heights. I go out into the dark and into small places. Willingly with not much pause. Not because I’m unafraid of them, but because I can manage the fear. I know to take deep breaths, to trust the safety measures in place, to act like I’m brave and trick myself into believing I am.
Courage isn’t an absence of fear. Courage is having fear and dealing with it.
Then came three scenarios in quick succession that challenged my abilities to deal with fear. In all three scenarios I had a simple task: approach and initiate a conversation with a professional acquaintance about a specific professional/work-based issue. For such a simple task the fear response each one provoked was disproportionate – it felt like I had downed successive double-espresso shots, I was so jittery. Faced with such an onslaught of fear I stalled…repeatedly. I also aborted a couple of times. The fear didn’t die down. I became very angry and upset with myself: I had thought I was a “brave” person, yet here I was hiding from people. People, of all things! People aren’t like heights or darkness or tight spaces! They don’t carry the risk of death in the way that a 100 m drop does! I was angry and scared at the thought of this paralysing fear defeating me: what it would mean with respect to the professional/work-based issue, what it would mean to the acquaintance , what it would mean to me giving up. That fear would start ruling me.
As a human being, I am as afraid of invisible things as much as the visible ones. Things like failure, humiliation, exposing my ignorance. These fears are not quantifiable, they are hard to identify (you can close your eyes when confronted with a long drop, you can’t use that kind of displacement response when confronted with a failure). Yet…the fear responses these generate are all the same. If the fear itself is the same, then the solution has to be the same. I can’t ever erase a fear of failure from my existence…I simply have to learn how to deal with it. And get good at dealing with it.
In all three scenarios there finally came a lull in the fear. Long enough for me to make the approach and say the first words to start the conversation. In all three scenarios, as soon as there was the lull and I made my action, the fear vanished. Completely. My pulse rate was down to normal and I felt cool and collected. Missions were accomplished.
Perhaps it was simply fear of the unknown I was experiencing: what happens in that moment when you do something that another person is not really expecting? When you start doing something that you never expected to do, what could the infinite possible outcomes be? The moment you start an action these overwhelmingly infinite options narrow.
The other important thing about fear is that your body can only cope with so much of the feeling. If you’re exposed continuously to a fear stimulus, after a while you’re body will run out of hormones. You’ve neither flew nor fought, the fear response is given up on. By the end of my parasailing flight I was able to breathe through my mouth again quite normally. Perhaps that is the most effective way to deal with fear: allow yourself to experience enough of it and it will abate. Then you’re left in the aftermath wondering what is what you were so scared about.
I have plenty of fears. But those fears don’t scare me.