Harris O’Malley’s fear of heights can teach you a lot about dating.
I’ve been thinking of one of my cats lately.
Yeah, I know. What does this have to do with dating? Give me a moment: this will all make sense.
My wife’s cat Fleurlin passed away this October. He was the sweetest and gentlest orange tabby you could imagine; he literally could not hurt a fly. All he wanted in this world was to be loved. Except, he was terrified of everything. He was perpetually convinced that everybody was angry at him and was about to yell at him, so if you would so much as twitch wrong, he would leap up and run for fear that he’d done something horribly wrong. When we integrated our feline households, it took Fleurlin a while to warm up to me. But even when he did, he was incredibly timid. He would want to cuddle, but because he was so afraid I was going to get angry at him, he would do it in the most tentative ways. He would slowly try to creep into my lap when I was playing games on the Xbox and my hands were otherwise occupied, or come up and lie down next to me on the couch and slowly, shyly lean over until he was just barelytouching me. And if I happened to cough or even just shift my legs a little, he would run for the hills.
But what always impressed me about him was that for all his timidity, he was the bravest cat I’d ever known. He might have been terrified of everything up to and including his own shadow… but as soon as he’d calm down from his latest panic attack, he’d come back and try again. No matter how frightened he might be, he would never give up on his hopes to be allowed to snuggle quietly.
As cheesy as I freely admit this sounds, watching Fleurlin refusing to let his fears hold him back from his goals was a reminder of all the times I’d had to deal with fear and anxiety, and what it took to overcome them.
What We Get Wrong About Fear
We have a lot of mistaken ideas about fear and anxiety. We assume that our anxiety causes us to fail, or that simply having it makes us weak or lesser. We see our more confident, successful friends – or total strangers – and make assumptions about their lives; we envy their certainty and believe that they do so much better than we do because they aren’t afraid or anxious or that they’ve managed to overcome it.
Except… they haven’t. Not in the way that we think they have. We may not be able to see it, but everybody – even the most confident among us – feels the sting of anxiety. I still deal with approach anxiety, even when I’m just trying to network and have absolutely no reason to care about being rejected. So does just about every master pick up artist, ladies’ man and playboy I’ve ever known. One of my friends is a successful businessman and entrepreneur, with two very profitable businesses to his name and he still gets stage-fright whenever he has to go pitch his ideas to investors.
I’ll touch on some personal examples a bit later, but the point is simply: everybody deals with anxiety in some form or another. It never “goes away” – it is encoded into our DNA. It is a permanent part of us.
Fear, after all, is our early warning system. It’s part of what keeps us alive – our sense of anxiousness puts us on high alert for potential threats to life and limb, getting our adrenal glands ready to drop us into fight-or-flight mode. This is an incredibly valuable trait to have – after all, it kept our ancestors from being eaten by saber-tooth tigers as they were out foraging for food. When Thog doesn’t have a healthy respect for the cave-bear, his more timid friend Grunt is going to be the one passing on his genes instead.
The problem, of course, is that the things that make us anxious aren’t always a matter of saving life and limb. That sense of dread, the sudden racing heartbeat, the heightened awareness of our surroundings, the jittery way our bodies start to shake as we get the first dose of adrenaline… these feelings are the same no matter whether it’s because we’re worried that we’re about to be mugged or trying to approach the woman we’re attracted to at Starbucks. In fact, for many people, the sense of anxiety that comes with trying to strike up a conversation with an attractive stranger is even worse than having to charge into a burning building or trying to apprehend a violent criminal.
So why is it some people seem to rise to the occasion when they’re feeling anxious and others crumble under the pressure of the moment?
The difference is the ones who choke let their fear hold them back; the ones who succeed understand how to process and handle those fears.
“The Only Thing We Have To Fear is Fear Itself”
When we’re afraid, we go into “fight-or-flight” mode. Our natural instincts tell us that we either need to fight or run the fuck away from whatever it is that makes us afraid. This is a great survival mechanism when we’re actually in danger, but not so great when we’re dealing with day to day issues. Because we can’t necessarily run away from, say, having to deliver a presentation in front of a bunch of people, we instead try to find ways of avoiding the fear. It becomes so unpleasant that we end up trying to avoid the emotion as much as the thing that causes the anxiety. So when you’re trying to work up the confidence to actually talk to your crush, you’re going to suddenly find yourself finding all sorts of incredibly plausible reasons why you shouldn’t bother. “She’s got a boyfriend.” “She’s in a group of people; I’ll wait until I can get her alone.” ”I’m too busy”. “I can’t tell if she’s giving me a sign or not. I should just keep waiting until I’m sure.”
Those rationalizations are the voice of your jerk-brain holding you back. They’re how you avoid the reality of the situation. If you’re actually honest with yourself, then you can admit the truth: you’re afraid. You want to talk to her, but you also don’t want to feel the discomfort that comes from being afraid. So how do we handle this?
This is where most people screw up: they try to force the fear away. And that doesn’t work.
“Be Like Water”
In fact, trying to make your fear go away, to try to make yourself not feel it is one of the worst things you can do. By trying to tamp down your fears and force them to go away, you only make them more persistent. It’s the emotional equivalent of trying not to think of an elephant; you’re spending mental energy and willpower trying to force something out of your head only to find that you’re actually reinforcing the idea and making it an even larger and more dominating presence. By trying to not be afraid, you’re making the fear worse.
To pick a personal example: ever since a bad international flight, I’ve been a nervous flyer. As long as things are velvety-smooth, I have no problems… but the instant we hit turbulence, I’m gripping the armrests with all of my might and desperately trying to hold the plane up in the air by sheer willpower.
Logically, I understand that turbulence has never brought down an airplane. Logically, I understand that I’m perfectly safe and that even in the worst case scenario, most plane crashes are survivable. But logic has absolutely nothing to do with it; fear isn’t about logic, fear is about emotion and emotion couldn’t give two shits about logic. It’s too busy firing up your amygdala and dumping adrenaline into your bloodstream to stop and say “You know what, you’re right, there’s actually nothing wrong here – CANCEL THE PANTS-SHITTING TERROR!” But by trying to logic my way out of the fear – looking around at the flight attendants to see that they’re not panicking, reminding myself about all the statistics – only serves to draw more and more attention to the fact that the plane is bouncing around and it’s scaring the piss out of me. I’m not shoving the fear away, I’m making it worse because now it’s all I’m thinking about, even as I’m trying to muscle my way through it. Which of course, means that I’m going to be thinking about what could be happening, which is so much worse than the reality. And since the brain treats imagined scenarios as real, you end up caught in a self-reinforcing loop that only serves to make you even more miserable.
Instead, the first step to overcoming fear not to resist it but to accept it. There’s, from a man I consider to be one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century that epitomizes what you need to do perfectly:
Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
- Bruce Lee
Acceptance of fear – to be like water and to adjust around it rather than to try to push against it or force it away – makes it simpler to handle. It’s not something to fight against, it simply is. And when you accept that it’s there, you are able to adapt to it.
Make Friends With Fear
So if we can’t force fear away, how are we supposed to adapt to it?
Well, by getting familiar with it. By getting used to it. Understanding it and how we react to it. By acclimating ourselves to fear, we transform it from something shocking to something we know and can handle. Learning to accept and understand fear makes us better able to react to it.
Most people in a crisis situation tend to freeze up. This isn’t a judgement on them; this is part of the body’s natural reaction to fear. The sudden rush of adrenaline causes our throats to constrict and our muscles to tense up. Our senses suddenly become sharper as our hearts begin to pump faster than ever before. If you’re not used to the sensation, then it’s incredibly stressful; your body is suddenly reacting in a way that you’re unfamiliar with. You can feel as though you’ve lost all control. You can’t move as easily and your attention is suddenly all over the place as you’re trying to simultaneously understand what’s going on and trying to decide whether to fight or run. Your brain literally can’t run fast enough to process all of the new incoming sensations and make logical decisions at the same time… and so you freeze up.
People who don’t freeze up are the ones who are better equipped to deal with that sudden burst of fear. They’ve been trained for this moment; they’re used to how their bodies are going to react and are able to respond. They’ve experienced this fear before and they’ve made themselves comfortable with it to the point that they are able to work with it without slowing down.
In most martial arts systems, sparring isn’t just about learning how to fight, it’s about learning how to familiarize yourself with your body’s reaction to fear and work through it. You learn to relax your muscles quickly so that you can move. You get used to the sensation of taking a punch so that it doesn’t intimidate you into just curling up into a defensive ball. The more you spar, the more you get used to the sensations of the adrenaline rush, of the way your heart pounds. It’s a way of getting used to the fear – you’re in a fight – and adapting to it. You’re desensitizing yourself by exposing yourself to it in a controlled setting, getting used to it and getting comfortable with it.
When you’re trying to overcome approach anxiety, for example, you want to tackle it in a similar way to sparring – you expose yourself to a lesser version of that fear in a controlled situation. For some people, just marathoning through it works – they simply overload themselves by making approach after approach until they’ve numbed themselves to the process. It’s an intense way of doing things and one that can easily backfire if you’re not careful. For most people, it’s better to start small – get used to approaching women and asking for the time – before working their way up to something larger – asking for directions – to trying to have a full conversation with a stranger, leading up to actually asking them out.
Don’t Be, Feel
Words have power. Words define how we see the world and, more importantly, how we seeourselves. The way we choose to describe ourselves, whether as an archetype or by a label carves a groove into our brains and affects how we interpret things.
This is why it’s important to externalize your fear. When you’re dealing with your fears, you want to say that you feel afraid, not that you are afraid. Feelings are external. They’re a transitory state: you feel happy for a while until you settle back to content. You feel sad or angry until you’ve come to terms or have calmed down or dealt with whatever upset you. It’s temporary, a moment in time that will pass.
When you say you are afraid, you’re describing yourself as someone who fears things. You are saying that your fear is an intrinsic part of who you are, just as much as the color of your eyes. It’s a form of a self-limiting belief, letting something that is by its nature temporary become a defining characteristic of your very being. If you don’t want your fear to be central to your identity, then you have to learn to separate yourself from it. Make the conscious decision to say that you feel afraid of something, not that you are afraid of it.
It’s a small change, one that you need to consciously repeat until it becomes a habit. But by making that a habit, you are fundamentally reinventing yourself and taking away one more area of your life where that fear held power over you.
What Are You Really Afraid Of?
Part of that process of overcoming your fears is to understand what is that you’re actually afraid of. Fear is the symptom, not the cause. If you want to control your fears, then you have to be able to address the underlying issues that trigger it.
So, drawing from my personal life again: a couple weeks ago, after my article “On Labeling Women Crazy” went viral on the Huffington Post, I was asked to appear on Huffington Post Live (I’m the last segment, around 10 minute mark I believe). Now, I’ve done my share of performing and public speaking in my life; ballet, plays, Model U.N., appearing on panels at conventions and giving talks and lectures. I’m used to getting a little stage-fright. But doing a live interview – my first ever, and with very little prep or even lead time, I might add – had me more nervous than I’d been in years. Ultimately, it’s not that different from being on The League of Extremely Ordinary Gentlemen or having been interviewed on other people’s podcasts… so why did this interview make me so tense that I wanted to throw up?
In this case? Because I’m used to working with something akin to a net; a podcast or an interview that isn’t going out in real time. There isn’t that sense of immediacy, that need to nail it the first time. And frankly, when I speak off the cuff, my brain races ahead while my mouth rushes to catch up and there are times when I realize I’ve said something in a way that could sound wrong, used a wrong word, or generally managed to shove my foot in my mouth. So as I was sitting at my computer, waiting for my lead-in, I was having visions of saying something stupid – or worse, accidentally offensive – and losing any credibility while making an ass out of myself.
In a lot of ways, it was a variation of what’s known as Impostor Syndrome – the feeling that somehow everything you’ve achieved is a mistake and any moment now people are going to realize it and take it all away.
So having figured out the trigger – feeling like I was going to humiliate myself in front of an audience of potentially millions of strangers – it becomes a matter of how to address it. To start with: I started to control my breathing. The brain is, in many ways, beholden to the body, and by controlling the body, you affect the brain. Controlling your breathing, taking a deep breath, holding it, then exhaling it slowly, forces your heart rate to slow down. By slowing your heart rate, you’re removing one of the physical symptoms of fear; by removing that symptom, you force your brain to think “Hmm, ok, senses report I’m not actually scared after all. Stand down, everybody!”
But more important than just breathing was addressing the actual fear. As I’ve said before: you can’t force fear to go away but you can adapt yourself to it. Once you understand the true cause of the fear, then you can realign your brain. Just as your brain responds to imagined worst-case scenarios as though they were real, it also responds to imagining when things go well. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t woo-woo “sending out positive vibes” read-The-Secret-too-many-times bullshit. It’s not about willing things to go right, it’s about retraining yourself on what you expect. By picturing the best case scenario (everything going perfectly, charming the hosts and generally being a suave motherfucker) I was able to calm down. I was still nervous – you can tell by how fast I was talking – but I wasn’t on the verge of throwing up any more.
When you’re confronting something that makes you anxious, take the time to figure out the real cause of your fear. If you’re suffering from approach anxiety, what is it about the approach that’s making you feel afraid?
Fear + Survival = Confidence
Sometimes you don’t have the benefit of time to stop and consider the nature of your fear. Sometimes things just happen. You can’t plan for every eventuality and there will be times that you will find yourself facing your fear without any time to prepare.
When this happens, it will be a defining moment. Will you rise to meet the challenge? Or will you choke under the pressure?
The difference between the two is whether you have the strength and belief in yourself to harness that fear and use it to propel you forwards. Trying to fight it will only make you freeze up, which is the worst thing you can do. You need to accept the fear, embrace it and then useit. Final personal example: In 2003, I was on a trip to Cambodia, visiting various temples in Seim Reap. Towards the end of the trip, our group made the last stop of the evening at Preah Kahn1. Upon hearing that European backpackers loved to climb to the top and watch the sun set, my brother – who is half mountain goat – decided that he wanted to climb to the top of the ziggurat and proceeded to run up the incredibly steep staircase. I, jealous of my brother as I tend to be, decided to follow him because fuck it, if he could do it, so could I.
Did I mention I have a fear of heights? A nearly crippling fear of heights?
I got about half way up before I made the mistake of looking down… and I froze. I was literally paralyzed with terror. I couldn’t bring myself to move, up or down; I just clung to the side of that damn pyramid trying hard to not realize just how far I was going to fall if my grip faltered.
In the end, I realized that either I had to move one way or the other, or I was going to die. I took a deep breath, counted to three… and proceeded to pull myself up. In that three count, I let myself feel all the fear, let it course through me… and then used it to spur myself on. I had decided that if I was going to die, then by God I was going to die with a fucking view. I pulled myself up to the edge and belly-crawled my way to the nearest pillar, which I clung to for dear life as I desperately tried to not soak the national treasure in fear-pee. And after what felt like a lifetime, I pulled myself to my feet and looked out over the jungle.
And you know what? The view was pretty awesome.
Confronting my fear like that was a momentous change for me. It let me know that, when push came to shove, I did have the strength to succeed. And while I still have that fear of heights… it’s more manageable. I haven’t eliminated it, but I have conquered it. And that moment taught me that no matter what else happened, I would always know that I could handle my fears if I was willing to take the chance.
If you’re willing to challenge yourself, if you’re willing to push your own limits… you can conquer your fears too.
- I think. The name of the actual temple escapes me; I believe it was Preah Kahn, since it was in a similar style to Ta Prohm. But for the purposes of this story, it’s Preah Kahn [↩]
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
Lead photo: Flickr/daveynin