My daughter is usually a very social creature. She can talk to anyone at any time. She can create a bond with kids five years older or younger than her.
But this time, she had a problem. We were in my parents’ home on vacation in Ireland. The kids playing in front of her were Irish, and she barely speaks English.
She was nervous and so asked me a dozen times how to say ‘hello’ or ‘Can I play with you?’ She couldn’t remember the difference between ‘My name is…’ and ‘I am …’ while introducing. She desperately tried to rehearse those few phrases to start a conversation.
I encouraged her to just come and begin the interaction. She was paralyzed by fear and her unexpected shyness. In the end, the rain start pouring and children escaped to their home. I said something like ‘You see, you’ve lost your opportunity’ and she started to cry.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Because I’m sad. I couldn’t talk with them.”
“Well, my dear,” I said, “This happens all the time when you listen to your fear. You regret it afterward.”
My advice hit me. It was so true. I pondered on it a bit and have come up with a few other lessons:
1. Don’t listen to your fears; you will regret it.
What was true in my daughter’s small encounter is true almost every single time. She is also very afraid of dentists (the results of watching stupid cartoons; this is another lesson for parents…). She has a few decayed teeth, but she can’t discipline herself to sit steadily in the dentist’s chair and open her mouth. She regrets it every time the pain comes back.
2. Take action as soon as possible; you won’t regret it.
We can’t do two things at a time. We can’t think on two things at a time. When you take action, fear loses its power over you. Your mind is occupied with steps necessary to ignite an action. It can’t focus on the horrible imaginary picture the fear is trying to induce in you at the same time.
If my daughter would have just come to those children and said ‘Hello’ the events would have unfolded at their pace. She would have played with the kids instead of spending time in her head discussing her fear.
3. Over-preparation is your brain’s way of avoiding action (and an eventual failure).
My daughter tried to prepare herself for any contingency by rehearsing a few phrases that could be useful at the beginning of a conversation. She tried to second guess what the kids would have answered and what questions they would have asked. But she couldn’t even remember those three or four phrases. She asked me ‘how do you say it in English?’ over and over again.
She was trapped in the vicious cycle of fear. Her mind prompted: “You can’t speak English, what would you say?” She asked me about the phrase and repeated it. She spelled it incorrectly; I corrected her, and her mind was triumphant- “You see? You can’t speak English, what would you say?”
The preparations were just an excuse to keep her from taking action. It was painful seeing a usually bold girl paralyzed like a deer in the flashlight.
4. Fear is irrational, comes from your mind and rarely has anything to do with reality.
My daughter is perfectly capable of interacting with kids. Whether or not they are Irish or Polish is not important. Her sudden shyness was the effect of self-consciousness. She was the one who came up with scenarios of disaster and shame.
5. Your words have power over your actions.
Watch your self-talk and you can pinpoint those negative tricks of your mind.
She was repeating these short sentences: “I’m afraid,” “I’m shy,” “I don’t know English.” If you listen carefully to your self-talk, you can catch yourself being stuck in this vicious cycle and snap out of it. I attribute awareness of my self-talk to meditation, prayer, and journaling. The results are not instantaneous. I’ve been practicing each of the above activities daily for at least a year.
Once you pinpoint the negative trap-phrases, don’t focus on avoiding them. It doesn’t work. By saying to yourself “Don’t say I’m shy, don’t say I’m shy,” you just reinforce the negative message, because it appears in your mind more often. Fight them off with the opposite phrases “I’m bold” or better still, take action instead of wasting your time on discussing with your fear.
It’s amazing how much you can learn from an eight year old if you keep your mind open.
By the way, about fifteen minutes later the rain stopped and our Irish neighbors ran out of their home to play. This time, my daughter put herself together and approached them. In less than a minute, she was playing with them and the language barrier was completely forgotten. Action always beats the fear.
Photo: Flickr/ Eric