I wrote this back in 2015. A life-time ago and yet I still vividly remember every moment I describe here. I may be the one of the only ones, but I often have a hard time remembering when or how I learned something that becomes a foundational part of my life. Lucky for me I found this essay today and it reminded me of a significant portion of my journey into how I avoid feeling imposter syndrome most days. And it all started with facing my fear of adrenaline!
There are a few things I want to do, professionally, that I’ve been too scared to do. And by scared 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’m not talking about being nervous before a presentation or being unsure how this pitch is going to turn out. I’m talking about feeling full on panic at the thought of moving into a line of work.
I try to avoid feeling like panic. 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. Even if they are vocational activities.
I’ve begun to think that’s a mistake. At least for the professional 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 one of those instantaneous life changes that bring financial success everyone that wants to sell me something seems to have the key to. It took me some time to get it. It took hearing the same thing three different times from different people plus 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 early beginning. Where it's still working on happening.)
So I can’t give you the “Top five things to know to start a business” or whatever other title would get me a million clicks on Google. But I can tell you the story of how I came to the information that made me 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.
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 its head and you’re something of an emotional 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 in a normal 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
Later 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 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.
“Ah!” I thought. “Yes, I know this. 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 Mom and her husband were visiting and we all went to Family Fun Center because this is what we do. There are a lot of us and we’re not exceedingly wealthy so we consider what we really want to do and then buy the appropriate ‘just enough’ passes.
I drive the go-carts for the kids that are too young to do it for themselves (although I’m always annoyed by all the crazies driving on the track with me. Can’t we all just drive around the circle without trying to cut each other off and “win”? C’mon people. – Hangon...Are you... trying to pass me?? I don’t think so buddy!!) (I’m a barrel of fun, I know.) I play arcade games when the mood strikes. And replenish the quarters until they run out. Nothing too crazy.
This time however, we bought the sort of pass that let us do everything as much as wanted. Lots of fun to be had.
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. 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 YES! This totally counts as a daredevil event. For me. Totally, 100%)
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 reminded 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? 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 what I saw the five-year old kid in front me 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 five-year-old 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 didn’t want me shaking her rope.
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. Shuffling across. 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. So much that I was getting embarrassed and a little worried. Maybe my body really couldn’t handle this. Maybe that adrenaline excitement stuff is crap. Maybe I’m going to fall and have to be rescued. Shit. Shit.
Nope, I decided. I’m not falling off. And I am not going to be rescued. I’m doing this my damn 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. I get it. It’s just the six-year-olds behind me were anxious for their turn.
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. I got it!
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 view 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. This does not mean that I’ve done all the scary things. It does mean that I’m no longer convinced I should avoid doing them.
They’re still scary as heck. But, I’m going to keep taking steps, and keep moving myself out there.
I benefit from this learning continuously. I’m still not really friends with adrenaline and I do not seek it out. When it shows up unexpectedly I try to be welcoming. But ask what I wish I could be doing in any given moment and it’s likely to be reading in a backyard hammock or paddling slowly around a glassy lake. These, we can all agree, are not activities andrenaline participates in.
But! My fear of that RedAlert warning is so much smaller and less frequent these days. Periodically, I still practice reminding myself adrenaline's presence means I’m. Ready. To. Go. For. It! The things that scared me, kept me stuck when I wrote this in 2015 – looking foolish, being wrong, being corrected – aren’t obstacles in offering workshops, teaching courses, and leading retreats any more. These one-time obstacles are actually experiences I often pursue these days because I’ve finally learned it’s all part of it. I’m definitely going to be wrong, I appreciate when others are engaged enough to want to offer a correction, and we all look foolish sometimes – it’s just what’s going to happen when other people actually see us. It's become a signal that things are going well. My job, in many instances, is to build the space where we openly and vulnerably engage. That doesn't tend to happen when I try to prove I have it all figured out.
As a facilitator, professor, coach and consultant, the more I can normalize these experiences as a part of the work we’re doing – a regular, expected, even important part of it – the more my clients, students and I can have real, transformational conversations. And it all starts with my own comfort with that “something’s happening!” adrenaline rush. It’s all part of it.
Now that it’s 2023, if anyone has notes on how to transfer this comfort and confidence in being open and vulnerable as we engage and learn from each other into (1) the wilds of social media and (2) the permanence of book writing…I’m all ears.