In my dream I am standing inside a large freight elevator. There are no handles on any of the walls of the car for me to hold on to. The elevator quickly lifts off and within seconds I can feel the car turning on its side and I realize we are now moving sideways. Like the elevator at the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, we are catapulted into the sky but, unlike Charlie’s magical ride, there is nothing keeping us floating through the air. It is abundantly clear that the elevator car is going to catapult to the ground imminently. I crawl into a tight ball in a corner of the car, obscuring my view of what is now a glass wall showcasing my death fall. I am desperate to hang on. I scream as I cower in fear. Every muscle in my body is tensed as I brace myself for the inevitable crash. I can feel the fear as my heart pounds out of my chest. And, just like that, it is over. I am awake.
I have suffered through this same nightmare for many years. When I awake and hazily readjust to reality, I have the consciousness and understanding to realize that my dream represents anxiety. It is an embodiment of all of my fears. However, while still asleep, the terror is so real as I experience the sheer panic that must occur when you realize that you have completely lost control and your life is nearing demise. I recognize that my dreams quite often serve as a processing tool for me, particularly as it relates to anxiety. As someone who grew up riddled with fear and terrified to step outside my comfort zone (which was about the size of a pin head), I am acutely aware of how crippling and life-altering anxiety can be. And, conversely, I also understand how liberating and exhilarating it can be to go beyond your self-imposed limits and attempt to push past your fears.
I shared last month that I had taken some giant steps towards conquering some of my fears by running my first 5K. it was an extraordinary experience for me because I had journeyed so far beyond my comfort zone that I wasn’t sure I would find my way back. But, of course I did. In fact, I located my zone, pulled in the guideposts a bit to tighten up the boundary and locked myself inside. Despite the tremendous satisfaction of having accomplished something so significant for myself, I quickly retreated back into my cave and sought safe harbor. Like a dog who jumps the fence and burns through all their energy running through the neighborhood, my venture outside my safe zone left me weak and spent. As I retreated back into my comfort cave, a small voice inside of me was yelling “Let me out!” desperate to taste the deliciousness of the freedom that comes from releasing yourself from the shackles of fear. But that voice is so quiet compared to the overpowering boom of the loud roar that reminds me of all that scares me and limits me – a voice that has been holding me back and imprisoning me for most of my life. I don’t recall ever extending an invitation to this voice but, alas, it has made itself at home and, despite my continued requests for its departure, it continues to overstay its welcome, keeping me caged, far too often, inside what has become my anxiety zone. No comfort comes from being trapped like that.
This past weekend, I challenged that big voice in my head once again and did something truly extraordinary for me. I completed my first mud run. It was the Dirty Girl run, a women-only event and certainly far less challenging than the Tough Mudder or even its mild stepchild, the Warrior Dash. However, it was a 5K with some challenging obstacles and a whole lot of mud. Typically, I’m not such a big fan of mud or any kind of dirt. I quickly rinse my feet off when I am out in my garden and they become covered in soil. I scrub my fingernails clean after mulching or digging up plants. I am not so comfortable with the muddy stuff. Yet, I agreed to do this race because I knew it would push me. I had no doubt that I would be hurled so far outside my zone and I knew, in the end, it would feel fantastic. I was confident that the pride and joy I would feel would be worth all the anxiety and torture I would face leading up to the day. I was ready to take one giant step way outside my comfort zone.
I handily finished the race alongside a group of awesome girlfriends who cheered me on every step of the way. A few of them were as apprehensive as me going into it and we each struggled with our discomfort for different reasons. Sure, we are all in our forties and worry about our bodies not being up to the task of completing some of the more challenging obstacles. We all had concerns about sustaining injuries and several of us had a few demons that we needed to meet head on in order to get through the event. Maybe it was concerns about not being able to run the full distance. Maybe it was the heights on some of the obstacles. Maybe it was not believing in our own strength to lift ourselves or hurl ourselves or maybe, like me, it was a deep fear of embarrassing myself. I didn’t want to feel ashamed. While I was terrified of climbing the rope wall and safely launching myself over the top to get down the other side, that was only the second hardest part of the day for me. Every rung that I pulled myself up, I tried not to look down and allow myself to succumb to my fear of heights. I felt so proud when I reached the top and rang the bell, indicating that I was ready to make my descent to firm ground. It was the three times that I fell backwards when trying to torpedo my not-so-lightweight-self over the increasingly higher horizontal logs that I started to feel the anxiety creep in. What would everyone think of me? Would my teammates grow frustrated at my inability to tackle the hurdles and become impatient as they waited and waited and waited for me to finally get over? What about the women behind me? The ones that were attempting to push me over the logs in order to free them up for their own attempts. I suspect, like me, they were focused on their own race and were enjoying the good will and camaraderie that comes in an event like this. And, all the while I was enjoying the female bonding, I was also so remarkably self-conscious and focused on pushing away the bad feelings that would typically corrupt a powerful experience like this. For the week leading up to the race, all I could think about was the day in 4th grade when I was walking home from school, proudly toting my legos in a bright yellow lemon-scented garbage bag (I thought this added a little pizzazz to the fact that I was bringing legos to school to play with at lunchtime) and another girl in my class came up behind me and started teasing me about my toys. She shamed me. She pointed out all the things I already knew was wrong with me. I was fat. I wore glasses. I was a full and complete nerd. And, to cap off my inadequacy, I brought legos to school in a lemon-scented garbage bag. This was entirely unacceptable to her and, while she was significantly smaller than me, she managed to knock the bag out of my hand, dumping the legos on the ground and then, while i was on my hands and knees picking up all the plastic pieces, she beat me until I was lying on the concrete, just blocks away from my house, bleeding and crying and vowing never to put myself in a position to be shamed ever again. Of course, my little 10 year-old self had no understanding of why this girl chose to beat me up. I had no insights into what was going on in her home that caused her to be such an angry bully. It never dawned on me that, perhaps, my willingness to be a free spirit and not conform to the societal norms was unsettling to her. My abandonment of the girl code which apparently clearly stated that you are not to bring legos to school in a lemon-scented garbage bag might simply have been just too much for her to handle. Instead, I looked inward and this, piled on top of all the other messages I was receiving, convinced me that I was a mistake – unqualified to be part of the herd. I stood out and I was branded. I couldn’t hack it like the other girls. I never was ever able to do a forward roll properly. (They always made me want to throw up). I was always the fattest girl when they weighed you in the gymnasium. I was the tallest, the ugliest, the shyest, the most awkward. At least, that is what I believed. And I was ashamed. I walked around, acutely aware of all the sideways glances in the playground. I tuned my frequency to the channel that played the voices of all the other children who endlessly teased and taunted me. And, as I grew older, I built a protective shell around me and escaped to a really, really small comfort zone that hopefully would prevent me from every having to experience such humiliation again.
Fast forward 35 years or so and I still carry around this baggage but the packaging looks very different. While I still struggle with fitting into the social constructs that exist with many women, I focus far less energy on worrying about that and, instead, my fear now showcases itself in much bigger frames. However, while I still often reside safely inside my zone, I take risks and press on the walls a bit seeing if I can push the boundaries just a tad. I recognize, as I go along on my journey of healing myself, that my comfort zone was created in order to keep me sane. It was a survival mechanism. After all, there is only so much one person can tolerate. Without the love and support I so desperately needed at home, how could I possibly endure the abuse from the outside world? My foundation was quicksand. I was sinking faster than I could swim. The ground was swallowing me up so I had to do whatever I could to grab a life-preserver. My comfort zone became that mechanism for me. However, as is often the case with these protective shields we build around ourselves, we sometimes miss the cues that indicate we no longer need them.
When I was in high school, I went with my friends to the Marriott Marquis hotel in New York City. The hotel is widely known for its amazing glass elevators that swiftly carry passengers dozens of floors in an instant. My friends were all excited for the thrill of that ride up to the lounge on the 48th floor and I was secretly dreading it. I was terrified. My fear of heights coupled with my fear of elevators (and my fear of pretty much everything at the time) was crippling me. But I was almost equally afraid to stand apart and not fit in with the rest of my friends that I could not admit how terrified I was. Yes, I acknowledged that I was afraid of heights. There was no way to keep that secret safe when I avoided going on roller coasters and thrill rides when we went to Six Flags or other theme parks. I told them I was a bit apprehensive about going in the elevator but I knew I had no choice. I simply closed my eyes, awash in anxiety and tolerated the ride. My friends were great about trying to comfort me but I hated every second of it and thought I would never live to see the doors open. In contrast, last month, I was with a group of friends in Philadelphia and we had to ride up to a restaurant that was on the 35th floor of a hotel. This time the elevator was enclosed but it was really fast. And, this time, I was not the one huddled in the corner overwhelmed with fear. It was one of my friends. I rubbed her back and talked her through it. She was deeply panicked and I understood her pain. And then, just a few weeks ago I was with my best friend in Kansas City. We were riding the glass elevator in my hotel and I shared with him my story about the Marriott in New York City. I couldn’t help but marvel at how much had changed as I peered out the window watching us swiftly lifted up to the 7th floor (far less intimidating, for sure), enjoying the view down below. Perhaps it was time for me to shed this cloak of fear that I still wore. It no longer fit.
Yes, indeed, my comfort zone is getting larger and I no longer have the terrifying dream about the falling elevator car. I feel much safer and more confident about myself and my abilities. But, there are still so many deep-rooted anxieties that burden me. And, I commit myself to continue tackling them. I am currently a co-founder of a start-up company and we are just beginning our funding process. I am staring down the barrel of a gun because I have to step so far outside my comfort zone when I sit before potential investors and ask them to take a gamble on me. It runs up against everything I have always believed about myself. I now have to convince them that I am worthy of investing in when I have spent most of my life believing the complete opposite. Of course, they are not just betting on me, they are betting on my partners, our product and our business model and, yet, I still want to throw up when I think about these investor discussions. Suddenly, all my shame is on display with neon lights highlighting every one of my deep-rooted insecurities. But, as my friend reminded me this afternoon, once I identify this apprehension – this fear of dipping my toe in the waters of the uncomfortable zone – I hit the gas pedal to try to speed past my discomfort and carve out a new road that feels a bit smoother and, while unfamiliar, much more safe.
Every day, I get more comfortable with being uncomfortable and every day I face these fears. There are certainly more mud runs in my future and lots more opportunities to jump my personal hurdles. And, hopefully, I will never be back inside that elevator in my dreams again. What I know to be true, without a shadow of a doubt, is that everything magical that happens in life is happening far outside your comfort zone.