Has fear ever stopped you from moving forward with a project? Have you ever kept quiet at a key moment for fear of sounding foolish or said “no thanks” to an opportunity because you were afraid that you might fail?
Last week I had a moving chat with my ten year old, Miss A, and it got me thinking about the issue of fear.
Every Saturday morning I drive Miss A to her trampoline lessons across the city, a route that typically takes an hour and a half. As much as I dislike the drive, I treasure that time with her. When the car is empty except for the two of us, she opens up and lets me into her world.
This week, out of the blue, she talked about one of her goals.
– I want to write a book.
– That’s terrific! What kind of book?
– It will be a book for kids to teach them how to be more confident, to not be afraid to do the things they really want to do.
I get a lump in my throat even now as I write this, just as I did when she first said those words to me. This is a kid who has struggled with self-confidence issues and fear ever since a traumatic event at the beginning of Grade 1 in which she was humiliated.
On that day five years ago, she came home looking ashen. I sat down on the sofa with her, gave her a hug and asked what was wrong. She dissolved into tears and announced that she’s obviously stupid. An invisible wall went up in her brain that day, one which Mark and I have been working hard to break down. Every teacher since then has said the same thing to us, “She’s bright. We want her to speak up, to not be afraid to participate vocally in class.”
This year we have noticed a big change: she is finally finding her own voice. It has taken five years of telling her that it’s OK to make mistakes – hell, it’s essential to success – and that she has to create her own path through life regardless of what others say.
Forget the herd mentality and strike out on your own we said. Let other kids make their own choices and let them think what they will of yours. Their opinions are just that, opinions. They don’t matter one whit.
What matters is what you want to do. Be brave, move forward with confidence and when you fall down, that’s OK. It’s an important part of learning. Get back up again and keep moving towards the things that matter to you.
People who succeed do not do so because they follow the crowd. They do so because they have the courage to follow their dreams.
When people are mean to you, call them on it to their face. Tell them that it’s not OK to treat you that way because you deserve better. In fact, you deserve the best just as all kids do. Do it kindly, but be firm.
A few years ago, when Miss A was mad at me about who-knows-what, she lashed out, “It’s so much easier for you. You’re not afraid of anything!”
A million moments of fear
That’s when I shared a story from my childhood when I was roughly her age. I have experienced a million moments of fear in my life and I still do every time I launch into something new. There’s uncertainty (is this a dumb idea?), doubt (am I good enough?), fear of failure (what if I’m terrible at this?) – all of the usual stuff that comes with moving out of one’s comfort zone. But the story that sticks with me dates back to the day that my dad decided it was time to ride a horse on my own.
That day, dad took me to the corral and brought out our two horses. One was a regular-sized horse but the second, Dooley, was a much smaller breed, more suited to a child. Dad showed me how to put the saddle on and then he helped me up. He handed me the reins and turned to mount his own horse.
Dooley was not happy to have me on his back. As soon as my dad let go of the reins he took off up the adjacent hill at a gallop. I can remember being concerned because I had never been alone on a galloping horse before, but it wasn’t until Dooley turned around and headed back down the hill at full speed that I became really scared. I held the reins in my right hand and tried to slow him down while I held on to the horn for dear life with my left hand.
When Dooley realized that he wasn’t going to get rid of me by galloping, he decided to give bucking a try. As soon as I felt his back side go up, I grabbed the horn with both hands and clenched his belly as hard as I could with my legs. Just to make things even more interesting, the saddle started to slip sideways. By the time my father caught up with Dooley and managed to get his hands on the reins, I was at a 90 degree angle to where I had started, parallel with the ground on a horse that was doing his damnedest to buck and run me off his back.
Acknowledge the fear and do it anyway
Dad wrapped his arms around my waist, lifted me onto the ground, fixed the saddle and then hopped on Dooley for a non-stop gallop up and down the hill. When Dooley was good and tired, my dad trotted back to me, dismounted and asked me to get back on.
What? Was he crazy? Not a chance! My legs were still shaking and I was scared out of my wits. There was no way in hell that I was getting back onto that horse.
– If you don’t get back on now you’ll be scared for the rest of your life. You need to get back on. Dooley is tired, he won’t try anything.
Despite my protests I knew perfectly well that dad wasn’t going to let me off the hook. He would wait all day until I mounted the horse once again, so I got on and we went for a ride.
I don’t remember a thing after that but I do know that the event has stayed with me my whole life. My dad was right: if I had not gotten back in the saddle fear would have won out, likely shaping many future experiences. I have thought about that on many occasions when I felt fear rooting my feet into place. It probably helped me to rebuild my life after Malcolm died and many times since.
Fear is insidious. It’s a dream-killer par excellence if you allow it to take hold and guide your actions. The unfortunate thing is that there is no avoiding fear. It’s not like you can side-step it neatly to get on with your business; you can only go through it.
Here’s something to remember when you encounter it: most of the time our fears are nothing but fabrications, False Expectations Appearing Real. Keep telling yourself that you can move through it, look for examples of others who have overcome the same issue and keep the ultimate goal front-of-mind.
Acknowledge that you’re afraid and that it’s OK to be afraid. It’s just not OK to remain stuck in fear.
Most of all, be kind to yourself. It can take time to overcome entrenched beliefs rooted in fear. Look at our experience with Miss A. We’ve been encouraging, supporting, bolstering and challenging her to move past her fears for five years and we’re only now starting to see signs of breakthrough.
Persistence leads to success which in turn increases your resilience. When the next fearful event comes around, you’ll be better prepared to deal with it. One small victory at a time.
If a ten-year-old can get past entrenched, false beliefs, so can you.