How can I learn to be more adventurous when I find new things so frightening?

Eleanor Gordon-Smith
·4-min read

How can I learn to be more adventurous? I grew up in a family who didn’t take risks, and having a disabled sibling meant that much of my early life and activities were limited to things they could participate in. As a teenager, I suffered from acute homesickness and a fear of being away from home, which led to me being driven home multiple times from friends’ houses. It’s only in recent years my trips away from home haven’t been plagued by panic attacks. I now live with my partner of seven years, who has recently told me that he avoids suggesting activities to me because he knows I will say no. He wants me to be more adventurous and I want to be able to share experiences with him. How can I learn to do this when I find novel things so frightening?

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When I was a kid I got rinsed very badly by a breaking wave and lost my sense of which way was up. I swam and swam to what I thought was the surface and right when I was desperate for that first gasp of air, my fingers hit sand. I spent about 10 years after that feeling tense in the breakers. It wasn’t so bad that I wouldn’t swim, but I didn’t like it, my breath caught, I wasn’t a fun friend to splash around with. One day years later I tried to catch a wave, missed, and got slammed into the sand again. This time I didn’t mind. I don’t know what was different – I think I was thinking about something else when I felt my feet pick up behind me and I’d already completed the somersault by the time I remembered to be afraid. I had accidentally caught myself being fearless.

The psychoanalyst Gordon Livingstone says “feelings follow behaviour, not the other way around”. This was not the first time I have found him to be exasperatingly, infuriatingly right.

We know it’s a mistake to wait until you feel energetic before you go for a run, or motivated before you plan your projects.

It’s just as much a mistake to wait until you feel brave before taking a drumming class, signing up to try improv, talking to a stranger in a bar or abseiling. Not only would you be waiting a long time, you’d be subscribing to a backwards view of how people come to be the way they are. We develop traits by using them, and even one fleeting second of feeling fun when you expected fear can transform the way you see yourself. The point is that by doing the adventurous thing you teach yourself that you are the sort of person who can. The point is to have done the somersault by the time you remember to be afraid.

In the meantime, try not to beat yourself up. When you’re the one who doesn’t want to go swimming or would prefer to leave early, it’s easy to mentally amplify the voice of an imagined critic. “She’s so pitiful, why doesn’t she ever do anything?” Believe me; I was also a homesick child. But punishing self-talk like this actively sets back your goal: all it does is lock you into focusing on what you’re not, instead of training yourself to hope for what you could be.

And try very hard to stay away from real people who sound like that imagined critic. If there are people in your life who tease you a little too callously about being timid, here is a shield you can carry to stop them getting to you: you’ve had and overcome panic attacks, a condition that makes you literally feel like you’re about to die. What’s the most they’ve overcome? Being brave isn’t doing things that don’t scare you, it’s doing things even though they scare you.

Sometimes to learn a different way of feeling we have to start with a different way of acting. Start small. Go in the breakers.

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