Moments before takeoff, the captain came on the loudspeaker to tell us to expect a “really rough ride.” Well, that sounds just lovely, I thought as I re-tightened my laughably inadequate 1970s station wagon clip seatbelt. He said it in that captain voice they have too; that too-cool-for-school drawl that doesn’t change whether they’re announcing the weather or telling you that by the by, our engines are in flames, hope your affairs are in order. The other passengers and I all looked at each other, suddenly united in common fear and experience. Did we hear that right? Did he just say we should expect a rough takeoff? The plane started picking up speed moments later. Too late to do anything about it but get a good story to tell someday.
All of this made worse by the fact that I was terrified to fly.
In the menagerie of human emotions, no beast is as elusive as fear. Fear has a rigged card game going on out front and several long cons running out of the back room. Fear is a swindler and a huckster, wearing more masks than KISS at Mardis Gras.
Often times fear adorns the anger costume. Think about when your kid wanders off in a crowded area. You lose sight of him or her for a moment and then panic. You scan the crowd, all the terrible things in the world are suddenly real and present. Then, just before you make a spectable of yourself, there they are, toddling away towards a fountain or candy store, entranced like someone pulled a damn Pied Piper on them. What do you do? You give your kid a hug and then yell at them, the justifiable anger coursing through your system like an overheating reactor. It has to be vented or you’ll explode. You’re not really angry though. You’re afraid.
Back to my fateful flight, the takeoff was as advertised. An overheard compartment opened, ejecting a suitcase into the aisle. A few people screamed, just like in the movies. Some woman was praying as loudly as she could, literally shouting her prayers so that God could hear her over the roar of the engines, I suppose. Probably we shouldn’t have been allowed to take off in that much turbulence, but after a few seconds of madness, it was over and the rest of the flight was pretty smooth.
The funny thing is that I wasn’t any more afraid than I normally was getting on a plane. This was exactly the type of thing I had been afraid of happening but now that it was there, it was almost a relief. Fear is funny like that and ironically, the reason I was on that plane at all was to try and abate my fear. In one of my more ill advised decisions, I had taken a job that required 100% travel, thinking to burn the fear out of myself.
It didn’t work and that takeoff certainly didn’t help.
I tried all sorts of things to address my fear of flying. Being a numbers guy, I tried reading statistics to prove to myself just how unlikely a plane crash would be. People will always tell you how much more likely you are to die in a car crash which really only helps make someone more afraid of being in a car. Thanks. Or you’ll hear comparisons to other unlikely scenarios like getting struck by lighning (which also sounds fun) or winning the lottery. None of that matters because someone will win the lottery. People sometimes do get struck by lightning. Never tell me the odds. You can’t use odds to conquer fear of an unlikely event.
So, I tried learning more about the physics of what keeps a plane in the air. I tried mimicing the habits of seasoned road warriors who had their flying rituals honed and oiled to an efficient churn. I tried having a few cocktails before each flight. Ok, that I was going to do anyway, but what the hell. I tried focusing on the wonder of it all, seeing the ground shrink away during each takeoff and being amazed by all the things I saw while traveling.
None of it helped.
So, I gave up and settled in to the fact that I was just going to be afraid on planes. I took another job eventually that required less travel so my flying time lessened to a couple of times a year. I wouldn’t let fear affect my desire to show my children the world, so I’d just have to deal with it. Some people completely shut down with this type of phobia but I was able to compartmentalize mine enough that I could still fly, but it’d just be a completely miserable few hours every time.
Then, I came across a Fear of Flying tactic on the Headspace app that changed everything. In this exercise, mindfulness expect Andy Puddicombe makes the point that you can’t address emotion with logic which is exactly what I was trying to do. The issue wasn’t my thinking. The issue was what I was feeling and how quickly my feelings would escalate. We’d hit a little bump and I’d feel the fear rise up. Would we hit another bump? Would that lead to us losing air pressure? Would the masks come out? I’m a grown man, I shouldn’t be this afraid of a pocket of air. The cycle would spin and spin and continue to escalate.
What Andy Puddicombe taught me was to pause when that initial bump happens to pay attention to how I’m feeling. Forget the statistics. Forget the always super helpful “man-up” self talk. Just breathe. Focus on my breath. What is the emotion I’m feeling? Oh, that’s fear. Ok. That’s not so bad. Once identified, it wouldn’t go away per se, but seeing it for what it was de-clawed the scoundrel. A few flights of that and I was totally fine.
In fact now I kind of like flying.
That 5 minute exercise had a huge impact on my life because more profound than being able to be calm on a flight is the ability to identify when fear is holding me back from something important.
That’s like a damn superpower.
Fear is a basic human emotion and most of the time it’s helpful. When we’re young, we fear nothing and slowly the world teaches us to be afraid of sharp, hot and loud things. However, for some reason we also learn to be afraid of difficult things that may be vital on our journey to living a remarkable life.
Take public speaking, which as Jerry Seinfeld hilariously told us, is the number 1 fear for the average person while number 2 is death. So if you’re at a funeral, “you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Why are most people really so afraid of getting in front of a crowd? Is it George McFly’s lament of being no good? For me, I pulled back the onion layers of rationalizations like “I just don’t like it” (false) or “I don’t care if I’m good at it or not” (false) or my personal favorite, “introverts are no good at speeches” (patently false). When I got to the core, I realized it was a fear of looking foolish more than anything else. I hate not knowing things and not knowing things in front of an audience seemed as inopportune as sneezing while getting an intricate tattoo on my forehead.
But once again, identifying it for what it was helped me address it. After all, there’s a pretty straight forward way to avoid not knowing things. It’s called knowing things. Learning things. Practicing. As I tell my son, no one is really good at anything just by accident. You work at it.
Ok, then. I can do that.
Like DJ Rob Gordon checking off his top five breakups, I said, “that’s another one I don’t have to worry about. I should have done this years ago.”
Once you start looking at fear that way, addressing your fears becomes almost like a game. In Brenee Brown’s amazing book, Daring Greatly (dude, you had me at Roosevelt), she suggests that we pay more attention to what the “gremlins” are saying. If there’s something that you keep having to talk yourself out of and yet you keep coming back to, then pay attention to what the gremlins are telling you because you’re probably on to something.
For me, it’s usually the gremlins whispering to me that will clue me in. I’ll be sitting there reading a book and minding my own business and the whispers will start.
“You’ll never write like this. You don’t have time for writing. Maybe you could get good if you just had the time for it, but you don’t so forget it. It’s kind of arrogant to believe anyone will want to read your stuff. There are so many other useful ways you could be spending your energy.”
Suddenly, realization will crystalize – gremlins!
I’ll leap to my feet and dive under the couch, scrambling to find them. I’ll grab them by their ankles, turn them upside down, shaking their pockets clean of what I’m really afraid of. If you little buggers are whispering this much about this, then I’m on to something, aren’t I? Aren’t I? What other fears do you have in there? I become Al Pacino in Heat. GIVE ME ALL YA GOT! Pause. GIVE ME ALL YA GOT!
See, the thing is, we tend to look at all fear as a hot stove. It hurts, so we stay away from it. Afraid to fly? Never go anywhere. Afraid to commit? Dump your partner. Afraid to fail? Never try anything. However, not all fear is a hot stove. In fact most fear is actually a light on the horizon showing you the way you need to go.
Fear is a beacon.
What are your gremlins telling you? It’s liberating to pull off fear’s masks, Scooby Doo style, and capture your gremlins. Just be careful because those bastards can bite.