Honor Your Fears, But Don’t Let Them Paralyze You

I decided the time was right on Saturday. I had avoided a particular section of road since last November, after I had an upsetting encounter with three dogs, coming at me from two different directions. Avoiding this section was inconvenient and limited my options because it is just about five miles from my house and a major route to the west, where some of the best cycling is.

I was finishing a very enjoyable, solo 55-mile bike ride on Saturday and was feeling emboldened because I had already come through several miles that I hadn’t ridden this year, in part because of mild dog fears. Although this section, farther away from home and easier to avoid, had caused me distress in previous years because of a very aggressive, chasing Australian shepherd, I had not had a problem in the last couple years. But, after my closer-to-home stressful encounter last November, I had shied away from this stretch as well. Considering my options on Saturday morning, though, I found myself drawn to this route and made the decision to ride it. It was empowering to come through it without incident.

This was part of what inspired me to try the closer, scarier route. I thought about it while I rode. Besides my success that day, another cyclist had told me recently that he had been through that section several times without encountering the dogs. Also, I knew I would have a cornering tailwind as I passed them, and it would be hot, so the dogs would be less motivated to move from shady resting spots.

The time felt right.

As I approached the intersection where I would have to make a decision to proceed north, avoiding the dogs, or to turn east toward them, I told myself that either choice was okay. I would listen to my instinct.

I made the right turn toward the dogs.

I used some of my calming mantras as I approached their houses, which are across the street from each other, with the bigger problems across the road from me. I also grabbed another gear and accelerated—no need to dilly dally! I made it past them without encountering a belligerent canine.

Victory! I had done it. For the firs time in nearly 10 months, I had been brave enough to calculate my risks and face my fears.

It made me think.

As you know if you have read many of my previous posts, I find lots of analogies from the bike that apply to the bigger picture of life. This situation is no exception.

Allowing myself to ride this section of road opens options for me. It means less need for backtracking and more possibilities. Similarly, facing our fears in the rest of life creates possibilities, too.

Facing our fear, in a way that acknowledges and honors them allows us to see options that might be hidden from us otherwise. It literally opens our minds. When we don’t—or believe we can’t—face them, routes remain off limits. The doors remain closed. We can’t see down a certain path.

There are some things in my life off the bike that have me feeling fearful lately. The lesson from Saturday’s ride can serve me as I navigate these situations in the upcoming days, weeks and months. I can analyze the situation, like I did on the bike, and calculate my risks. I can also empower myself by providing opportunities for victory in lower-stakes decisions and circumstances. Doing this can embolden me to face the tougher, scarier things with more confidence and to see creative possibilities.

This doesn’t mean the fears go away. I’m not ready to ride past the dogs on their side of the road yet. I’ll need at least a few more passes on the opposite side with some degree of tailwind. Then, when the time is right, I may try it heading west.

The same is true in the rest of life. Navigating the changes that life brings us can be frightening, but it doesn’t have to paralyze us. Remembering this can help us to optimize our circumstances and live the best lives we can, while helping others do the same.

I’m no expert at this, but Saturday’s experience taught me some lessons that I can share:

  1. When something scares you, think about your options around it.
  2. How risky is facing it? Analyze the risks.
  3. What factors could mitigate the risks?
  4. Is the time right to face it?
  5. What does facing it look like?
  6. Listen to your gut. Even if you feel some fear, do your instincts tell you to take that turn toward what scares you and explore it openly?
  7. If so, go for it.
  8. Consider the possibilities that open for you once you are willing to openly acknowledge your fears.
  9. What is the next action you could take to move you forward in the direction of your dreams?
  10. Is there anything stopping you from taking it?
  11. If nothing is stopping you, and you have analyzed your risks, make that turn toward the thing that scares you.
  12. Once you have done it, what changed for you because you were willing to face your fears?
  13. Celebrate your courageous decision and decide how you will move forward next.

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” –Jack Canfield

Several years ago, this quote really spoke to me. It still does, although I am not sure that everything I want is on the other side of fear. Or that I will find everything I want if I face my fears. What I do believe is that there will be more options, and I will see more possibilities, if I do face my fears, rather than remaining stuck in paralysis by them.

I am going to work to remember this and practice facing my fears more often. I know I will have several opportunities to do that coming up in the near future.

Have you had the experience of facing your fears and finding creative possibilities and unexpected alternatives on the other side of them? Let us know in the comments.

“Choose courage over comfort by vitally engaging with new opportunities to learn and grow, rather than passively resigning yourself to your circumstances.” –Susan David

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Taking My Lane: Being Seen and Establishing Boundaries

There is an intersection about a mile from my home where, when coming from the south, I am particularly aware of the need to remain visible and present myself confidently. As I approach it, I watch all sides and move to the center of my lane. By moving away from the white line towards the middle of my lane, I position myself in the best place to be seen by traffic, particularly those who might turn left in front of me.

Kansas bicycle laws state that cyclists should ride as close to the right side of the roadway as safe and practicable, and I definitely do, but there are times when it is important to be seen and to set expectations for motorists’ behavior. Like so many lessons I have learned on the bike (and will share in my forthcoming book), this one has high applicability to life off the bike, as well.

In addition to being seen at an intersection, there are other situations that call for taking my lane. A couple weeks ago, I was headed south on a quiet, but narrow, two-lane road, when I saw two cyclists on low recumbents heading north. Behind them, a car was approaching on a gentle hill. I moved to the center of my lane, in order both to be seen and to discourage the car from passing between us, squeezing all of us toward the edges of the road. The cyclists and I waved at each other as we passed. As soon as we did, I moved back to the right edge of my lane, smiled and waved at the motorist. In my mirror, I watched the vehicle pass the recumbent bikes safely, and we all went about our day. The driver was delayed for no more than 10 seconds. As I continued pedaling south, I reflected on the brief encounter.

I realized that I felt powerful—in a good way. I had assessed the situation, identified a potential danger for myself and others, found the courage to take a position and acted confidently (and with trust in the driver). The small act of taking my lane made things safer for me and allowed me to advocate for the safety of two oncoming cyclists. Those recumbents, just inches off the ground, are probably more maneuverable than I think (I’ve never tried one.), but I felt like I was in the better position to make a strong move and protect us all.

One of my daily mantras during meditation is, “I am rooted in my power. I stand in it and own it.” As I have gotten older, especially in the last couple years, I have become better at living this mantra. The first step for any of us in doing this is recognizing our power.

I am not perfect in my practice of standing in my power and owning it, but I have gotten so much better at recognizing that I have some power and that I have a right to assert it in situations where I need to set boundaries for myself or others who don’t have, or haven’t found, their voices.

In recent years, I have realized that I lived much of my life fairly passively, deferring to others and feeling like I didn’t have a right to speak up and be heard or to stand up and be seen. I could do it for a cause or a principle—like becoming vegetarian at age 12 and becoming vegan in 2008. I recognized that animals didn’t have a voice or choice, so I stopped eating them in 1982. Then, I stopped eating or using their products in 2008, after I found the courage to learn more about the egg and dairy industries. For many years as a vegetarian, while I didn’t apologize for my principles, I would say, “I recognize that I am the weird one.” As I type that, it actually sounds a lot like an apology. Now, I may still be the weird one, but I own it, and it is not an apology.

I’ve advocated comfortably for others in different contexts, too—for victims of sexual assault, for people living with HIV and AIDS, for my son, for my students—but it has only been in recent years that I have really felt okay about advocating for myself.

Cycling has helped me to realize that there are absolutely times when we need to take our lane to make ourselves more visible or to be heard.

What has taken longer is cultivating the courage to do it, on the bike or off.

When I pull into the center of my lane to make sure I am seen by motorists or to promote proper passing by a car, I am setting a boundary of sorts. I am teaching the motorists how to behave around me. Of course, there is no guarantee that they will respond the way I intend. Most will, but a few may get enraged by what they perceive as my audacity (or sometimes by my very existence). Most, even if irritated, will drive the way they should, to avoid hitting or otherwise endangering me.

Taking a strong position in any setting to be seen or heard and to help other people understand how they should treat us requires courage and comes with risks. But, if we meekly remain against the white line on the bike or in the rest of life when we really need to take a bolder stance, our expectations may be misinterpreted. As Brene Brown has warned, this is likely to lead to resentment. We expect others to treat us a certain way, and they don’t. We haven’t asserted ourselves to instruct them how to treat us, but we resent them for not meeting our unstated expectations.

“What you permit, you promote. What you allow, you encourage. What you condone, you own.” –Unknown

We have both the right and the responsibility to set boundaries, but this doesn’t excuse blatant bad behavior—by drivers, by the humans in our daily lives or by society and institutions. As I was recently writing a book chapter about taking my lane, I thought of two 21st-century social movements: #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. In both of these movements, members of communities—people who have experienced sexual victimization and African American people—are positioning themselves to be seen and heard and are instructing society in how to treat them. This is a version of taking their lane.

Finding the courage and recognizing our right to take our lane can be a gradual process. I think we often have to live our way into it. For me it has come with the recognition that life is moving ever more quickly, and time is short. With that realization, I have less and less patience and, quite literally, less and less time to shrink into the white line and risk not being noticed. On the bike, it is my life and safety. Off the bike, it is my quality of life and my ability to make the contribution I want to make in the world.

Because time is short.

So, I will keep digging deep to find the courage to take my lane, and I encourage you to take your lane. Position yourself to be seen and heard. Share your message with the world. Speak your truth.

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Comment below to share your experiences with taking your lane. How have you found the courage to do this? Did you live your way into it, like I have, or have you always known how to do it? How has it served you?

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Discovering Courage & Community in the Written Word

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

–James Baldwin

While I certainly don’t think my pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, a couple of recent books have awakened the realization that I’m not alone in certain experiences that, admittedly, I had previously believed were unique quirks. This has caused me to think about the many ways that we can find both courage and community through the written word.

The biggest a-ha moments occurred while I was reading Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, by Melissa Dahl. I was drawn to this book because I hoped it would help me to understand and release certain experiences of embarrassment and shame that have continued to haunt me. Initially, I was disappointed, and, I have to say, I struggled to stay focused reading it. I even skimmed some parts. Then, I encountered Chapter 8.

“Cringe attacks” That’s what she called them. As soon as I read the words, I had the thought, “So, it’s not just me? Other people do this, too?”

Cringe attacks are the name that Dahl gave the experience of suddenly, out of the blue, being blindsided by a memory of an embarrassing or shame-filled experience. It is something that I have never discussed with anyone, but it has nagged me for as long as I can remember. Certain memories have been perennial pests, popping up time and again, year after year. The time in 2001 when I made a poor choice about what to wear to work. The time when I was about 15 that I still can’t bring myself to state publicly. The cringe attacks come in vivid flashes, utterly unbidden, usually causing silent or out-loud exclamations and shaking of my head, in an effort to quickly usher the thoughts away.  

In recent months, my biggest tormentor has been an experience of mistaken identity at the beginning of fall 2019 semester. At a University social event, I saw someone from the back and thought it was someone else who I knew had fairly recently started working at the University. She’s someone I like and was happy to see. I think I called her name (well, the name of the person I thought she was) and touched her on the back. She turned, and I continued to talk to her, as I looked at her face. I knew this other person, too, but, for some reason that I still don’t understand (and, believe me, I have analyzed it ad nauseam to try to figure this out), it didn’t register until she said something, clearly trying to signal politely that she was not who I thought she was, about the location of her office. This woke me, and I made a hasty and ungraceful exit. Immediately, I wondered, “What is wrong with my brain? Is this early-onset dementia?” Was I spaced out from the stress of being in a social, mingling setting, which I hate? Whatever it was, I couldn’t believe that I didn’t immediately realize, when she turned, that I was talking to the wrong person. If I hadn’t known the woman in front of me, it would have been embarrassing and awkward, but not as mortifying as this was, since I knew her (and, worse, she knew me), too. For months it has popped randomly into my head. There does not have to be a trigger. Seemingly out of nowhere, the memory will barrel back into my consciousness, and I will feel a visceral clench of shame in my stomach, in my face. A cringe attack!

Reading about this phenomenon, I felt a sense of community with the unknown others (Does everyone do this? Even if it is just some of us, knowing that it is not just me helps.) who are tormented by cringe attacks. Until reading this, I thought I was the only person who suffered such attacks. More than anything else I have done to try to dampen the shame and embarrassment I felt around the mistaken identity, knowing that others have cringe attacks and witnessing their courage in sharing them, has helped me find both community and courage. I have had more healing and release since learning this and since starting to think about sharing my story in my blog than in the preceding months of trying to banish my negative feelings through Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or tapping), meditation (not just for that reason, of course) or any other strategy, like hard intervals on my bike. Although finding out that I was not alone in the cringe attacks did not change the original experience, it seemed to normalize the whole thing for me—at least enough that I could write about it, further diluting some of the poison. It may seem silly, but the anguish has been real.

“Mind pops” are cringe attacks’ benign cousins. These aren’t particularly bothersome, but, again, I thought this regular occurrence was just part of my weirdness. A mind pop describes the sudden, apparently random, appearance in our conscious thoughts of less painful recollections. They aren’t upsetting, but they have often left me wondering, “Where did that come from?” A common form of mind pop for me occurs in the middle of something entirely unrelated. For instance, during my yoga practice on Thursday morning, I suddenly found myself mentally at the intersection of 151st W and 109th N, north of Bentley, Kansas, on my bike. Why? I don’t really mind, especially when it is a cycling mind pop. It’s just puzzling. There is nothing particularly unusual about the locations that show up as cycling mind pops. Why there? Why at this particular moment? I could understand if I had experienced something emotionally significant, but they usually just represent routine bike rides. Odd. But maybe normal?

My mind pops don’t only happen around cycling. That is just one of the more common forms for me. While reading about mind pops in Cringeworthy didn’t provide the same emotional release that learning that others have cringe attacks did, but I felt a little less alone, a little less weird. Others have mind pops. Interesting.

Listening on Audible, Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, by Ada Calhoun, gave me a different type of feeling of community. As a Gen X (roughly those born between 1961—or 1965, depending on the source—and 1981) woman, I have never really thought about myself as part of a generational community. You hear a lot more about Baby Boomers and Millennials, and I never really gave that much thought, which was part of Calhoun’s point. I have always thought that the angst I have felt over my path in life and over some of my choices were uniquely mine, unrelated to my position in history. And they are, in the specifics. But Calhoun pointed out that a lot of women my age experience this existential angst to a greater degree than some other generations, and that this suffering has often gone without recognition. While hearing many stories from other Gen X women who grew up with similar messaging, in a particular, shared historical context was a bit depressing, it also helped me recognize that my generation is one form of community for me, beyond just having grown up listening to the same music or, on a micro-level, gone to school together.

That’s the power of the written word—recognizing that we are not alone in experiences that we may have believed were exclusively ours and because of which we may have felt lonely.

Our own writing can be a place for us to find and express courage and, by sharing our stories bravely, to help others find courage. I have a dear friend who is writing a memoir. Sharing our stories in full honesty requires forging through pain and shame and guilt and many difficult feelings. I have been privileged to read some of her early chapters, and she is taking on all the pain courageously, baring her feelings and her memories because she believes (and I do, too) that her story can make a difference in the world.

That is also the power of the written word.

There are so many ways, these days, that we can read and benefit from learning others’ stories and realizing that we are not alone. We can heal and gain courage and feel a kinship with others who have gone through similar experiences. We learn that other people have gone through the trials and torments and embarrassments that we have. We feel a sense of community. That gives us strength.

We learn so much from books. Books (albeit mostly Kindle, for convenience) are still my favorite form of the written word. There are other ways, too, that we can find courage and community in reading and writing. Blogs and social media have opened up whole new avenues of expression and connection through the written word. I think this is a particular benefit to introverts, like me, but we can all grow through our interaction with these forms of writing.

I’m so thankful for my literacy, my vision, my drive to read, my call to write, the countless authors and writers I have read—and will read 😊–in my lifetime.

Courage and community. Compassion is my highest core value. Courage and community help us grow in compassion—for self, others, the animals, our planet.

What are some of the books that have made the biggest difference for you? How have you discovered courage and community through any form of the written word? How can you use the written word to make a difference?

I sincerely hope that my writing—whether in this blog, my in-progress book, my social media sharing, my soon(ish)-to-be-published essay or any other writing I do—will speak to others, at least occasionally inspiring courage and growing community.

Writing really is a superpower. Reading really is an amazing gift. I am grateful for both in my life.