A reader recently asked how one overcomes fear. They’d realized that it’s been holding them back from living life or having fun and wanted to know my methodology. I’m sure that tons of self-help books, blogs, and websites offer up a step-by-step program on how to do it. So I wracked my brain all week trying to offer up something similar. Finally I realized that, like most things I do, my methodology was fairly different.
There’s truly nothing more bad-ass than confronting your fears. However for me, it’s not so much about how you do it, but rather how you tell your brain to think about it. Before one attempts to face fear, they have to change the way they perceive such a mind blowing concept. After that, it may simply be a matter of just doing it.
Overcoming fear can be a bit like going for a swim. You know it’s going to be great but you dread that initial part of jumping in the cold water. It’s completely uncomfortable at first - so much so that you’d rather just go home to forget about the whole thing and eat a block of cheese. Or at least that’s what I want to do. But we still go swimming anyway because we know the desired outcome will be worth the initial discomfort.
The only difference is that in swimming, we know exactly what that initial discomfort will be like. In facing our fears, well… that part remains a bit of a mystery. We can make some predictions, but when thinking of those we start to feel like the odds are stacked against us. In reality, the odds are almost always in our favor.
This last Halloween, I faced one of my longest running fears: going to a haunted house. Even though I like horror films, the idea of a haunted house has always just terrified me. I don’t like shit jumping out at me. I can hardly walk in front of an unsuspecting mirror without making myself flinch. And call me quirky, but I also don’t like it when creepy, unwelcomed people get in my personal space.
Of course, one night, a group of friends invited my partner and I to join them at one of Denver’s top haunted houses. These were some of my favorite people and I figured if there’d be anyone I’d rather face this fear with, it’d be them. So we bought tickets and decided to just do it.
As we got closer and closer to the haunted house, I began listing off all the reasons why I was going to hate it and why I should turn back the car. My palms got sweaty and I began to lose sight of the big possible pay-off I might get from doing this. But we already bought the tickets and if there was one thing I hated more than haunted houses, it was wasted money. Plus it could make a good story for the blog!
I actually wanted to write an essay about this experience and title it DON’T EAT CHIPOTLE BEFORE GOING TO A HAUNTED HOUSE. However since I didn’t actually get to have the pleasure of shitting my pants in front of all my friends, the story would've been a bit chintzy and dull. So I scrapped it.
Right off the bat though, a creepy clown got right up in my face. Not longer after that, a fake looking dead guy, hanging on hooks, suddenly came to life and lunged straight at me. The hooks held him back from actually reaching me. However I think my precise scream went something like “GOD! FUCK! DAMMIT! NO!” This obviously does not sound like the reactions of a badass.
But the reason I didn’t shit my pants wasn’t because that evening’s Chipotle had a certain lack of fire-power. It was because I was actually having so much fun. Each time my random bouts of fear induced Tourette’s syndrome subsided, I found myself laughing hysterically in new ways with the people I loved. When it ended, I immediately wanted to do it again. And that in itself felt insanely badass.
That’s another thing I keep in mind when facing fears: there’s a certain “rush” I get when the fear at hand switches from frightening to fun. I’m not sure if it’s a good adrenaline spike or a blast of dopamine. Either way, it’s somewhat addicting - even more so than that block of cheese I mentioned earlier (crazy, I know).
By now, you might be saying, “The ‘odds?’ The ‘rush?’ This all kind of just sounds like gambling and I hate that too!”
And you’re kind of right. But honestly, I’m not a big gambler myself (says the guy who’s getting ready to go Las Vegas). My gambling process tends to be fairly lame. I put $10 into a slot machine, giggle relentlessly when I win practically any amount, and spend down said amounts until I break even. Then I cash out and call it quits. Wild stuff, huh?
The point is that I don’t find gambling all that interesting. And yet when it comes to living life, I’m all about the risk. In gambling, we are set up by the system to fail. In life, we are set up to succeed. Thus facing your fears offers up something that gambling really doesn’t: a true sense of accomplishment. You get this whether you win or lose because either way, you still feel stronger afterwards.
Overcoming fear has so often worked well in my favor that it’s hard to think of an example of when I actually did lose. Funny enough, the best example that comes to mind hails from my early twenties - a time before my HIV diagnosis (when I remained scared of everything).
I had a deep rooted fear of roller coasters. Although I had never been on one, I just knew it wasn’t for me. I didn't like heights. I hated the sensation of feeling my stomach drop. And the whole thing just felt ridiculously unsafe. My boyfriend at the time, along with his cousins, thought it’d be hilarious to physically drag me onto a roller coaster one day at the amusement park. They all ganged up on me and held tightly so I couldn’t bolt from the line.
I put up with their physical coercion at first because he had some seriously attractive cousins. But the closer we got to the front, the more I realized it was actually going to happen. Even if I got the opportunity to escape, they’d never let me live it down and tease me relentlessly. So I just caved in and decided to go along with it. People had always pressured me to just “give it a shot.” I might as well finally get it over with.
As it turned out… I seriously fucking hated roller coasters. The however many tens of seconds the ride lasted were a total nightmare, each one more terrifying than the last. I couldn’t regale in any ounce of the laughter and joy that bursted forth from all the hot cousins. When we finally got off the damn thing, I felt shaken with regret. But the regret would one day turn into gratitude as I’d eventually learn the final aspect the brain needs to know about fear-facing: when you lose you still win… because you’ll learn something new.
Beforehand, a part of me always wondered if I was missing out on something that everyone else seemingly loved so much. After that, I didn’t have to wonder anymore. I knew for certain I was NOT missing out. And by being able to say I actually did go on a roller coaster, people finally stopped pressuring me to try it. My fear of hating it became actual knowledge of hating it and I was thankful for that.
When it comes to my methodology of overcoming fear, these are the elements I remind myself of each time: the odds being in my favor, the thrill and the rush of it all, the satisfaction of accomplishment, and if nothing else… the guarantee of new knowledge. I simply won’t learn anything new by always staying in my comfort zones. Once I’ve rubbed these all into my brain, I put on my swimsuit (or in my case take off all my clothes) and jump in head first into the deep end of the pool. And when I come back up to breathe, I feel more like a badass than ever before.
Next weeks’ essay will be another, more recent tale of when I confronted one of my greatest fears. I didn’t quite get the end result I had hoped for. Yet somehow I walked away feeling totally alive, vibrant and confident. The story deals heavily with sexuality (and to be more specific… MY sexuality) so if that’s not your cup of tea, don’t swing by for a drink. Otherwise, stay tuned.
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