Why I stopped saying “don’t be afraid.”
When I was in the seventh grade I was on the school gymnastics team. I loved competing and the social aspect of going to meets with my friends. Yet I had a love-hate relationship with the balance beam. The narrow board was fear-inducing but gratifying at the same time. When I completed my routine without falling, I felt victorious. Then my coach made the routine more difficult, challenging me to land a cartwheel on the beam. The harder the routine the better your chance was of achieving a high score.
I hated the new routine. I couldn’t land the cartwheel consistently. I developed bruises all over my legs from hitting the beam when I fell. Some attempts were great, and others were clumsy and messy.
I had mixed feelings of fear and excitement on the first day of our competition. I was eager to compete, but in the back of my mind, I didn’t know if I could land the cartwheel. My name was called, the gym fell silent, and I began my routine. My jumps and handstands were going beautifully, I was feeling good, and the time came for the cartwheel. I made a decision that I still think about today: I decided I wouldn’t attempt to land the cartwheel. Mid-movement, I purposely turned my hips and in a controlled manner landed on the mat. I gracefully got back on to the beam and completed my routine. I did this the entire season, every time I performed the beam routine.
I decided it would be better to purposely not complete the cartwheel versus trying and failing. We could argue that coming off the beam was a failure, but in my eyes, it was my way of controlling the mistake. It was my decision versus failing due to my lack of ability. I was terrified of looking stupid or clumsy if I fell.
I always scored well because I perfected the rest of the routine, but I never won first place. After an event, a judge approached me as I was getting my bag.
Judge: Can I ask you something?
Judge: You’re very good on the beam, why don’t you attempt the cartwheel?
Me: Because, I’m never sure if I can land it.
Judge: So what if you don’t, you’re not landing it anyways but at least you would try. Who knows, if you tried enough times you may start to land it.
And then she said this:
There is honor in trying and failing. Otherwise you always risk staying small.
Her words have stayed with me in so many ways. I still carry my 12-year-old fear around when attempting something new. I often see my own fear and insecurities around failure impact the way I parent.
I’ve considered parenting in phases. Each phase has joyful and precious moments but also specific challenges. For example, toddlers and preschoolers are energetic — you get to sit front row and observe them taking the world in through innocence and joy — but this phase of parenting is physically exhausting. They have endless energy, they need constant attention and it’s difficult to keep up.
In the teenage phase, the mirror gets held up to you. As my kids entered their teenage years and started coming into their own, I began to see my insecurities in them.
My daughter plays soccer and she too is competitive. A couple of years ago she was playing against a team that was physical and strong, requiring her to play a more physical game of soccer. While playing center forward, she ran toward the ball, saw the defender coming and stopped. She felt timid, uncertain of what the defender was going to do. Her coach yelled out, why did you stop?
After the game, we talked about what happened. “I know I should’ve kept running, but something came over me,” she said, “I stopped because I thought I’d look stupid if I went for the ball and got beat. I couldn’t anticipate what the defender was going to do.”
I had a lot of options in this moment. I could’ve said, “Don’t worry about what other people think, or how you’ll look. You can do it!”
But instead, I looked at her and saw my 12-year-old self coming off my beam routine. Fully realizing how my own fear of failing is still unresolved. I stopped myself from giving her the cheerleader speech of, you can do it!
Instead, I told her, I get it.
I went on to tell her the story of my failed attempt at the cartwheel in an effort to avoid looking stupid and falling. I went on to tell her that in adulthood I still have moments when I’ll say no to something, not because I don’t want to, but because the risk of failing is too big.
Instead of giving her advice, we made a pact. We would no longer say, don’t be afraid. Instead, we’d start working on getting comfortable with fear and figuring out how to proceed even in the face of it.
Olympic gold medalist and soccer great, Abby Wambach was recently being interviewed and she was asked about being fearless as a soccer player. Her words were amazing. “There is no such thing as being fearless” she said. “We constantly experience fear, you just get better at taking calculated risks.”
When our kids come to us afraid, instead of saying, don’t be afraid, or there’s nothing to be afraid of, frame fear in a different way. Let’s process fear, understand how uncomfortable we are with it and lean into the discomfort. Because ultimately, leaning into it has the potential to expand us in ways we can’t even imagine.