Practising the art of Bravery
I think there's this fallacy we have in society around bravery.
Too many times I have heard people say 'oh I'm not like you, I can't do what you do, I'm not brave.'
Too many people seem to believe that being brave and strong, is about how tough you are. How fearless you can be. And if you're not those things, then you're not brave. Can't be brave. Might as well give up.
But that's not bravery. That's not it at all.
Bravery is not for people who aren't scared, it is for people who are scared shitless. So if you're someone who actually feels fear, who is paralysed by it, read on. This is for you.
Bravery is not something you have or don't have.
It's a choice. It's a learned behaviour. Some people don't have a choice - they literally have to be brave, and they learn in a hell of a hurry. They get cancer or life throws them a curve ball. And they have to be braveNo option. We all know people like this. But for everyone else - bravery is a choice. And you have to work for it.
So here's my dirty secret.
I know everyone thinks I'm this intrepid brave woman, who hikes around the world, with my children in tow, camps in the jungle and jumps off waterfalls. Who can do anything, be anything, and survive it all. I certainly try to be those things, but I know that along the way, a lot of people have come to think that I have some kind of power, some kind of strength, that allows me to do these things that other people feel they can't. So here's the truth. I don't have a secret super power. I'm actually scared. Of everything.
When I was a girl, I was terrified of pretty much anything you could possibly be scared of - to the point of full scale freak out. I had so many phobias I couldn't sleep, couldn't talk to people, could barely operate. And actually if I'm dead honest, not a whole lot has changed. I'm still scared of lots of things, all the time. I just have learned to be braver about them.
All that has changed is that now, I accept the fears.
For me, it all began with one of my biggest, earliest, most paralysing fears as a young girl. I was scared of the dark. I was so scared, I would have full scale panic attacks about being in the dark. I couldn't sleep I was so scared. I would lie awake for hours, rigid or shaking, whole body paralysed with fear of being crushed by the darkness. Of what lurked out there, waiting to hurt me. After a decade or so of this, I eventually thought, enough. I'd had enough. I was just sick of feeling scared all the time. And I didn't want this fear to follow me anymore. I wanted to be stronger than it, not destroyed by it every time the light disappeared.
So when I was about 12, I decided to start training myself to deal with my fear - by pushing my limits. I wanted to train myself to walk outside in the dark barefoot, so that being inside in the dark in my bedroom would feel easier. I thought - maybe if I do this enough, I'll get used to it and it will start to feel ok, and then once each stage got ok, I would push myself to the next stage. Every time I moved to a new stage, the first stage felt easier. But it was quite a process to get there.
Firstly, I began to practice just being in the dark. I practised just standing in the house in the dark, walking around the house, then eventually, standing at the back door, then stepping into the garden, then taking my shoes off, then walking the garden, then lying in it, then moving my whole routine out into the wild. I spent years gradually pushing myself further and further.
By the time I was 18, I was able to walk barefoot in the jungle, without a torch, and feel totally calm in the blinding darkness. I cut my feet, stood on snakes, got lost in the dark once, and collided into a wallaby another time. But I'm still here. It's not because I wasn't scared, it's because I chose to fight my fear head on and live in it and embrace it until it felt ok. Now my favourite place to be is in the dark in the wilderness, alone. It feels like a cozy blanket and makes me remember that I'm powerful. I very rarely feel afraid in the dark anymore. Even when I went camping at a beach known to be inhabited by cobras I just felt so at home and comfortable in the dark, I wasn't scared. In fact I have spent so many years practising walking by moonlight now, that given a choice I prefer to not use a torch. I can actually feel my way better in the dark.
And it wasn't just the dark I was scared of.
I used to be terrified of bugs and spiders to the point of being unable to sleep or even breathe if I knew there was a possibility of a cockroach or spider in my house. So again - early teenage years, I started training myself to pick up spiders, first with a broom, hands shaking, then eventually with my bare hands, and I'd just do it until I stopped shaking. I would find spiders and bugs and just hold them until they stopped feeling scary. Now I do it just because I can, because I love to connect with nature; and weirdly, animals in the wild will often let me touch them. I think they know I'm not scared and respect them, they know instinctively and that's why it's never caused me a problem.
When I was a girl, I was so terrified of heights I would refuse to climb mountains. I remember sitting for hours at the bottom of mountains while my family went hiking, because my fear of falling to my death was so great I couldn't even function being up high. I literally would not go up anywhere high. Even to this day I get sick and can feel awful over 10-20 metres. But I decided around age 10 or 11 to tackle this fear as best as I could, and forced myself to start cliff jumping. (And I mean, I was so terrified, you would not believe it). At age 15 I decided to take up rock climbing, and the fact that I can do any heights at all now, is really because of all the time I spent both rock climbing and then working as a rock climbing instructor, trying to get a grip on my fear. I would wait until I got high, make myself hang upside down and ask the person below to just let me hang while I got used to the feeling of helplessness/ powerlessness/ vulnerability/ terror. I still remember my first 3-pitch climb. I was with my mates Mandy and Steve, and about half way up the second pitch, maybe 50-60 metres up the cliff I had a full scale panic attack, and we had to wait for five minutes for it to pass. They couldn't believe it - you have frigging VERTIGO and you rock climb? Are you crazy?
The thing is though, the more I push myself, the easier it gets to do things that used to be hard. Then there are new things to be brave about. Homeschooling my kids for 2 years. Changing career. Letting go of relationships. Facing myself. Embracing responsibility. Uncertainty.
Being brave isn't this thing that you have or don't have, it's something you grow into by throwing yourself in the deep end, and forcing yourself to relax into the chaos, accepting it, embracing it, and realising that you can keep going. That even if you do drown, you'll be ok. Even drowning is a part of life: a slow beautiful dance with the ocean, a nourishing of the earth and a completion of life. There's beauty in everything, even disaster. And when you realise that, the fear can't own you ever again.
Bring on bravery.
That's how I'm raising my sons and if I had daughters, I would be teaching them the same. To face their fears head on with a grin. Don't ever think you need to be tough to be brave. Don't think you have to be anything different than what you are. Bravery does NOT comes from FEELING NO FEAR. It comes from accepting fear, and pushing into it. Pushing yourself body and mind, and relaxing into the fear until your head starts to believe your body. Meditation is very good at helping your mind cooperate in this. And for me, that's real bravery.
So here's to the many brave people - and women - and girls that I know and that I have known. We are all amazing.