Friday, March 8, 2013

Overcoming the Habit of Fear

The more I read on neuroplasticity, the more I realize that everything, anything can become habit.  Confession: fear has become a habit for me. And along with the fear habit comes another habit: the habit of "no",  "no, I don't think so" ... and "oh, I don't know"...   

How did this become a habit? I'm fundamentally a "yes" person, but living in Guatemala involved risks that were new to me. I took to managing those risks with great discipline, living under strictly self-imposed rules: never let your guard down. never walk alone at night or in remote places. limit travel. keep your money close. All good ideas...

The problem was that once that fear habit got going, the thin line between reasonable caution and pessimism blurred. And in a challenging environment, the fear habit nourished other types of fear: of rejection, of failure. All things equal, I began to take fewer chances in general. I became less assertive. I sought fewer novel experiences. I didn't ask for things as much when I felt people would say no.  I didn't speak up as much when it might offend people. Fear and pessimism were good. I obeyed them, and they protected me.

Life here is very different, in a small rural city that has only seen two murders in the past 120 years. Regardless, my fear habit has persisted.  That's not to say that "yes" hasn't been inside me all along: it's just that "No" now speaks in a much louder and more convincing voice. 

I've realized that rather than protecting me, "no" is now just limiting my possibilities. I'm tired of it. I want "yes" to speak up much more. I believe that anything can be habit-forming, including "yes", but it takes time. You have to listen for that negative voice, and the things we're most accustomed to are often most hidden from us. Sometimes it helps a lot to push yourself into new surroundings, even if briefly, where you have to be conscious of yourself.

Maybe that was why I went rock climbing last night, for the first time since college. It was "yes" that got me there, but don't get me wrong: "no" was there, too, gripping me to the wall. 

I wasn't even a fourth of the way up a route and I was struggling. A nice red hand-hold tempted me from three feet away. Fear assured me: you're going to fall. "No" said: Don't try. The dull, familiar weight of pessimism was infuriating, and something sparked. I pushed off and leaped for the hold.

I took a massive fall, but that's entirely besides the point. It was the first time in more than three years that I've screamed "YES", when "no" was pulsing throughout my being. 

I know now that I'll get back on that wall. If I learn to climb it, it will be in series of similar falls and spurts. And when I fall, it will be against the echoes of a resounding "yes!"

I think it's time to make it a habit.

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