I am terrified of flying. I know that a fear of flying is not rational (it’s statistically safer than driving, and blah, blah, blah), so for a person who considers herself extremely rational, I am also FRUSTRATED with myself for my fear of flying.
It wasn’t always this way. 20 years ago, I loved flying. I loved adventure and the feeling of being able to go anywhere in the world. And I enjoyed the flight itself. I actually considered a career in flight at one time.
This all changed when my daughter was born. I guess my survival brain kicked into overdrive when I became responsible for another human life. So I have been managing a growing phobia of flying for over a decade now. This is why, not too long ago, on a very cold, snowy day, deep in the Canadian winter, I found myself at a small airport (after a very harrowing drive), half-hoping that my afternoon flight would be cancelled.
I could feel the fear in my chest: the tightness, the racing heartbeat, the shallow breathing, the weight and pressure around my sternum. And my limbs, especially my feet, felt weightless, like they were hollow. I scanned the faces of the other passengers to see if I could detect any sign of discomfort. I practiced my mantra, “feel the fear and do it anyway”, but it wasn’t helping much.
I boarded the very delayed flight. Walking out on the tarmac towards the little plane, the wind and freezing temperature almost toppled me. We sat on the plane in the frigid weather while they applied the de-icer to the wings. Although I was busy with my mantra, I couldn’t help thinking that there was no way they would allow the plane to actually take off in these conditions. That’s when the plane started to move. At this point, I was near panic-level terror as we started to taxi down the runway and the pilot forced a take-off into gale-force winds. My right hand, without really much conscious awareness, started to flex reactively, like it was trying channel my panic through my fingertips.
And then we were in the air. The panic started to subside to mere terror as the turbulence gradually decreased through our ascent. As my survival brain became assured that we wouldn’t die in take-off, an interesting thing happened. About 20 minutes into the flight, I started thinking about courage, and how courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act in the face of fear. Although I think a lot about courage (particularly when I am flying), what had never occurred to me before is that people who are able to face their fears and do scary things anyway, are actually very strong. This thought struck me because somewhere deep below my conscious thought, I must have been thinking that being scared was the same as being weak.
The Relationship Between Fear and Shame
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I had this unconscious mental ‘tape’, or belief, playing in the background, given how our culture likes to ridicule people for being scared (think back to the school playground), and glorify people who don’t appear to feel fear (think of any superhero story, ever). But I guess what was surprising is that I had never realized that I had this tape playing in the background of MY mind. And what was really interesting is that, as soon as I had the thought that strong people feel their fears and don’t resist them, I started to feel relief. Relief from the shame. I was starting to pick away at the blanket of shame that I had wrapped around my fear.
I started to experiment with different thoughts and tried “I can feel fear BECAUSE I am strong.” Then, I tried “I am emotionally resilient. I can feel feelings”. Quite suddenly, an emotional gate opened and I felt exhilarated. Joy. Amazement. I felt like I was glowing from the inside out. It was fascinating to me that the key to this gate of exhilaration was acknowledging the fear. I wouldn’t have been able to enter exhilaration without the fear. Fear is the gatekeeper. And I wasn’t allowing myself to acknowledge or feel the fear because of the shame. As soon as I accepted the fear, and that it’s not shameful to feel it, the door to exhilaration opened.
Feeling Fear is Strength
I spent the rest of the short flight experimenting with feeling the fear and equating this practice with strength. The more I practiced, the more I came to believe that acknowledging the fear, and the shame, is strength. And the more that I believed that, the less hold that they had on me. The shame evaporated. Further amazing evidence for my brain that my thoughts create my feelings.
What I have learned is that the first step to passing through fear is to acknowledge that it is there. This sounds simple, but it is in fact, quite significant. Naming it allows you to bring up the shame. And it’s really the shame that has us stuck, not the fear.
Speaking About Shame
In order to build your ‘shame resilience’, Brene Brown, shame researcher and author of “Daring Greatly”, recommends that we recognize and understand our shame triggers with compassion; for example “I am afraid of flying, and it is ok for me to be afraid”. She also further recommends that we connect with others by owning and sharing our story, and by talking about how we feel and asking for what we need when we feel shame. These are things that I have been able to do with my coach.
If fear, or shame, is holding you back from achieving your dreams, a Life Coach can help. Connect with Kim today.