Stop signs and shaky legs

This may come as news to you, but I’m a bit of a scaredy cat. I like to feel in control and I like to feel safe.

And well, I’ve had some goals that have seemed to scary. Professional goals. And by scary I mean, when I work on them, I start to feel panicky. Heart beating ridiculously fast, palms sweating, having to focus on getting a full breath sort of panicky.

I try to avoid that feeling. Call me crazy, but it seems like a bad thing. I don’t ski down mountains, or jump off cliffs, or go to Haunted Houses or watch Horror Movies or do things that scare the life out of me. Not in my personal or professional life. Even if they’re vocational activities.

I’ve begun to think that’s a mistake. At least for the vocational side of things. I’m still quite firm in my decision to avoid Haunted Houses and jumping off cliffs.

I’d like to say that I recently learned something that completely changed my life and has made this career possible and hugely successful. And that I learned it overnight.  Unfortunately it’s not as sexy as an instantaneous life change that brought financial success. It took some time for me to get it. It took hearing the same thing three different times from different people and my own personal experience for me to start to get it. (And the financial success is still in the works. Like, the beginning works. The very beginning. Where it hasn’t happened at all yet.)

So I can’t give you the “Top five things you need to know to succeed” or whatever other title would get me a million clicks on Google. But I can tell you the story of how I became ready to face that panicky feeling, and to actually go for it.

First time I heard it

Several years ago I saw a TED talk by Kelly McGonigal titled “How to make stress your friend.” She said that if we view the physical effects of stress positively they can benefit us.  She talked about how up until recently our view of stress was that it is bad for our bodies. It can damage our hearts. It puts us under undue strain. We should avoid it. And we try to. We try hard, to the point that we actually start to get stressed about our stress.

But! she said. But, (and I’m paraphrasing here) research has shown that if we view the physical effects of stress as beneficial – as providing us with energy – it actually helps us. Our body doesn’t show the typical ill effects. Our belief about our experience affects the outcome.

Fascinating, I thought. I’ll remember that the next time I get stressed out, I thought.  Lucky I don’t get stressed out very often. I avoid stress.

Months and months went by. I went through some emotionally draining times. Not real stress, but just a lot of emotional stuff. Nothing horrible. It was the sort of thing that happens when you go to therapy and your carefully constructed world gets turned on it’s head and you’re something of a mess while you learn it was always upside down and now you’re putting it back to rights. And then a few dozen things go wrong that one at a time would all be a little devastating and at this time with all of them piling up on you it begins to feel like you’ve reached the depths of your feels. The new go-wrong doesn’t produce a fresh hurt – you’re just weighted down a little heavier. You’re with me, right? I’m not the only one to experience this. It’s emotionally draining.

All that to say I quit remembering to think about using my stress to benefit me (Sorry Kelly).

Second time I heard it

And then I read somewhere (I can not for the life of me remember where) that performers, athletes and others who do nerve wracking things get just as nervous as all of us.  Those feelings I get that I hate enough to I try to avoid them, those feelings of fear and nervousness and general unease that I take as a huge STOP sign – these people get them too. They are not somehow immune to those same feelings. They are not a special breed that feels no fear.

They get just as fearful as I do. But (and this is a big but) they interpret it differently.

They interpret the churning stomach and shaky limbs as excitement & anticipation. As adrenaline to get this thing done. They use the energy to fuel them through. They see that huge sign as saying GO instead of my STOP.

“Ah!” I thought. “This is amazing. And yes, this is similar to what Kelly McGonigal talked about. I’ll remember this for the next time I need to perform something.” Which was going to be sometime in the very distant future, because I didn’t have any performing or daredevil events lined up on my calendar.

Until last summer.

My own personal experience with it.

My family & I took a trip to our local Family Fun Center and we bought the everything passes. All the rides, all the attractions, as much as we wanted.

Most of the kids were digging the go carts, but one of my sons was absolutely loving the ropes course. He went on it again and again and again. And then he started inviting us on it.

My first reaction was not particularly excited. It’s a ropes course – which means it’s kinda high in the air and, well, that sorta freaks me out a bit. Even if it is designed for kids as young as 5. (Actually that’s another detriment now that I think about it. Is it really gonna be able to support *me*? I’m not the size of a 5 year old.) I’m not super comfortable with heights or with having only unsteady places to put my feet when I am high up. But I was feeling adventurous and like I wanted to break out of my typical watching from the ground comfort zone. So I said sure, I’ll do the ropes course with you.

(And in case you’re wondering – YES this totally counts for me as a daredevil event. Totally, 100%. A million percent.)

I had plenty of time in line to realize how bad of an idea this was and to start getting nervous. So. Very. Nervous.

I remembered to remind myself about this reinterpretation idea – “Let’s treat this as excitement, self. Let’s view this as me getting super pumped to go up there. Woooooooo! “

It sorta worked.

I got strapped in. I climbed the steps up to the starting point. This is easy! Alright for excitement!

And I saw the first step I was supposed to take. They wanted me to put my foot where? Past all that open air to that little rock with nothing around it? And my hands get to hold on to…nothing. What???

My heart and shaky hands had about a half second to get completely revved up before I took my mind firmly in hand and said “Excitement! I’m excited!” And I took my first step. It wasn’t as hard as it looked like it would be. I got across the first section fairly quickly.

I felt like I was going to puke, but sometimes excitement will do that to you.

The ropes course was a square, so at each corner there was a platform that a couple people could stand on to wait their turn for the next side. I rounded the corner and looked at the next side.

Actually I tried not to look.

I took steps. I used that adrenaline and didn’t think, just acted. I did exactly whatever the five year old kid up ahead was doing. If he can do it I can do it. (This was not my son. He’d already finished the dang thing.) My daughter was actually in between me and the kid. She was doing great. I just kept trying to figure out where my feet should go and trying to look exactly where they should be. Not past them to the ground. Either straight ahead or at my feet. No where else.

By the time I got to the third side I was feeling all right. Puke-ish, racing heart, sweaty palms for sure. But pretty all right. There’s something to this adrenaline thing. The third side didn’t have any of the lovely foot sized rocks to step on. Just rope.

Just one thin rope you were supposed to walk on.  My daughter had instructed me to wait until she was across. She wanted the rope to stay as still as possible while she was on it.

I waited as long as I could until the kids behind me started making me feel like I really needed to get moving. I started moving across. You kinda have to shuffle across it sideways because there are ropes coming down every five feet that you have to step around. I shuffled, shuffled, feeling okay in my mind. I’m doing this.

And then my legs chimed in.  They weren’t so sure they were fine. They started shaking. A lot. Visibly. So much that I was getting embarrassed and a little worried. Maybe my body really can’t handle this. Maybe that adrenaline excitement stuff is crap. Maybe I’m going to fall and have to be rescued. Crap. Crap.

Nope, I decided. I’m not falling off. And I am not going to be rescued. I’m doing this my self. And I decided to laugh. To look at my husband and mom who were videotaping this whole thing. And laugh at how my body was terrified. It helped.

I got across that 3rd side and was scolded by my daughter who had felt my shaky legs and really didn’t appreciate all that rope movement.

And then we did the final side. Which was trickier still. And yet not. I was shaky and stomach churny (I did not puke!) and I was proud of myself. I felt excited. I felt like I could do it again.

Later, definitely later.

I actually made it across a ropes course and didn’t die of fear.  I now had my own experience of reinterpreting my body’s reaction. I could change my own outcome. It was starting to sink in.

Fourth time I heard it

And then last month I was reading “How the Body Knows Its Mind” by Sian Beilock. She writes

How we perform has a lot to do with how we interpret our bodily reactions. Confident negotiators viewed their beating heart as a sign they were thriving, but those who dreaded negotiating though their physiological state was a sign that they were failing, so they performed poorly. Whether we view our racing heart and sweaty palms as a sign of excitement or anxiety has a lot to do with whether we will clutch or choke.

And something clicked a little more. How we understand our bodies reaction can determine the outcome. It’s not a set reaction. It’s up for interpretation.

That fear that I felt before the ropes course didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.  It meant this was something new that my body was going to be on full alert – at the ready – for.

That reaction my body produces when I start trying to make something happen – on my own – career wise? I need to interpret it as being on full alert – as being at the ready. Knowing that it’s huge and overwhelming and crazy and that I could get panicky – or I get be on full alert, ready to do this thing.

Knowing that this doesn’t have to be my body’s Red Alert warning me to back the heck up is amazing. It does not mean that I will do all the scary things. It does mean that I’m no longer convinced I should avoid doing them because the cause that reaction in me.

They’re still scary as heck. But, I’m going to keep taking steps, and keep shuffling myself out there, shaky legs and all.

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