Facing my fears
This is a story which is somewhat humiliating and yet also the opposite because I’m so damn proud of myself!
Last week, I was on holiday in Norway with old friends who live there. Every few years we get our families together and we tend to do lot of activities. Our fit friends in Norway, with its beautiful mountains, coast and general outdoor attitude that seems to entice these things. This is unlike my Cambridge home that I love that is flat, landlocked and really doesn’t do a lot of outdoor enticing and also unlike me who is currently unfit, chubby and pasty pale even though the Sahara sun seems to have got stuck over England. I’m not just pale, I’m that blue colour that slightly hypothermic people go.
Our friends suggested many things, such as staying in a lighthouse over-night (that’s an entirely different nightmare story if you don’t like outdoor toilets with no running water, but using wind to clean you, on a tiny rocky island, with no electricity and you have a weak night time bladder), tubing on their little boat, swimming in lakes and finally an activity park based on the same idea as the Go Ape style climbing parks. It was here that was my downfall, almost literally.
We get to the park and immediately it’s obvious that in Norway the whole ‘Go Ape’ idea is taken more seriously with the 5 different difficulties of climbing routes listed in colour from yellow to red increasing in difficulty. Each route also seems to start with a 20ft wobbly rope ladder climb where you also have to stop every few steps, let go and hook your security rope up higher, so you don’t just plummet down. At the top you start with a zip wire, there’s no gently easing in. My son, who is 12 and stubborn, takes one look and point-blank refuses to join in – although I might add, he does this just seconds after we had paid for him as is the way with children. Meanwhile our friends 7-year-old bounced off alone to do the blue run – the third difficulty level.
Having spent over 30 minutes trying to persuade my son that the easiest route that was literally 6 ft off the floor probably was safe, but to no avail, we made him chief photographer and left him to follow us all at ground level like a BBC wildlife photographer.
I was chatting with my decidedly slimmer, fitter and more active host and she declared that she didn’t like the red route as it was so high and a required lot of arm strength. Here is where my mistake began.
Contrary to telling all my clients that it doesn’t matter what other people think – it really doesn’t – and wanting to push myself, I decided that I would prove that my chubby self who a) hadn’t been exercising for 6 weeks due to being really busy and away a lot, b) is known for having the arm strength of a baby and c) actually does suffer from a mild fear of heights, could face this challenge. (I used to be so bad that I once froze up the tower of St Paul’s cathedral in London and had to be led down by the hand where I threw myself on the ground to kiss the floor like the pope – I am in fact not this bad now having worked on this through my hypnotherapy) Countering all the above info I had a rush of pride (pride comes before a fall as they say) and said confidently, “I’m going to do the red it looks so fun.” She looked at me with an interesting look and said nothing. My partner smiled knowingly, said nothing, but got his phone in photo mode in his pocket. “You have to push yourself to do scary things!” I said gaily (totally true!) He said nothing.
Getting up the ladder was an ordeal, standing on the small circular platform around each tree – which rocked with the wind and other people!!! It was an ordeal. Watching the nimble 12 year old in front of me struggle with the FIRST set of ropes, was also an ordeal. But not wanting to fail and wanting to prove to myself I could do this, I did my breathing exercises, did an NLP spinning technique and continually remembered that the man who was trying to persuade my son to go up and told us the cable would take a 2-tonne car – “would the tree take it?” I thought. It was high. Really, really high. Then comes my turn.
The first set of ropes. Imagine a stirrup on a horse, this was that, one stirrup hanging on a rope – a single rope so nothing to brace against – a row of these. Easy, I thought, step from one to the other like a gazelle and you’re on the next partially safe tiny waiting space. As I step in, the rope swings violently away from me, taking my body with it into space, my jelly legs are trying to stand up and my baby arms are trying to support my entire (not light) weight, sweat dripping off my palms and forehead. Only 6 people waiting behind me. I try to right myself as my body hangs at a 90 degree angle and find my now terrified baby arms refusing to do more than grip on for dear life. I swing out the foot that is dangling in the air – only room for one on a stirrup – and realise that, in the spinning I have done getting on the first one, I now have the wrong foot first. I do a move similar to the grapevine dance move and cross my leg behind the other one to get to the next horrible swinging rope. Only another 10 to go. My partner who crossed fairly quickly before me, is shouting encouragement and directions whilst filming me to show all his friends.
I grab wildly for the next rope – I can’t go backwards and realise that I am starting to panic and worse, I’m welling up! I pause, sink in to the harness, tell myself I can do this and to be calm. I grab for the 3rd rope, I am now straddled with legs crossed behind myself – not a move I could do easily on the ground let alone in the air and as wide as that allows them to go, hands sweating and sliding on the rope and sweat now pouring off me to the extent that someone below might think it’s raining. I can do this, this is just fear, this is just the fight, flight, freeze response, you are fully aware of what is going on in your head. Your body thinks you are under attack and at risk of death – not too far off considering in cave man days I would have plummeted to my death by now as vines would not have held me. Think how good this will feel when you combat it etc etc… self-coach, self-coach!
I swing ungraciously to the third rope which takes all of, oh, another 5 minutes, the weird grapevine movement and a lot of effort not to panic and swear. Then I realise that I actually can’t do this. I sit into the harness so easing my sweaty, shaking arms and pretend I’m pausing before continuing, what I’m really thinking is s*%t I’m stuck, how can I get down (you can see this moment in the video attached, should you wish to!). I start to cry again. Realising all is not well my partner tells me to use the zip wire with my hands to drag myself along the wire – he is still filming and trying to hide his laughter. What I can’t say is that now my arms are filled with adrenaline, my body sitting in the harness with flesh protruding through like a plasticine hair doll now it’s taking my entire weight and is no longer just a safety net, that I can’t pull myself along as my hands are sweating. I breathe, look back at the many, many people behind me and realise that there is only one way out, I inch myself slowly along and tell myself I can do it and I do. I reach the second platform, burst into tears, tell my partner not to patronise me – he is trying to be sympathetic while hysterical with laughter. I quit and get down the escape ladder.
I can’t do it.
The reason I share this with you is that there will be times when we can’t do it and this culture we have developed tells me that “can’t” is not acceptable. It is, we are human, we have flaws and imperfections, my mild fear of heights (I see clients who have it much worse) does not really affect me. I fly, I go up tall buildings and I watched the film Skyscraper recently which turned the stomach of my height loving partner, it does not stop me. You should only worry about a “I can’t do that” if a) you have tried and b) you want to.
Your body will try to keep you alive and, in its quest to do so, will try to hold you back at times. Try to be kind to it, it’s doing its best for you. Life will put experiences in front of you that feel much like I did standing on that small platform, looking ahead at the stupid swinging ropes and in my head thinking, “I can’t do this.” It’s your choice to decide, is that something I actually want to do? I do not wish to bungee jump, it has no appeal for me and that is okay. I am not limiting myself, I am making a decision. I hate the sensation of falling and I know this because I did a parachute jump and the first 4 seconds of plummeting was the worst bit. I will never skydive because of that. If I could float down from 15000ft, I’d do it. I can’t do rollercoasters – even tiny children’s ones for the same reason. My stomach does not like plummeting, it’s a physical discomfort, it’s not fear. If that was holding me back from something I’d do everything to combat it, but it’s not, it’s just me and me has so many other things she can do that this is fine.
So, sometimes “can’t” is okay, if it’s a thought-out choice, if you are happy with that “can’t” or even that “won’t” – like me and bungee jumping. What’s not okay is when “can’t” or “won’t” are fear based and holding you back from something you want to do. If I had something like that, I would see my own cognitive hypnotherapist or coach, or whoever could help me. I see a lot of clients whose “can’t” or “won’t” has become so much part of them that they think it’s just them, it’s often not. Imagine if you didn’t feel afraid of presenting, or you had that inner confidence in yourself, those things are NOT part of you, they aren’t learnt and can be unlearnt.
Back to my first point. I am so proud of myself. I’m proud I went for it, I’m proud I got up the ladder and I’m damn proud I gave it a go and actually that I got myself across somehow and didn’t have to be winched down like a small child. I gave it a go, I tried and I did my best, I didn’t stop myself before I’d even started. I’m also proud that I could make the decision to get down, to say no, this isn’t for me and be totally okay with that. I really don’t care what anyone else thinks. Best of all was in fact being able to say to my son, “do you know what, I cried up there and I was scared, but I’m so proud of myself that I gave it a go.” Because learning how to try and fail and know it’s okay, is probably the biggest gift I can give him to go forward into life.
If you think you are holding yourself back or know someone who is, do get in touch for an informal conversation about how we can stop that.