THE PARALYZING POWER OF FEAR
Exactly a year ago on this date, I remember peering down from the airplane window at the vast emptiness of the Argentinian Patagonia. Although I was determined to cycle across the South American continent, seeing nothing but isolated and rough nature below me for hours on a plane ride, definitely made me doubt my great idea. What the hell had I done…again? It wasn’t really fear, but a familiar feeling of uncertainty which usually creeps into me after fear has subsided and action has already been taken. Now, after one year on the road, this feeling is what I want to write about.
Everyone is afraid sometimes
Around four years ago in Mozambique, a surfer handed me a book that neither of us thought would have such a great impact on me: The Fear Project by Jaimal Yogis. It’s no Pulitzer Prize novel, but rather a scientific recount on fear, based on the autobiographic experiences and investigations of a journalist and surfer. Determined to surf the biggest waves on earth, the Mavericks, Yogis goes about interviewing world’s top neurologists and extreme athletes to find out their secrets on overcoming fear. Although the book offers dozens of great tips on doing so, to me its biggest lesson was and still is: everyone is afraid.
One of the most common questions to a cyclist is: “aren’t you afraid?”. I used to think this question was posed only to female cyclists, but after writing a post on the most common questions to a long-distance cyclist (I’m still sorry to whoever found it offensive), I realized men get it as well. And what do most of men answer? “Yes I am”. Because they are. Because everyone is. And this is a lesson I’ve come to learn not only through the Fear Project and cyclists, but through the autobiographies of world class climbers like Lynn Hill and Jerry Moffatt, through documentary films on snowboarders, skydivers, Formula racers, boxers and others. So let me repeat it to you just once more: everyone is afraid. But the point is, what do we do with that fear?
What do others fear?
Last April, when sitting in a room in Buenos Aires, I asked my friends on Facebook what they were afraid of. I received a lot of messages with very different kinds of answers. Some were afraid of water, others of dogs, some were afraid that they would never find the meaning of life, others that they would never realize their dreams, one was afraid he would live the rest of his life with his girlfriend only to realize he had never loved her in the first place, another that she would be stuck in a job she hated for all her life etc. The answers varied, but what I found peculiar about it all was that I could relate to all of them. Those fears seemed so close to everything I had experienced in my life.
My fear of being stuck
I, myself, used to fear the feeling of being stuck. I used to fear landing a job I didn’t feel passionate about, being with a person I didn’t love, living in a place that didn’t inspire me etc. And, unfortunately, this is how I felt for many years after finishing university. I didn’t want to work in front of the computer in an institution, yet with my degree, I found myself wondering if it was inevitable. I had not nurtured any creative activity during my studies, I had barely done any sports and all I was good at was academic writing. Or that’s what I thought. And that thought literally brought me to the verge of suicide. Yet gladly, my family has always been too precious for me to deliberately cause them pain in such manner.
Decision to change things…once more
After fighting long enough with the idea of getting “a normal job” (I’ve always had jobs I’ve loved, but I could never imagine myself doing any of them for many years) and being miserable about it, I decided to make a radical change in my life: I didn’t want to look for jobs anymore, I didn’t want to depend on anyone else, I didn’t want to sit in front of the computer and I wanted a job that could travel with me. And so, I made one of the best decisions of my life: I decided to study massage therapy. Not going into detail about it, I just felt I had to change something, no matter how unhappy my parents would be for me not going for something more academic.
Three lessons learnt
Although I don’t even do massages at the moment, it wasn’t the job itself that changed my perspective in life. I probably wouldn’t do massages for all my life even if I could, no matter how much I enjoy doing them. But the first thing I realized was that I can work on my own, create all kinds of new businesses if I wanted to, and that work wise I could be my own master. (Now, to any entrepreneur this probably sounds more than obvious, but coming from a non-business family, this was a great revelation to me.) The second thing I realized was that I really can’t live up to anyone else’s expectations than my own, if I want to be happy. And the third thing I realized (thanks to someone I met who gave me an impulse to go into the unknown again), was that if I didn’t want to feel stuck, I needed to change things. And since then, I’ve never feared being stuck anymore.
3 STEPS for fighting fears
As I stated earlier, everyone is afraid sometimes. Yet, some fear is good and some is bad. Good fear is the kind of instinctual fear that tells us to avoid e.g. poisonous snakes and spiders and doesn’t allow us to take unreasonable risks. Bad fear, however, is the kind of fear that paralyzes us and stops us from doing things we want to do. It’s the kind of fear that makes us think of all those worst case scenarios, such as “if I leave my job, I’ll be unemployed forever”, “what if someone rapes me?”, “if I dive, will I die from lack of air?” etc. But what I wonder is, is why is it always so much easier for us to think about worst case scenarios? Why is it harder to think: “if I leave my job, I might find a new, better one”, “what if people are kind to me?”, “if I dive, will I discover a new passion, a new world that I’ll fall madly in love with?” than to think everything will go wrong?
1. Go through your fears
The teachings of the Buddha say: “if you’re afraid of something, think about what you can do in order not to be afraid. If there’s something you can do, do it and don’t be afraid. If there’s nothing you can do, don’t be afraid. It’s useless.” In the Fear Project Jaimal Yogis interviews a big-wave surfer who used to be afraid of drowning among other things. To overcome his fears, he wrote himself a list of what it is he was afraid of. After that, he crossed over the things he simply couldn’t do anything about and started working on the ones left. So, he was afraid of drowning? He started practicing breath-hold diving. This is a perfect example of something I’ve written before: if you want to do something, you find solutions. If not, you find excuses. Some will call it stubbornness, some courageousness, some stupidity, some craziness, some strength. But who cares what it’s called. Just do what you gotta do and get over it.
2. Challenge yourself
I basically like to challenge myself. When I feel fear creeping inside me, I try to rationalize it, fight it and push through it. I ask myself whether what I’m about to do is something I want to do. If the answer is yes, I ask myself whether it’s wise (this is subjective, of course, but as it’s a question to myself, I answer it from my perspective). I evaluate the risks and how I would cope with them. I evaluate the possibility of beautiful things happening. If I’m alone, I try to find inner force from within me to do it. If I’m around people, I look for peers. Then I take the decision to either go for it or not. And if I do, a bit later, uncertainty creeps in (I already know this, so it won’t catch me by surprise). I tell myself I’ve been here before and that it will all work out. If it won’t, at least I’ve tried. (And over the years I’ve somewhat learned to handle this feeling of disappointment as well.)
3. Ignore the media
What I’ve noticed when cycling is that too many times people’s fears are generated by the media. People who do more are the ones who fear less. Isn’t it absurd that people who have traveled all around the world on e.g. bicycles are less afraid of robbery, rape, car crashes and thunder storms than people who have stayed still all their lives?! And why is this? Because they have seen through their own eyes that the world is not such a bad place to live in. Extreme athletes are less afraid of death than people who sit in front of their TVs. Yet, the people sitting in front of their TVs are more likely to die out of health issues than extreme athletes are of dying while practicing their sport. Women who cycle alone are less afraid of men than those who don’t etc. This is just the way it goes. And why? Because media makes us fear. One bad case out of 10.000 good ones will stay on people’s minds like plague, and no one will ever know about the 9.999 good ones. (Btw. Read Loretta Henderson’s book on 100 solo female cyclists if you want to hear some of those good stories!)
I’ve learned that fear is paralyzing.
People like to ask me: “so, what have you learned while cycling?” and, there are, of course, thousands of little things I’ve learned. Things about people, countries, animals, nature, cultures etc. (such as what is onda, how it is to cycle in Paraguay, how to drink mate etc.). But the most important thing I’ve learned is that people are way too afraid.
Fighting fears is worth it
It’s not once or twice that I’ve heard: “I’d love to do what you’re doing but as I woman I can’t” or “there are bad people out there” or “you shouldn’t trust anyone”. People are afraid of quitting their jobs, of leaving their husbands, of going and doing things. “Because something could happen”. But there have definitely been a lot more good than bad things happening to me while cycling. I’ve met wonderful people, seen wonderful places, done amazing things, learned a new language…And from time to time I’ve been afraid and uncertain. But it’s definitely been worth it. In fact, I can’t remember even one time in my life that I’ve regretted doing something I was initially afraid of. So, if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s this: FIGHTING FEARS ROCKS!
Strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet
Another thing I’ve learned is that most people are amazing. Only within last week I stayed in the house of a Belgian nun, where I was offered a bed, delicious meals, the possibility to take a shower, to fix my bicycle and to wash my clothes. After that, I stayed with a wonderful group of friends who had organized a book fair in their town. We had pizza and drinks before I really needed to sleep…In the next town, a pharmacist paid for a hotel room for me at his cousin’s hotel and told me I could order whatever I wanted for dinner. In the town after that I stayed with his friends – two lovely brothers who took me inside their house with open arms. Then my friend’s friends took me in for a night, although they had an emergency going on in their home. In the next town, a girl I had written to through couchsurfing couldn’t host me, so she organized for me to stay in an apartment which her friend normally rents out to other people, and at the moment I’m staying with my friend’s family who already don’t want me to leave. So, when people tell me: “people are bad”, what can I say? If there’s something I’ve realized, it’s that strangers really are just friends you haven’t met yet 😉.
So what about that feeling of uncertainty that I spoke about in the beginning? I have gazillions of personal examples about this feeling my first night on the Camino de Santiago in 2007 (after having taken the decision to walk alone for a month. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it.), being stuck in the middle of a rock face in Waterval Boven, South Africa (having thought I was a mentally stronger climber than I was…ok, this time really freaked me out, but fear in climbing is something I want to train more than anything), going for my first Vipassana course (a Buddhist meditation course where one is not allowed to speak, write, read, look anyone in the eyes etc. All you can do is meditate and I was afraid I would go crazy), the first night wild camping on my cycling trip…Just believe me, all fear can be overcome.