I used to be terrified of traveling. I would dread family vacations all summer. Thankfully, I had parents who understood, and my Dad would plan the trips to be as routine and comfortable as possible. He knew that going on these trips was like climbing a mountain for me, so he tried to create valleys and rest stops along the way.
My husband and I recently booked a trip to Disney, and I realized I didn’t dread these trips anymore. I still have enough anxiety about them to add some valleys and rest stops for myself, but I understand the difference between excited jitters and true fear now. I have climbed enough mountains to know what I can handle and what may be too much for me at this stage in my growth. I can go to Disney, but admittedly a road trip across the country or a long flight to Europe won’t be on my to-do list until I’ve worked on those fears.
At times, these limitations can make me feel weak, but I have to remind myself that no one runs a marathon without training first. Every time I do something out of my comfort zone, I am pushing myself a little farther and a little longer so that, one day, I can run the marathon.
Every success adds to my list of victories that I can cling to when I try something new. I remember what it feels like to pass the finish line, full of relief and confidence, and I know that I can do hard things.
In my last post, I wrote about the importance of moving closer to our fears rather than avoiding them. After we move closer, we can stay a little longer until we feel safe. While not all fears can be addressed this way, we can do this to gradually grow more comfortable near the things we fear. We run one extra mile at a time. When we feel uncomfortable, we stay in the discomfort for a little while until we feel safe, then we go back to our comfort zone.
As I was talking with my mom about this, she reminded me of one of the most important parts of this process: taking your time.
When you’re learning to swim, you don’t dive into the deep end of the pool. That would only set you up for failure. You start at the steps and wade in the shallow water for a little while. When you are comfortable there, you go a little deeper–you either move closer, or you stay a little longer in the place that felt uncomfortable the first time.
The goal is to build up good experiences around the things we fear. If we jump directly into discomfort, we will only confirm to ourselves how terrible it is. Instead, we move closer just to the point of mild discomfort, stay until we feel calm, then go back to our comfort zone.
The same principle applies to a practice some therapists use called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. It’s a strange but helpful experience if you are ever offered it. It uses the same “move closer, stay longer” idea but with your thoughts. Instead of physically moving towards your fears, you practice thinking about them in a safe place. When you feel a little uncomfortable, you go back to safe thoughts.
Whether your are moving closer with your body or your thoughts, it’s important to go back to your comfort zone. This isn’t a failure. It is a reward that triggers good feelings about the thing you once feared.
This feeling of growth can be addicting. Whenever I face a fear, I realize that I am capable of more than I thought, and I begin to wonder what else I can do. If I can fly to Colorado for my honeymoon, maybe one day I can go to Europe. If I can bike six miles, maybe I can bike nine. If I can teach a class of twenty-five, maybe I can speak for a congregation or a school.
By taking these baby steps, we gradually become stronger and bolder.
This always makes me think of the movie What About Bob starring Bill Murray. Bob is an extreme hypochondriac who has always been almost too relatable to me. His therapist tells gives him a book called Baby Steps to help him. Instead of reading the book, Bob just begins taking baby steps towards his fears.
It’s supposed to be funny, but I also think Bob subconsciously knew what he needed. He didn’t need to read the book. He just needed someone to show him that recovery was possible, and it was up to him to take those small steps towards growth.
Counterintuitively, this is why I will always recommend therapy. Therapy, at its minimum, is a reminder that there is a solution to the problems we face. Our fears are not unique. We can work on them in the same way we can work on our diets or our exercise routines. It’s not easy, and it takes time, but it is possible.
In many ways, that’s why I write this blog: to remind you, and myself, that anything is possible when we take one small step at a time.