I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and it was all I could do to control the slight tremble in my arms and legs. Adrenaline was surging through my veins and my breaths were quick and deep. I was standing in the middle of a beautiful lush jungle, the smell of moist earth filling my nostrils as I listened to the thundering of the falls.
Nervously, I chatted with a nice couple standing beside me, babbling on about who knows what. I’m sure a look of pure terror was seeping through the fake smile I’d plastered on my face, in a failing attempt to look calm, cool and collected as we approach the edge.
All too soon it was my turn. As the rope was being fixed to my harness, I snuck a look over the edge of the 165 foot waterfall I was about to rappel down. Vertigo began to set in as I stared down into the seemingly endless abyss. The familiar feeling of weightlessness and falling through empty space washing over me.
I was roaming around Costa Rica for 2 weeks with my boyfriend K, and we were seeking out any and every adventurous activity we could find. It had been K’s idea to go rappelling down a series of waterfalls in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle and I didn’t want to disappoint. There was just one minor, tiny, insignificant detail: I’m terrified of heights.
The Oxford Dictionary defines fear as follows:
“An unpleasant emotion caused by threat of danger, pain or harm. (fear of) A feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone.”
Everyone has fears. It’s a natural emotion and instinct we are all born with. Some fears may be well founded, perhaps learned from previous, unpleasant experiences. Fear can be a healthy, even lifesaving emotion as it alerts us to dangers in our environment. If we weren’t afraid of lions, for example, we might just walk up to them and become an easy meal. Fear is about self-preservation in life and death situations. But there are many times when we fear something that isn’t dangerous, like speaking in front of a crowd or harmless insects.
My fear of heights falls into the healthy, self-preservation category as falling from certain heights can, in fact, be deadly. However, it seems silly when all the proper precautions have been taken. If I’m wearing the proper safety gear and am being watched over by a professional, why am I still afraid?
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt –
Fear seems to make the mind race and conjure up thoughts of all the ways things could go wrong. My fear of heights, while rational, seems to take over the mind and steer it towards irrational thoughts.
What if the gear malfunctions? (Anyone seen Cliffhanger?); What if I trip and fall over the edge? What if, what if, what if?! Images of myself hurtling head first to my death flash through my mind every time think about heights.
But despite this fear, I’d made the decision years ago to never let it stop me from living my life to the fullest.
“Twenty years from now you’ll be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”
– Mark Twain –
It’s OK To Be Afraid
I had a wonderful horseback riding coach when I was younger. I’ve ridden horses my entire life and around the age of 14, I retired my horse from the show ring after he had beaten and bucked all the confidence out of me (usually leaving me sitting on the ground with a sore backside). I still loved horses but had no strength or resolve to deal with a difficult one. I was afraid of my horse so I started riding the more well-mannered school horses instead. My coach slowly worked with me on rebuilding my confidence and trust in equines. One thing she always told me was that it was ok to be afraid.
Accepting unpleasant emotions can be difficult and fear can definitely be unpleasant. We have no trouble welcoming emotions such as happiness, joy and pleasure. But emotions such as fear, embarrassment and depression can be hard to acknowledge. We’re taught as children that fear is perceived as a weakness and you’ll be ridiculed and teased for showing it.
But just because we’re afraid doesn’t mean we have to let fear dictate our actions. K knew I was afraid of heights when he suggested rappelling down waterfalls. But he also knew that no matter what, I wouldn’t let that fear stop me.
“Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it.”
– Bill Cosby –
Don’t Let Fear Win
While my horseback riding coach taught me that it’s ok to be afraid, she also made it clear that it’s not ok to submit to fear and accept defeat. If I fell off my horse, I was getting back on and trying again. No excuses. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid but giving into your fears, allowing them to dictate your actions, that’s unacceptable.
Making the conscious decision to not allow myself to back out of a situation I may find scary is key. If I have an escape route planned out, I’m sure to take it when good ol’ fear starts running through my veins and wreaking havoc on my thoughts.
“Fear is not real. It is a product of thoughts you create. Danger is very real, but fear is a choice.”
– After Earth –
When I was standing at the top of that waterfall I knew that technically, I could just walk back down the path were I came from and that I didn’t have to rappel. But I removed that option from my mind and I told myself there was only one way out of the jungle and that was over the falls.
It all comes down to choice. Let your fears control you or accept your fears and make the decision to conquer them. I’ve chosen to accept my fear of heights and work on conquering it. Nothing’s going to stop me from climbing mountains, zip-lining through tree tops or even rappelling down waterfalls! To miss out on all these amazing adventures out of fear, I think that’s the biggest fear of all.
Making the decision to overcome my fears has given me more confidence in myself than anything else. Once I rappelled down that waterfall I began to trust myself and my abilities and the rest of the waterfalls were much easier to tackle.
“Don’t let your fear of what could happen make nothing happen.”
– Doe Zantamata –
Conquering Your Fears Is Empowering!
I think the scariest but most empowering thing I’ve ever done is move to Japan, alone. Three days after my university graduation I packed up my life and headed to Asia to teach English for a year.
While finishing my undergrad, I was faced with the common dilemma of what to do next now that I was an “adult”. All I wanted to do was travel (well I guess not much has changed there!) but the only problem was I had no money and a ton of student loans to pay back. So teaching English was the obvious solution. It would allow me to spend a year immersed in another culture and give me easy access to exploring a foreign land.
I was nervous about taking on this adventure alone but the thought of not going was just too depressing. I’d rather go alone than not at all, despite my fears of traveling the globe all by myself. Besides, I’ve always been very independent and not one to sit around waiting for that perfect moment.
As I finished up my degree, I applied to various schools in Japan. Before I knew it was I was on a plane heading west to a continent and country I’d never been to and knew little about.
It wasn’t until my plane was on its final approach to Tokyo’s Narita Airport that the full weight of what I was about to do dawned on me and the fear set in. I was on the other side of the world, alone, in a country that didn’t speak English (and I definitely didn’t speak Japanese), and I was going to spend a whole year here?! Fear began to wash over me and take hold as I thought up every possible, horrible scenario of how things were about to go horribly wrong.
What if my school didn’t show up at the airport to pick me up? What if I was kidnapped? What if this was all a scam and I’d be stuck in this foreign land alone? Who would I call? Could I even call anyone? I didn’t know how to work a Japanese phone!
But there was no backing out now. It was too late, I was already here and would be forced to face my fears in a foreign land. I took a few deep breaths as I tried to clear my head and make a game plan.
I still had my connecting flight to Nagoya Airport where I would be picked up by a representative from my school. After that I would be driven 2 hours to my new home in the town of Iwata, which I’d be sharing with other foreign teachers like myself. Knowing that I’d be with other Canadians and Australians gave me comfort so I focused on that. They were the familiar in a completely alien world and that’s what I needed.
As it turns out, when I arrived in Nagoya, there was no one there to pick me up! I waited for about half an hour, scared out of my mind that my worst fears were coming true. The school had given me a contact number for the person who would be picking me up so I exchanged some money and somehow figured out how to work a Japanese pay phone (to this day, I have no idea how I managed that!).
The man on the other end of the line was apologetic and sounding slightly out of breath. He assured me he would be there momentarily. With great skepticism I hung up and waited, planning my next move if this turned out to be some kind of hoax.
To my surprise (and relief!) about 5 min later a red faced, out of breath, Japanese man came running up to me holding a sign with the name of the school, my name and my photo printed on it. The poor fellow had been waiting for me all this time in the wrong terminal! The airline had made a last minute change, unbeknownst to my new Japanese friend, and requested I go through customs in Tokyo. This meant that my flight to Nagoya had been domestic rather than international, as originally planned.
The rest of my travels to my new home went off without a hitch and I spent a wonderful year teaching English and exploring the land of the rising sun.
When my time abroad came to a close, I returned home with a new found confidence and sense of empowerment. I had moved to a foreign land alone, I had traveled within that country alone and if I could do that, I could do anything! I felt so empowered and confident in myself and my abilities.
“The brave may not live forever, but the cautious never live at all.”
– The Princess Diaries –
Because I’ve made the decision to not let my fears control me, I’ve had the most amazing adventures! I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like, and who I would be today had I not spent a year living abroad.
Succumbing to my fear of heights would mean that I would never have gone zip-lining in Honduras. I would never have gone rappelling down waterfalls in Costa Rica. I would have missed out on ice climbing in Iceland (amazing by the way!). I would never have tried snowboard paragliding off the top of a mountain in the Canadian Rockies.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that I’m not as afraid any more. I still get scared when peering over the edge of a cliff and vertigo still affects me at times but overall, I’m much more comfortable with heights.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”
– Jack Canfield –
I still horseback ride but now I’m known as “the girl who rides the wild ones”! I actually love riding the more spirited, strong and sometimes slightly misbehaving equines as I find them to be more of a challenge. A few years ago I even received an award from my riding coach labeling me the “Most Confident And Fearless Rider.” My how times have changed!
Travel and a sense of adventure are what have pushed me to take on these activities in the first place, despite any fears that may have been lingering in the background. I want to experience the world but the world can be a scary place. It all comes down to a choice: let fear control you or make the decision to face your fears and not let anything stand in your way.
“Fear doesn’t prevent death but it certainly prevents life.”
– Darren Hardy –