When I was a kid, I was scared of dogs. I mean anything from the canine family straight-up terrified me. On more than one occasion, when we were out and a dog approached (you know, on a leash and with its owner), I literally scrambled up my dad like he was a tree…and I would remain perched on his shoulders until he pried me off. One time when that happened, my dad sat me down afterward and told me that I wasn’t going to be happy if I continued to give in to that irrational fear. The way overcome my fear of dogs, he said, was to act like I wasn’t afaid, and eventually I wouldn’t feel afraid, either. He made it clear that I could choose how I behaved and responded regardless of how I felt. “Don’t let your feelings be the boss of you,” is a reminder that I heard more times than I can count.
Lately I’ve been reminding myself to not let my feelings – or, more accurately, fears (I hate feelings, as my family and former paramours will attest to) – boss me around. As someone who struggles with anxiety and OCD, fear and worry are some of the fiercest demons I face. Reasoning, research, and planning can only go so far. There comes a point when comfort is not an option and pure courage is the only thing that will get you out the door. I actually made “live courageously” one of my overall themes for 2014 (it’s written in my goal-setting outline and everything).
There are a lot of ways a courageous spirit can manifest itself. Blue is definitely one of my best colors, but a Braveheart reenactment would be neither practical nor productive for me. Sometimes courage means taking a huge career risk, but other times courage means something smaller, like applying for that dream job (or heck, even just asking about it). Sometimes courage means buying a ring and getting down on one knee, and sometimes it means giving your number to a handsome stranger. Sometimes courage means signing up for an ultra-marathon, and sometimes it means running around the block. Courage, I think, is less about how drastic your action and more about the fears you defy in doing it.
I think for most of us though, the trickiest part of courage is overcoming the fear of getting started. It’s definitely the case with working out, at least for me. I know I can do 8 – 10 chin ups at any given time. I know I”m strong enough. But I’ve always frozen up before I do chin ups because I’m terrified of failing. What if I can’t complete my set? What if I fail? What if (God forbid) someone sees me struggle to eek out those last reps? I get them done anyway, because I’m a stubborn dame, but the mental process (dreading it, mustering up the bravery to do it, convincing myself it won’t be that bad…) is more exhausting than hauling my dense brick of a body up to the bar.
Finally I decided I was done letting fear boss me around, in my training and in life. I stopped concerning myself with reaching personal bests in each workout, and focused on treating my workouts like someone who wasn’t afraid. I worked out like I didn’t think it was a big deal if I tried a heavier weight and couldn’t get it up. I acted like I didn’t care that the cute guy on the stepmill next to me was hearing me pant like my family’s 15 year-old obese golden retriever while dripping enough sweat to end California’s drought. I started trying new workouts and pretended that I didn’t care how foolish I looked doing it.
A couple weeks ago, I even swam laps. This was actually something that terrified me, since I hadn’t swam a single lap since I was 17, and I hadn’t consistently swum since I was 13 and about half my current size. Plus, I’m not exactly the most buoyant of broads. I’m dense like pound cake (seriously, I’m a lot heavier than I look), and I have enough trouble breathing when I’m on land. Having to breathe while I’m in the water and physically exerting myself is just asking for disaster…not to mention humiliation. Oh, and then there’s the fact that I hadn’t worn a bikini in public in at least four years.
So one morning, under the blessed cover of pre-dawn darkness, I dragged myself to the gym – it was time to tell my fears who was boss. Wearing a red Walmart bikini underneath my sweatshirt and an old beach towel tucked in my arms, I slunk out to the pool with all the stealth of James Bond and none of the confident charisma. (Let me remind you that it is January and it was 5am. Even in California, it’s cold.) In spite of the chill and my horror at seeing that there were two men swimming – meaning, there would be witnesses to my humiliation – I hopped in and just started flailing my limbs in what I hoped was a purposeful, if not athletic, manner.
It was not pretty.
I was out of breath after two laps, and I stopped every few laps to catch my breath and adjust my poor swimsuit, which was ill-fitting to begin with and definitely not meant for swimming laps. (I’m sure the sweatshop workers who crafted it would have been horrified to see what abuse those fabric triangles were subjected to.) It turned out that one of the men swimming was a regular gym-goer I knew from when I’d worked at the gym..well, I knew him in a “we make small talk but I have not idea what your name is (and you’re a middle aged dad, so it’s not like I want to be BFFs and the way you joke with me sometimes weirds me out)” kind of way.
In case you’re wondering, small talk reaches a new level of awkward when your cha-chas are kind of out there and his (impressively well-built) upper body musculature is naked and his lower body is encased in a speedo. Oh, and you’re both dripping and breathing heavily. It was an interesting dynamic.
But I decided to keep swimming, in spite of the awkwardness, in spite of the embarrassment of having people see me struggling physically, in spite of the fact that I was not good at it. In the end, I swam half a mile (36 laps). Well, by “swam” I mean I froggy-styled it back and forth across the lane without actually doing a proper breaststroke (you know, where your head goes in the water with each stroke…baby steps, right?). The point is, I confronted my fears, and because I did not let fear control my actions, I achieved more than I had thought I could.
Needless to say, I was riding an endorphin high all day long. And here’s the thing – standing up to my fears of swimming laps inspired me to be courageous in other areas, too. I’ve been exploring career options that are risky and exciting. I’m applying for post-grad program with a 10% acceptance rate; I’m not sure I’ll even get an interview, but the thought of this program thrills me, and I’ll be damned if I let fear of rejection or change get in the way. I’ve smiled more at handsome strangers, I’ve struck up conversations with people I don’t normally talk to, and I’ve been writing even when I’m not sure anyone will like (or even read) the end result.
And yeah, I’m still swimming. My dear friend Sabrina got a temporary membership at my gym, and we’ve been quite enjoying the #mermaidlife. At the very least, it’s nice to have someone paddling along next to me (especially when she doesn’t judge my asthmatic wheezing).
I suppose what I’m getting to is that courage is worth it. A lot of times, the only thing standing between us and success is fear. All it takes to bridge that chasm between fear and success is courage. It’s crazy what you can do when you refuse to let your fears dictate your actions. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if you have to fake it at first, even if you don’t feel courageous.
After awhile, you might just find that you don’t have to fake it anymore.
I know I don’t.