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Wait, don’t jump out of the plane after all! (an alternate view on fear)

[ 13 ] February 2, 2011 |
Skydiving: conquering fear, or just really damn scary?

Image by dave.scriven, on Flickr
Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

If you read the same blogs I read, you’ve heard a lot lately about jumping out of planes, taking the leap, jumping out of planes, kicking fear’s ass, and oh yeah, jumping out of planes. We’re exhorted to get out there and do our thing, now now now!

I think that advice has a lot going for it.

I went through a time when I was afraid of everything, and I noticed it was getting worse and worse. It’s one thing to be afraid of falling off a ladder (but climbing up there and painting anyway). It’s quite another to be afraid of driving at speed on a bridge or calling to order a pizza. I went through one of those tunnel car washes where it’s all enclosed (read: dark) and the car is pulled through automatically, and I totally flipped my shit because the car was moving and I couldn’t see. Complete and utter claustrophobic manic panic freakout meltdown.

Things were clearly getting out of hand, and I was afraid I’d soon be too afraid to leave my house. Yes, when you’re not only afraid of real things but also meta-afraid of imaginary fears that you don’t even have yet, it’s past time to do something. Let’s face it, when you’re afraid of car washes, it’s past time to do something.

So I started doing scary stuff. Most notably, I tried autocross.

If you’re not familiar with autocross, it’s a precision driving sport where someone uses orange cones to set up a course and then everyone tries to drive it as fast as possible. Everything is set up with safety in mind: the cars are timed so that they’re never near each other on the course, there are rules about the course layout to minimize the risk of wrecking into anything other than an orange cone, and workers are stationed throughout the course to watch for hazards and flag down the driver if anything goes wrong. But you definitely experience some Gs if you ride with someone good.

The first time I went, I rode with a dude named Robby, who also happens to be my electrician. I had walked the course with people explaining things to me, but that doesn’t really give you a sense of how it will feel in a car.

Nothing can recreate the sensation of being in the car for real, but here’s a video of a guy I know, Alan McCrispin, driving a different course:

In particular, notice the cross-shaped display with the red circles—that shows you the transfer of weight in the car as he speeds up, slows down, and turns.

On my first autocross day, it ended up being a tight competition between Alan and Robby for fastest time of the day, but I was obliviously still thinking of them as my home inspector and my electrician. In short, I had no idea what I was in for.

Robby and I got in his car. He made sure I was buckled in, then turned the rear view mirror up to the ceiling and said with a gleam in his eye, “what’s behind us doesn’t matter.”

From our spot in the waiting area to the starting line (this area is strictly walking speed only), he suddenly hit the gas, then slammed on the brakes, seemingly inches from the car in front of us. “Holy crap, this dude is crazy! He almost got us killed!” I thought. “Just warmin’ up the brakes,” he said with a smile.

There were a few seconds’ anticipation at the starting line until it was our time to go. Then we entered the course.

It started with a hard left, a hard right, a hard left, then a slalom, 180, back through the slalom. Then a fast part, like two quick lane changes on a highway. That was just the first third of the course (which is all I still have memorized a year and a half later), but it involved more stopping, starting, flying, moving, and changing directions than I could believe. I clung to my seat in sheer terror, fully expecting that at any second we would wreck, I would die, I would pee my pants, I would throw up, or the car would fly apart into a thousand pieces from the forces. Or all of the above. To make things worse, Robby mis-drove some of the course, so I was convinced he had absolutely no idea what he was doing, reinforcing my conviction that certain doom was upon me.

And then we were through the finish line, he slowed to a walking pace, and we returned to the holding area with absolutely no damage done to anything.

It took me a few minutes to process that. Scary-ass shit? Check. Total insanity, defying all of my notions of what was possible? Check.

Totally fine afterwards? Amazingly, check.

I ended up riding with Robby for all five runs that day. The second time, I was still scared but not to the point where I feared losing control of bodily functions. By the third time, it was all yeehaw, hell yeah, let’s do that again!

I also drove the course five times myself, but that was not nearly as scary, because I drove very slowly. Not on purpose—it felt like I was going fast—but slow it was. (Robby’s best time? 73.224 seconds. My best? 112.853.) It would be some time before I was driving anywhere close to the edge of my abilities or my car’s, but I got there eventually. (Still lots of room for improvement.)

Meanwhile, riding with Robby launched me out of my comfort zone and into a whole new worldview about what was scary. Needless to say, the bridge and the pizza guy are problems no more. I guess I should go back to the car wash, just to check it off the list, but I doubt it would be any big deal.

All of this is to say that I believe in conquering fear by leaping out of the comfort zone and doing scary shit. It worked wonders for me.

So the other day, when I was presented with an opposing view, it stopped me in my tracks.

I can’t even tell you how many eager beaver coaches I meet at business events who can’t wait to meet people just like you, so they can drag you kicking and screaming from your comfort zone. They think they’re doing you a favor. They’re not.

They’re not doing it out of meanness, of course. They sincerely want to help. They think that if you can leave the place where you’re comfortable and try this new, scary thing, you’ll get over it already. The problem is that sometimes what you need in order to grow is more comfort. And this kind of work needs to happen where you feel safe; where you’re most comfortable.

That’s why there’s a zone for it.

In the future your grandchildren will look back on this age of insisting on people leaving their comfort zones with shock, horror and a sad shake of the head. The way we do now when we think about things like electric shock therapy and lobotomies. The atrocities of good intentions.

“Give me back my comfort zone” by Havi Brooks, which I discovered through “In concert with fear” by Kelly Diels.

The post quoted above tells the story of a woman who jumped out of an airplane to conquer her fears. It’s a story a lot like mine, with one huge difference: her jump was terrifying and traumatic and ended up being just one more awful experience she was trying to recover from.

Dang, that does sound barbaric and cruel, doesn’t it? The point of the post is that we can all stop being so hard on ourselves and instead be nurturing. Allow yourself to be comfortable and stay where you feel safe, have patience with yourself, and be nice to yourself. As you heal and recover from your past traumas and grow within your comfort zone, the number of things you’re willing to try will naturally grow and your comfort zone will expand accordingly. You don’t have to make yourself jump out of airplanes. In fact, in this view, it’s counter-productive.

Instead, she recommends acknowledging your fear when it shows up. It will always be there, and it has things to teach you. Rather than confronting it, stop fighting. Find out what it wants and is trying to tell you.

Fear does have useful information to impart to us. It’s there to protect us, after all. Fear tells us what could hurt us. It’s a warning. Sometimes it gets a little carried away (carwashophobia?), but overall, it’s on our side.

So, what to make of these conflicting perspectives? I can see value in each. I think it’s really important to be gentle with yourself, but I also know the scary day at autocross got me way less fearful, fast. I guess the nurturing approach might have gotten me to the same place eventually, but it seems like it would have taken a long time, and meanwhile, my fears were snowballing.

I guess it’s just not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. I still think even people taking the nurturing approach would benefit from doing very tiny scary things (call and order that pizza!). And I suspect all of us could do with a little more nurturing. Surely even plane-jumpers can benefit from taking it easy on themselves once in a while.

Being easy but not too easy—accepting myself as I am but not letting myself get away with not growing–is one of the baffling balancing acts of trying to be my best self. I hope it gets easier with practice.

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (13)

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  1. Lach says:

    Here’s the thing Harvi seems to be dancing around—you don’t conquer your fear by jumping out of a plane. You conquer you fear by getting ready to do that. When you do stuff without preparation, it’s, um… painful. Pow!

    • Cara Stein says:

      Ah, thanks! I knew there was something I was missing! (and I had a hunch you’d be the one to put your finger on it!)

  2. Kelly Diels says:

    oh I LOVELOVELOVE your autocross-as-therapy approach!

    Here’s the thing: I think we each, intuitively, find our ways to our own answers. My counterpoint to the dominant conquer-your-fear advice is what works for me (and maybe for some others who are busy beating themselves up for NOT jumping out of planes).

    And I think both approaches work at different times. Sometimes we do need to fly (or drive fast) to see how much we’re capable of and when we surprise ourselves with our abilities that is a heady, confidence-building experience. Other times we need to start where we are. Big things happen with baby steps.

    PS – Adore this piece and the way you express yourself.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Thanks, Kelly! I really appreciate the comment. It seems like I’ve been running into tons of contradictory advice lately, and I get so confused, but the answer is often that both approaches work at different times. I want things to be so absolute! lol

      Thanks for the insight, and your kind words! 🙂

  3. Joel says:

    Hey, i have an idea…let’s jump out of a plane :).

    Interesting take, but I’d agree with Lach (he’s a smart guy). The process is as important as the act itself.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Yeah, Lach is my hero. If not for him, I wouldn’t be even remotely considering jumping out of a plane. As it is, maybe in Portland. If I’m ever going to do it, might as well do it with a bunch of other fun crazy people, and he made it sounds so awesome.

  4. What an interesting post, Cara. My BF always says that fear is really under-rated, and I agree. He should know because in his career in aviation, he’s had lots of scary things happen. One was an engine failure while flying over Chesapeake Bay and having to ditch the airplane in the water and be hoisted into a U.S. Navy helicopter.

    I recently wrote about the pressure on old people to prove that they’ve still got What It Takes–often by jumping out of an airplane. I wouldn’t do it for the reasons I discuss in the post, but I am learning to fly an airplane which I enjoy a lot.

    Well done!

    • Cara Stein says:

      I checked out your post–good points! I didn’t realize jumping out of an airplane was trending with the older crowd, too. How curious.

      Good call on learning to fly! That sounds super cool, and more satisfying in the long term. I think skydiving is interesting as an extreme experience, especially after reading Lach’s description of how peaceful it was, but activities that require skill are the way to the flow state. I’m kind of obsessed with the flow state right now. Plus, how awesome would it be to be able to fly yourself places instead of having to rely on commercial carriers? I realize there’s more to it than just knowing how to fly–you also have to come up with a plane somehow–but still, a useful skill. I like that.

      Thanks for the comment and your insights! Very interesting.

  5. Hi,

    I think that the fear one is trying to overcome is the fear that they’ll have regrets later (of not having done it).
    So, jump out of the plane if that’s something you want to do but have procastined for XYZ reasons.

    But don’t jump if that’s something that’s really scarry to you and you don’t actually want to do it.

    The same holds true for a lot of things (learning an oriental language…)

    The essential question is “What do you really want to do?” (it can be fair to assume that you can do anything at that point). The related question of “why do you want to do it?” would probably shine some light in the validity of that quest.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Very good points! Why you want to do something is really important. And if you don’t truly want to do it, definitely don’t do it! I guess that’s what the problem was with the poor terrified sky-diving woman.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  6. blb724 says:

    hahaha – I came across this page while Googling the phrase, “why would I jump out of a plane?!”
    I am one of the “carwashaphobics.” I wasn’t always this way…but over the years I have found more and more things to be afraid of to the point of becoming socially awkward, uptight, and obsessed over the “what ifs!” of everything I do. I don’t even know how it happened. I use to be a young gal who loved life, embraced new challenges and enjoyed pushing limits and trying new things. I’m totally NOT that person anymore…and I feel trapped inside a prison of fear, stress and constant self-doubt.
    So, approaching middleaged-dom, what’s a person like me to do??? I hate flying, am afraid of heights and suffer from motion sickness…I thought, “hey, if I can jump out a plane, I can prove to myself I can do anything!” My husband thinks I’m nuts. My five-year-old thinks I’m cool (in theory). My co-worker wants to show me the pins in his leg from one of his jumps years earlier….never heard of Autocross but, hmmmm… may deserve some serious consideration on my part.
    For weeks now I’ve been researching tandem jumps. Thought being strapped to a professional would be wise – safety first, you know. But, until reading this, I didn’t really ask myself “WHO am I really doing this FOR??” Is it really for ME? Or, is it to prove something to everyone else?! Is it for all the folks who think I’m too uptight and live life with a giant telephone pole wedged up my a$$? Will this really change anything for me??? Will it make things worse??? Instead of pulling a parachute jump out of a hat, maybe I should think about buying a Harley and some double-D’s instead?! I don’t know…
    Anyhow, I just wanted to thank you for posting this….because it defines how I feel and has made me step back and think for a moment…..I still might throw myself screaming from a plane…but, I want to make sure I’m doing it for me (and the pizza guy) first.

    • Cara Stein says:

      Good for you for taking the reins and deciding to do something about your fears! Whether it turns out to be jumping out of the plane or not, making it what you want is the most important thing. It sounds like you’re asking the right questions. Keep it up, and good luck! Let me know what you end up doing and how it goes–I’d love to hear.

  7. […] Once upon a time, I was afraid of nearly everything. I could barely make myself pick up the phone to call the pizza man, and I had a claustrophobic freak-out in a car wash. Autocross proved to be an unexpected fast track to overcoming fear. […]

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