Yes, I am a baby about many things. I'm phobic about driving. Snorkeling makes my blood pressure zoom. And let's not even talk about sky-diving. But when I saw Patty Chang Anker's Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave (sent to me by her fabulous publicist who knew I'd love it), I immediately started to read, and I was instantly captivated. Why are we afraid? How can we conquer our fears? And why does it feel so good to do so? Patty, I can't thank you enough, and I think a lunch at Le Pain Q in the Village is in order for us!
What is so wonderful about this book is your voice. You're brave, you're also scared. You're hilarious funny, and deeply honest. Was it scary to embark on a book like this? Was there ever a moment where you felt, Oh my God, i can't do this?
Oh my God, I can't do this is my default setting! I have a huge fear of failure. So pretty much every step - every fear I faced, every chapter I wrote - was scary. But when I made myself sit with the fear I realized I can't was actually I don't know how or What if people laugh at me,or This might hurt. My daughter's swim teacher once said to her "If you say I can't then you won't. Let's say I'll try." That really stuck with me. I had to teach myself to say I can figure this out, I don't have to be perfect, this might be uncomfortable/excruciating but it's worth it. I've spent so much of my life feeling alone with my fears I don't want others to feel that way. If we can encourage each other, laugh together, then even though I'm terrified of opening myself up and being judged. it's worth it to connect.
What sparked the writing of this book? I loved that it was your daughter who inspired you to be braver, to take risks. Are there still any risks you won't take?
Three things actually sparked the idea of facing my fears. When I was 39 my daughters were 3 and 8 - at that age where I was constantly pushing them to try new things while I cheered from a bench. How long before they'd learn the word "hypocrite" and apply it to me? Around that time a friend ran her first marathon at age 40 and I realized some of my friends were doing more in midlife than ever while others were doing much less. My comfort zone was shrinking (it was the exact shape of a rut) when Barb, a recent acquaintance, invited me to go to the beach for the morning. It was the most decadent idea, to leave my responsibilities and go to the beach with a virtual stranger -Patty Chang Anker would never do this! And in one of the most impulsive acts of my life up to that point I said yes. I couldn't believe myself - I had a fear of the ocean, I had a fear of strangers, but I said yes. All that sparked my blog, Facing Forty Upside Down, about trying new things in midlife. After 2 years of blogging I realized there were so many stories I wanted to tell in depth, so much information and practical advice from experts I wanted to share, that I wanted to write a book.
There are still risks I'm not ready to take, like skydiving/scuba diving - let's just call that part of my heart-attack prevention program - but I tell myself now that if it's something most of the people I love are able to enjoy or will do because it's important then I at least to have to give it a good try.
How did you decide what fears you were going to tackle and why? What surprised you?
I started small, with fears I could tackle in a short amount of time (falling into a swimming pool takes 3 seconds, I learned to dive off the board within 60 minutes!) or that I could do a little at a time (a year of weekly yoga classes before I could do a steady handstand). I focused on activities that would make daily life more fun or rewarding (no eating bugs or shark cage diving - see heart-attack prevention, above). Most of my challenges were physical because I've always kind of klutzy, and a number of them were in the water because I almost drowned once on a river and it affected my ability to enjoy the ocean. My editor wanted the book to include common fears I didn't have - of heights, driving, public speaking and death, so for those I joined others facing their fears, at Toastmasters, on ropes courses, self-defense classes and driving lessons.
Everything surprised me. I feel like the book showed me, over and over, that I go through life thinking I know how things will turn out, when actually I have no idea. Things I thought I couldn't do, I could (surfing). Things I felt confident about in theory terrified me in reality (high ropes course).Things I thought might hurt me DID hurt me (I broke my foot in the ocean) but then I surprised myself by being strong enough to deal with those repercussions. I used to hate surprises, I hated not knowing - but surprise is the spice of life, it wakes you up, it makes you pay attention. It often makes me laugh, and always makes me feel something real.
I love the quote you give from Rev. Amy Lamborn that "people are as much afraid of living as they are of dying." How can we convince others--and ourselves--to risk--and how can we know when a risk is not worth it, when it would, in fact, be a mistake?
I spoke with people who had near death experiences (by illness, on a plane, being lost at sea, in a car accident) as well as a priest, a rabbi and a swami - and what they all say is that life is precious - not in a "so let's be careful" sense - but in a "let's make the most of it" way. When we live smaller lives we think we're protecting ourselves from death, but what we're really doing is protecting ourselves from the ups and downs and uncertainties of life. But aren't we here to live?
Of course there are risks not worth taking - please don't gamble or play chicken or break laws or hearts willy nilly. But a lot of the time we can't know for a fact what the outcome will be. That's what it means to take a risk - it could in hindsight be a mistake. I now tell myself that if I can live with that possible outcome (and we can stand a lot more than we think, and mistakes are allowed, they help us learn and grow) and if it's worth it to try, then I take the leap. We can't wait to know that it won't be a mistake. Certainty (except that we're all going to end up dead anyway) is rare. Sometimes you have to take that mixture of hope and trepidation and throw your faith toward hope.
I love the idea how taking risks not only changes yourself, but everyone you come in contact with. Can you talk about that, please?
Excitement is contagious! When your eyes light up, when you feel flushed and proud, it's irresistible to others. Your kids, spouse, friends, pharmacist, car guy, you name it - everyone will think you've lost weight, changed your hair, fallen in love. And when you start talking about your victories - and your vulnerabilities - others will open up to you, will find things in common, will start thinking about how they could try something themselves. When I first started writing about facing my fears I had the distinct thought "I don't have to do this. No one will notice if I don't." That's true. If you change, people will notice. You may never know the scope of your impact. From that first blog post when I almost reconsidered there are now so many people facing their fears and doing things they never thought they could do which will almost certainly change the world in some way. Why hold ourselves back from having that kind of impact?
Tell us about the Some Nerve challenge, and do you really think that I, who am totally driving-phobic, could overcome this? Or do you ever think it's better to just let some things go?
The #SomeNerve Challenge is where "I can't" becomes "I'll try." It's simple: Post a message saying "I will face my fear of ____________ by ____________" Pick a fear, pick a method, set a deadline. Let us know so we can cheer you on and hold you accountable. More tips for picking a fear at my PsychologyToday.com blog.
As for driving phobias, this is a tough one because driving is legitimately a dangerous activity. For most people, though, it is possible to learn to drive safely and the ability to get yourself and your loved ones where you want to go, to be the one in control instead of at the mercy of taxi drivers and relatives who may not be good drivers at all, is worth the risk. There are physical and mental requirements for driving - if a person has something like a movement disorder, vision problem, or is unable to understand the rules of the rules of the road, that may preclude him/her from driving. But if the phobia is an emotional response, a teacher or counselor who knows how to work with a student to de-escalate the fear first - can make it possible to learn to drive safely. I saw this in action when Lynn Fuchs, a driving instructor who is also a certified counselor and specializes in helping those with driving phobias, helped a car crash survivor relieve herself of the emotional burden of the accident, settle her own nervous system in the driver's seat, and then to drive.
What's the most important piece of advice you would give people about facing their fears?
"I'm stronger than I think." Say it over and over, like a mantra. Every time you feel afraid, say it, believe it. Because it's true.
What's obsessing you now and why? Or should I ask, "What's your plan for tomorrow?"
I am obsessed with getting this message out to people who need it and finding out how it changes their lives. I get a contact high every time someone tells me how proud they are of facing a fear, I'm addicted to their happiness, to their stories of growth. I always want more!
And I'm obsessed with The Voice. My heart's with Tessanne but Jacquie Lee is a phenom!
Patty Chang Anker
Author, SOME NERVE
Blogger, Facing Forty Upside Down, PsychologyToday.com
Twitter: @PattyChangAnker, Facebook Author Page
Featured in O Magazine, Marie Claire, USA Today
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