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I recently took my family on a two week trip through Arizona, Nevada and California. It was a huge undertaking with many steps, and as the departure date approached I began feeling very afraid. So many things could go wrong, so many bad things could happen.
When I get afraid, it’s like I’ve always been that way. I find myself unable to remember a time I was competent. It’s a painful sensation and it can shut me down if I don’t keep my head.
This time I got myself through it by reminding myself of something I knew and had never put into words. There are two ways to be scared: Being scared and closing oneself off from the experience, or being scared and opening oneself to the experience.
They don’t seem that different when you say it like that. Just three words changed. And yet they are opposite ways of moving forward, with huge consequences on both sides.
If I am scared and I close myself off from the experience, it is because I don’t want to feel the pain of whatever it is that scares me. I might not even want the pain of being scared. By closing myself off, I end up feeling nothing, no joy, no happiness, no thrill.
Closing myself off not only shuts my emotions down, it paralyzes me. Not only am I unable to receive vital information through my emotional apparatus, I cannot move certain ways because doing so would wake up the fear sensation. I become a far less effective person, doing less, experiencing less, gaining less.
I have gone forward this way. Not only was I not really any safer, but I failed to get what I wanted. Worst of all, in my insulated state, I sometimes still thought I was succeeding when I wasn’t because I couldn’t really tell.
For this trip I decided to open myself up to the positive and negative, from disappointment at travel plans that went wrong, to making mistakes on the road, to getting news from home that might end my plans prematurely. Whatever happened, I would make that part of my experience. I’d take in the pain, experience it, deal with it.
Doing that made it possible for me to move forward. At the very least I wasn’t paralyzed and stuck at home, or on my trip in a state of anxiety and dread, making everyone else miserable. Instead I was happy during happy times and unhappy during unhappy times.
There were as many happy times as unhappy ones. The best part, though, was that the happy times were far better than the unhappy ones were bad. Most of the unhappiness was short-term inconvenience, irritation and being tired, while the happy feelings were exhilaration, gratification and joy that I will always remember.
I don’t think there’s any question that I would tell my students who are faced with the choice that moving forward into scary situations and being open to the experience is the way to go. It’s not easy to learn how to tolerate the negative aspects of performing, but when you do, the rewards are substantial. And best of all, when you’re not afraid to be afraid, being afraid isn’t so bad!