Overcoming Fear Paralysis (Or, How I Learned to Ride a Bike… Again)
As a kid, I never learned to ride a bike. I was embarrassed about this for a long time. Like the other things I was embarrassed about not knowing (like the names and locations of US states or the proper pronunciation of “caveat”)—I tried to hide it away.
I wouldn’t lie about it, but I wouldn’t try to learn either. If people started talking about bike riding, I would conveniently have to go to the bathroom or become suddenly interested in the patterns on my fingernails.
Inevitably, there came situations when I would not only have to admit my incompetence, but also openly refuse to learn. Some well-meaning person with a bike would stand in front of me saying, “Here, try it, it’s easy!” Right about then, with wandering eyes and gritted teeth, I’d come up with an excuse. It was always too dark or too light. I was always too tired or too wired. I was always too bloated or too busy.
But for a moment there, each time that the opportunity would present itself, I’d feel this horrible sinking feeling in my stomach. Regret. Disappointment. Failure.
Every time that I actively reinforced the reign of terror that fear instilled in my head, I’d lose a little bit of self-respect.
This wasn’t just about bike riding. This was my life. I tried to know everything, and I tried to hide everything I didn’t know. Every mistake and every shred of proof that I was, actually, not some sort of all-knowing deity was a blow to my ego. My ego took many blows.
About 5 years ago, by the side of a canal in Amsterdam, I ran out of excuses. After close to an hour of battling my fear-freeze response, I did it. Granted, I swerved in front of an angry motorist, never learned to turn, and only vaguely understood how and when to brake, but I did it. I rode a bike.
It was sensational and liberating. It was, I thought, the end of the story. I conquered my fear. That’s the end of the story, right?
For my ego, maybe. But in reality, it wasn’t even close.
A few weeks ago, our travels brought Jamie and I to Cumberland, BC. Inhabited by about 3600 of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, Cumberland is a former mining town whose mountain views and biking trails attract nature lovers from all over the world.
I never realized how deeply I love the mountains, and I never realized that a place which is virtually empty of human crime could still be dangerous at night (because of the cougar).
The cottage we’ve rented here comes with two bikes. People say, “It’s like riding a bike” to mean that something is easy. That was never an encouraging phrase to me. People also say, “Once you learn to ride a bike, you never forget.”
Well, I definitely forgot.
Right after that first time 5 years ago, I went right back to what I was doing before. I avoided the subject. I stayed away from bikes. The only thing that changed was my excuse: “Yeah, I know how. I just don’t want to.”
It’s not that I forgot how to ride the bike. It’s that I never really learned. I told myself that I had “faced my fear” but I hadn’t. I’d done it once, and once isn’t learning. Once is what you do when you just want to get people off your back. Once is an ego trip.
So there I was, last Thursday, wondering if the helmet really had to be so tight and seriously considering buying a foam cover for the seat. I was ready. Of course, I’d need some practice with turning and braking, but I’d be okay. Right?
Imagine my surprise when, just like 5 years before, my body became paralyzed with fear. Every time I tried to push the pedal (or, God forbid, both pedals), my entire body would seize up and refuse to move. Forget turning and braking, I couldn’t even move my legs.
This particular defense mechanism has haunted me for pretty much my entire life. Sudden noise? Freeze. Boy I like speaking to me? Freeze. Public speaking? Freeze. Sing or play a song I have practiced alone about 100 times in front of someone I’ve known for years? Freeze.
To say it’s been unhelpful would be an understatement.
I spent most of my young adult life self-medicating my fear paralysis, believing that I was confident and brave when I was really just high or drunk.
For the last three years, I’ve been trying to face my fears with an open heart and an alert mind. I really believed that once I conquered enough fears, I would stop freezing.
A cold bucket of reality came down upon me as I realized that it was happening again. Even though I’d already ridden a bike, I was paralyzed again. And, until I dealt with that, I wasn’t going anywhere.
I took a deep breath. I loosened my grip on the handlebars (which had left screaming red imprints on my palms).
I told myself, very firmly, that practice kills fear. I took a deep breath. I tried again.
I wish I could tell you some romantic story about how I rode off into the sunset. I didn’t. I had to try many, many times. Each time, the freeze response was a little less powerful.
Eventually, I cycled around the neighborhood for as long as I could until the adrenaline wore off and I realized that my hands were blistering and every part of me that had been in contact with the bike seat had turned into a giant bruise.
I did it, but I didn’t go home and cheer and say “I did it!” I practiced, but I wasn’t done yet. I still had to master braking, turning, and going uphill.
I’ve been practicing. I’m working on it.
I’m yet to tackle riding on a road with heavy traffic, and I still feel strange for the first 5 minutes after I get on the bike. But I’m learning, and I’m practicing, and I’ll get it.
There’s such a difference, I’ve realized, between genuinely overcoming a fear and facing it for show. There’s a huge difference between learning to do something that terrifies you and taking the first step towards doing something that terrifies you. The first step matters, but we have to keep going.
Once is just a start.
I’ve also come to terms with my paralysis reflex. Sure, freezing is not helpful. Useless, even. But you know what? I’m conquering it, but not by self-judgment and not all at once. I’m conquering it with patience and practice, situation by situation.
So maybe my freeze response is gone in social situations and maybe soon it will be gone with biking, but considering this bucket list I wrote a few days ago, freezing is in my future. I’m sure I’ll freeze when I learn to do a cartwheel. I’ll freeze when I learn to drive. I’ll freeze when I go skydiving.
But that’s fear. That’s my fear. That’s my experience of fear.
I am so done judging myself for how I fear, what I fear, and how I learn. Judgment is not my job. My job is to accept what I’m working with—to accept those fears, those reflexes, those tendencies—and to keep reaching for my highest potential with patience, dedication, and love.
And I am so done hiding what I don’t know. There’s a strange beauty about saying, “I don’t know.” It’s something I couldn’t say for most of my life because I would freeze at the thought of being wrong, making a mistake, or looking stupid.
I can do that now. And that took practice too.
I could easily do nothing about these fears. I could hide them. I could hide hiding them. I could tell you, if you got close enough to me, that I used to get hit for showing fear and punished for giving the wrong answers. And who wouldn’t forgive me? Who wouldn’t just let me live and die with all of those fears unfaced, unshown, unconquered?
I guess that’s what it’s really about. Overcoming fear isn’t just about practice and patience and perseverance. It’s also about something deeper. It’s about giving myself what I deserve, rather than just what I’m used to. It’s about love.
And sharing this with you—that’s about love too.
Keep that love going, my friend. ♥