What Scuba Diving Taught Me About Facing Fears
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." -Anais Nin
"Jesus...how did Don convince you to do that?"
This was my best friend's exact text when I told her I was on the way to my first scuba class. Understandably. My entire life I was petrified of sharks (cliché, I know). Or really any sea creature that would, I assumed, want to latch onto me and kill me in whatever ocean/lake/river/pool I happened to be swimming in.
I'm a very rational thinker, obviously.
So the fact my fiancé had persuaded me to get certified in diving was, indeed, an enormous feat. How did he do that?
What surprised me was how quickly those life long fears took a backseat to my biggest battle—breathing underwater. I despised the mask, I hated not being able to inhale through my nose and I was convinced I wasn't getting enough air through my regulator. At one point I wanted to cry and walk out of the pool class. Somehow, I resisted the urge, put on my big girl wetsuit and continued to flail around, ungracefully performing every required "skill" for the instructor.
I'm pretty sure my fellow classmates worried for my safety were I ever to actually make it to the ocean. Fortunately, Don had more faith in me than they—or I—did.
Fast forward two months to a small boat off the island of Cozumel. I had waited to reach warm clear water to complete my certification (adios, freezing North Pacific Ocean!). After anxiously gearing up, I clumsily back rolled off the edge of the boat, losing my mask in the process. Off to a great start! I replaced it and attempted to descend only to find myself panicking the moment my face was submerged.
You can't breathe under there, you can't breathe under there, screamed every part of my body.
I visualized telling my instructor, Javier, that I couldn't do this and that everyone else can go have fun while I stay safely on the boat. I didn't care about the money and time I had already spent, I'd just call it a loss! NBD. SURVIVAL, right?
Fortunately, Javier interrupted my train of thought when he firmly stated, "Sometimes it's okay to face our fears!"
His words emboldened me to try again. I had to let go of my negative thoughts, trust the equipment and take the plunge. Breathing deeply and slowly (and equalizing often!) I made my way to the ocean floor.
The fear was gone. It was absolutely peaceful and magical, and quite literally opened up a whole new world for me. I spent the next two days swimming amongst sea turtles, stingrays—and yes, even sharks. None of which tried to kill me.
Looking back, I realized the important steps for overcoming any fear-based obstacle:
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
Courage isn't the absence of fear, but the strength to face the fear. I found it helpful, even, to tell others about my apprehensions so they could pull for me. Often, they'd offer helpful advice or comfort me with stories of others who had the same initial struggles.
2. Figure Out What You're Really Afraid Of
It might not be what you think.
3. Don't Underestimate Your Abilities
Like Eleanor Roosevelt wisely said, "You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face...You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
NEVER in my life did I think I would be capable of scuba diving. I proved myself wrong.
4. Let Go of Thoughts That Don't Make You Strong
In other words, drop the negativity. Negativity, after all, is just an extension of our fears—it focuses on our doubts and our assumptions that things will go wrong.
5. Be Kind to Yourself
Another gem from Javier. When practicing our scuba skills, he made sure to tell us to be patient with ourselves and never feel hurried or rushed—that only amplifies the anxiety.
6. Remember What You'll Gain
During my ocean adaptation, I thought often of Anais Nin's words, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."
I wondered what other worlds would reveal themselves if I lived a less afraid life—what other adventures I could take or opportunities would arise if I no longer told myself no.