Adapted from a conversation I had with a friend about phobias. For background, I’ve been fighting acrophobia my entire life, and what got me started on the road to managing it was the youth program in the Civil Air Patrol.
The first time I went to encampment as an Aiman at 13 years old, we did high ropes courses, rappelling, and parachuting simulators besides. I got to the start of the ropes course, and it was a 3-rope walk (two at head height, one to walk on) 10 feet above a net, which itself was another 15 feet off the ground. The words of the Army sergeant on duty at that station were “Nobody’s going to make you do this, but if you don’t, you’ll hate yourself for the rest of your life.”
I probably stood there a good 3 minutes beyond that, holding up the line and earning the ire of my squadron’s first sergeant, an irritable teenager named Sergeant Ring. I eventually went out just because the only way back down was now crammed with cadets, and there was an exit the next tower over. I probably would’ve gotten rope burns on my hands if I hadn’t been wearing leather gloves, I was gripping the overhead lines so tightly. I don’t actually know how I managed to put one foot in front of the other enough times to get to the other side, but I did.
And then I found out that there wasn’t actually an exit on that tower, and I’d have to take a single-rope shimmy to the next station to get off. At that point, it was a matter of necessity. I knew the technique, and while I probably butchered it horribly, it got me across alive. I got off the towers at that point and spent the rest of the day sitting on the benches, watching the rest of my flight swing across the towers with a level of grace I’ll never attain as long as I live. But I’d done it. I was almost forced into doing it, but I’d done it.
Next up a few days later was rappelling. I figured “I did the ropes course, this has to be easier.” Nope. 40 feet looks a lot higher from the top looking down than the other way around. I’d done well enough on the training wall, which was 8 feet high, but this felt like another matter entirely. I managed to keep some semblance of composure backing up to the ledge, and even stepping down onto the 4x4 bar at the top of the wall. But when I leaned back and my butt was hanging over 4 stories of nothing, I lost it and loosened my grip too much. I slid on my rear a good 10 feet down the wall (since the front of my pelvis was anchored to a rope at the top of the wall), and probably would’ve slid a lot farther if my partner on belay on the ground hadn’t caught me. I got my feet on the wall again, and I was still terrified, but at that point I understood the terror. I recognized it, and the paralysis lost its hold. I walked down the wall just about like every other cadet that day, minus the undignified start.
At the end of the week, when we did the parachute simulator (which involves jumping from another 40 foot tower with bungee cords attached to your shoulders like parachute straps would be), I still felt the terror even then. But I managed to deal with it before I even got to the jump door, and when my turn was up, I had a few seconds of hesitation, and then out I went.
The point of this self-glorifying story is this: you can be more persistent than your fears. On an individual basis, it doesn’t matter whether you fail, or why you succeed. The first entry in that story up there was a success due to peer pressure more than any courage on my part. Each time you try, you have a chance to succeed, and each time you succeed, the next time will be easier. The fear will never go away, but you’ll learn to ignore it. There are few feelings in the world as powerful as the realization that you can control your fears, and they no longer control you.