Before I get into my overcoming fear tips, I need to tell you a little story that will add context to the tips so they will be easier to put into action.
A little story about overcoming fear
Overcoming your fears is a tricky, tricky thing. If you ever want to achieve what you’re capable of achieving in life, you’ll have to muster the courage to face things you don’t want to face.
I’m pretty sure that Joseph Campbell was speaking metaphorically when he made this famous statement about “the cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek,” but on this day I took the message literally as I was about to enter an actual cave.
I wish I could say the cave that I was entering required the skills of an expert spelunker, as that you might help you respect me a little more for my bravery on attempting some extraordinary feat.
Alas, the cave I was about to enter was a tourist attraction in Colorado that thousands of people visit each year. Small children go into this cave. Elderly people go into this cave. Everybody of every skill level walk into this cave. Frankly, there probably couldn’t be a less dangerous excursion to embark upon, and yet, there I was … anxious … fearful … and struggling with all my might to keep from hyperventilating.
The funny thing was, I didn’t even know I felt this way about caves. I didn’t when I was younger. I didn’t when I plunked over the fifty-four bucks for me and my niece and nephew to get in. Yet as we waited the hour before our tour group was to be escorted in, I remembered how my mom felt about this very same cave when I was a kid. I recalled her fear – I didn’t understand it then – I really didn’t understand it now either, but somehow I realized that now I, too, was scared to take this 45-minute walk into the unknown.
Why? I don’t know. Like a lot of fears, it was irrational. My mind wasn’t helping, either. In what I can only describe as a nonsensical internal rant, I found myself wondering how many people enter this cave never to exit it. I pondered – was the “success” record here 99%? In most things, that’d be an excellent track record, but let’s face it: if they take 1,000 people into that cave today and 99% come out, 10 people are left in there for the remainder of their lives. Was I going to be one of those 10?
I reassured myself – that’s utter nonsense – I’m sure their track record is even better than 99%. Still, my belligerent mind argued, “What if it’s 99.9%? That still means one person doesn’t come out. I could see the state being okay with that – those are pretty good odds – I bet they could get a business license to operate with those odds.”
As you might have surmised by now, when left to wander on its own, my mind skews more than a tad to the melodramatic. My sound mind, though, gets its say, too: “You’re going to come out alive … everyone comes out alive … this is a friendly, family tourist attraction, snap out of it!”
Just then, they called our group. Here I was with my adult niece and nephew and we were going in. I put an insincere smile on my face and made my way down the plank … I mean … the pathway to the cave.
To bolster my courage, I begin to silently recite my new mantra: “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave.”
Within moments, we are in the cave. The first thing we do: pose for pictures, after all, this is a tourist attraction not unlike every attraction in Disneyworld that makes you stop and get your picture taken before you enter the “fun.” Okay, this is harmless. That is, so far. (Queue movie sound: Duh. Duh. Duh!)
Then we walk farther in. Stalagmites. Stalactites. High ceilings. Dank cave smell. Nothing to fear here. I’m good for now, but I continue with my mantra: “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave.”
We walk farther in. Some smart-mouthed cave guide gets the idea to turn off the lights so we can see what true darkness feels and looks like. It’s all part of the regular tour … the poor kid is just doing his job, but I don’t appreciate it. Don’t these folks know that you when you start messing with light switches sometimes the lights don’t come back on anymore? What are they gonna do then – their 99.9% success rate is going to go out the window, that’s for sure.
I absolutely hate the total darkness of the cave. Have you ever been in a cave with no lights on of any kind … not even the gentle glow of a cell phone (which they asked us to keep off)? You can’t even see your hand in front of your face!
My mantra recitation goes into overtime – “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m so doggone, flipping brave.” I survive the 30 seconds of darkness.
We walk farther in. They guide us to the area with no oxygen. They claim there was oxygen there, but I didn’t buy it – I swear, every breath I took left me wanting another. Gasping, I cling to my mantra: “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave. I might pass out, but I’ll do it bravely. I’m brave.”
We turn a corner and appear to be headed back out, but we’re not going back the way we came in. Then, there IT is. (Queue even more dramatic movie sound – Duh! Duh! Duh!!!)
I knew it: I mean, I didn’t know “it” … I didn’t know exactly what there was to really fear in this cave, but now I faced it head on: We had to navigate through a very small passageway. We were to bend over and walk at a 45 degree angle, shuffling our folded-up bodies through this absurdly narrow area. Even worse, there was no telling how long this narrow passage was.
Did I mention it was very narrow? Did I mention I’m not one of those people with a small body … no, I didn’t mention that because I never reveal that right off the bat. Well, I’m not a small person. I genuinely don’t know if I’ll fit through this thing. My mind isn’t being absurd this time, I’m using pure logic to make this call. The passageway is tight.
There’s a pretty good chance I’ll go into full wig-out mode now. This won’t be a pretty picture. I dread having my niece and nephew see me like this, so I make them enter first to prevent them from witnessing the impending scene of doom that I’m envisioning for me.
I recite my mantra one more time, “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave.” I then take a final breath before I enter the narrow opening.
One step in.
My mantra continues: “I’m brave. “I’m brave. “I’m brave.”
Two steps in. I hunch over a little more and so far I fit okay. Three steps in and it’s dark and still narrow.
My mantra continues … this time it’s soft but audible: “I’m brave. “I’m brave. “I’m brave.”
Four steps in and I see light. I continue: “I’m brave. “I’m brave. “I’m brave.”
Five steps in and it’s over. We enter a big open area with high ceilings and sunlight is streaming in. The exit is clearly visible. I’m home free. Today, the cave guide gets to retain his “100% of the people who I take into the cave come out” record.” It’s a proud day for everyone.
This was a true story that happened about three years ago. I can’t say I embellished, because truth be told, I only shared a small fraction of the crazy things my mind told me throughout that 45 minute cave walk.
Overcoming Fear Tips
There are lessons to be learned about fear here that can be applied to facing any fear. My top five takeaways from this experience are:
- You have to be brave enough to handle your small fears because that courage helps you when it’s time to face your big ones. If I didn’t see the cave that day, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. If I had started a pattern of giving into small fears that day, I’m quite certain that would have carried with me into other fears. Once you tackle one fear, it gives you the courage to tackle another. It’s truly freeing.
- The treasure in the cave wasn’t gold, but it was gold to me. I knew the Joseph Campbell quote before I entered this cave. The treasure in the cave was not the glistening gold stuff, but that’s not what Joseph Campbell meant, anyway. My “gold” that I gathered that day included: 1) My self-respect went up, 2) I didn’t let fear get in the way of spending time with my niece and nephew, and I get to carry the sweet memory of that entire day with me for the rest of my life, and 3) It got me thinking about what other fears I could face and I’ve made a habit of challenging my fears ever since.
- Entering the unknown can be scary, but keep it in perspective. Yes, this was a silly little story about a little trip into a cave. No big deal. There was no real treachery in store for me. It was all in my head. Yet, isn’t that the truth about a lot of our fears? We feed our fears instead of feeding our faith. It’s a bad habit and one that can be broken.
- When you enter the toughest part of the journey, hang in, because you’re nearing your reward. The scariest part of the adventure was the narrow passage of unknown length into the unknown. Yet that’s the path that led back to sunlight. When you’re challenged the most, you’re getting close to your reward. Don’t give up!
- A little bit of self-encouragement goes a long way. “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave.” That’s how I defined myself that day despite the fact that one voice in my head was trying to convince me of the contrary. When you enter a situation you fear – be your own best friend. Be the voice of encouragement to yourself.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Believing you can do something is the key to accomplishing anything. Fear can prevent you from living your best life; don’t give into it!
As for me, I’ll keep on facing fears (one of which is being brave enough to tell stories like this on this blog). I’ll also keep reciting my mantras — “I’m brave. I’m brave. I’m brave.” — was my classic go-to phrase, but I’ve been testing a new one that goes “I’m safe. I’m safe. I’m safe.” – and it often feels even better. Try it next time you go up against one of your fears.
Wishing you peace, joy, and love along your journey.
~ J. Marie Novak
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