When I was a teenager, I was shy, fearful, and self-conscious like many kids at that age are. I hated drawing attention to myself. I just wanted to blend in. I hated trying anything new.
Trying something new meant I would be unsure of myself (even more unsure of myself than I already was). It meant that I might fail. I might look stupid. I might embarrass myself. I might need to ask a question. I most definitely would feel vulnerable. This was too high a risk for my young teenage self.
So I gave myself the freedom to avoid those situations at all costs. This seemed like a wise decision. I remember feeling a great liberation in the fact that I could choose to avoid being uncomfortable. This would be a vast improvement in my life. This would drastically reduce the number of butterflies in my stomach that I would have to endure.
The Freedom of Saying No
I said no to roller coasters. I said no to water tubing and water skiing. I said no to snow skiing. I said no to dancing. I said no to anything that would induce anxiety in my stomach and panic in my mind.
At first, it felt great. It thrilled me to reduce my discomfort of going through life. I felt safe and secure in not unnecessarily adding anxiety or embarrassment to myself.
Then somewhere along the way, I got bored.
Not only was I bored, but I was boring to be around. I didn’t want to try anything new. I was a wallflower. A stick in the mud. And I was quickly becoming a recluse. People stopped asking me to do anything because I always said no.
And soon enough, the anxiety and discomfort I was trying to avoid made a comeback. It began creeping into the most benign situations because I had no practice in how to handle them.
It was becoming painfully clear that I could not avoid discomfort simply by not trying anything new. This was not the wise choice of living I had originally thought it would be.
Trying New Things Is Worth The Risk
Trying new things is scary. It’s hard. It’s risky. But it’s also how we grow. It’s how we learn. It’s how we decide what we like and what we don’t like. It’s how we get better at being uncomfortable.
The older we get the easier it is to stay in our comfort zone. The harder it is to put ourselves out there and take a risk. But the research shows that people who try new things live the happiest and healthiest lives.
Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus writes for CNN about the benefits of learning and trying new things.
As Aristotle realized, there is a difference between the pleasures of the moment (hedonia), and the satisfaction that comes from constantly developing and living one’s life to the fullest (eudaimonia). In recent years, scientists have finally begun to study eudaimonia. Research suggests that the greater sense of purpose and personal growth associated with eudaimonia correlates with lower cortisol levels, better immune function, and more efficient sleep.
It makes sense that our health would be positively impacted with new experiences. The brain is being stimulated which is what it was designed to do. A happy brain makes a happy body. There is a synergistic relationship between the two.
“When you seek novelty, several things are going on. First of all, you are creating new synaptic connections with every new activity you engage in. These connections build on each other, increasing your neural activity, creating more connections to build on other connections — learning is taking place.”
Learning new things is fun and exhilarating. It provides a sense of accomplishment and well being. When you become someone who tries new things, more opportunities open up for you.
When I grew out of my reclusive teenage ways and decided to try new things, I discovered a world of opportunities that I had been missing out on. I learned that with a little effort, I could develop new skills and even have fun in the process. This quote from the psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the godfather of flow, describes the positive character of learning new things in this way:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
While trying new things can be stressful and fear inducing, humbling and humiliating, the rewards we reap when we get to the other side far outweigh the risks.
So how do we let go of our egos and put ourselves out there? How do we let go of fear and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable?
Here’s a few things I have learned to help make trying new things easier and more regular practice.
Let the new thing be its own thing
As we get older and more resistant to change, we try to make new things familiar by wanting them to be like something we already know. We do this when change comes and we aren’t ready for it. We cling to the old way and we are miserable with the new way simply because it’s different.
This happens a lot in my industry with editing software. An Avid editor tries to learn Adobe Premiere and she wants it to act like Avid. She tries to use it the same way she uses Avid. She doesn’t try to see Premiere as a new and separate program. It’s akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
It’s much easier when we accept the new thing as its own thing and let it be new. In doing this, we get to see the true value of this new option and all that is has to offer us. Rather than quickly trying to label good or bad, we see it as different and open our minds to new opportunities.
Anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin
Anxiety and nervousness are created in the brain. So is excitement and exhilaration. Ever notice that all these feelings show up the same way in the body? Whether you are nervous or excited, you get butterflies in the stomach and sweaty palms. You get fidgety and your hands shake and your leg twitches. You pace back and forth. You feel energy and adrenaline coursing through your veins. You could be getting ready to make a presentation in front of a crowd or you could be standing in line with front row tickets to see your favorite band play. The former you would characterize as nervousness while the latter you would call excitement. But the body interprets both situations the same.
This just shows us that the brain is creating the story we tell ourselves and it has nothing to do with the new thing itself. In fact, once you do the new thing for a while, those feelings decrease or go away completely. Why? Because it’s not new anymore and we know what to expect. The feelings aren’t inherent to the new activity. The feelings are created in our own mind based on imagined circumstances or situations.
Bringing awareness to this fact helps to create space around it and makes it more manageable. We can understand that the feelings are there but we don’t have to identify with them. We don’t have to be owned by them. Meditation is a great tool for harnessing this awareness and creating the space we need around these volatile feelings.
Break it down into manageable parts
Our nerves get the best of us when we let them run wild and believe the stories the mind makes up. The mind goes into the future and it projects all the ways that we could screw up, humiliate ourselves, look stupid, or get hurt, physically or emotionally. We get ahead of ourselves and this takes us out of the moment.
The best way to manage future mind is to bring it back to the present and give it something to do. Breaking a task down into manageable steps is one way to keep the mind grounded in the present.
I recently signed up for a Tough Mudder obstacle course race. I signed up not really knowing what I was getting myself into. When I looked at the videos of the obstacles online, I began to panic. There were lots of walls to climb and monkey bars and rings to traverse. I am terrible at pull-ups and my grip strength is weak. I could feel the anxiety and fears bubbling up inside of me.
Rather than let fear paralyze me, I put myself to work. I found a 30-day online training program on the Tough Mudder site. I did the daily training sessions, and I completed the pull-up and chin-up training that was recommended twice a week. These sessions were manageable steps that would occupy my mind while also easing the anxiety because I was preparing myself for the race.
When race day arrived, the nerves came up. I reminded myself that nervousness is the same as excitement and I would have a fun day. When my mind began to run off with thoughts of failure and injury, I focused it back on my breath. I stayed present with the current task, whether it was running to the next obstacle or focusing on the obstacle in front of me. I didn’t think ahead to the next obstacle or worry about how many there were to go. I focused only on what was in front of me.
Any new activity or skill has a technique to learn that can be broken down into parts. These parts are what you focus on rather than the outcome or goal.
When Michael Phelps competed in the Beijing Olympics, he had to do just this. In the 200-meter butterfly race, his goggles began filling with water the moment he dove in. Michael recalls the race in an interview with CBS News ,
“They started filling up more and more and more. And about 75 meters left in the race, I could see nothing. I couldn’t see the black line. I couldn’t see the T. I couldn’t see anything. I was purely going by stroke count. And I couldn’t take my goggles off because they were underneath two swim caps.”
He counted strokes. He had never swum blind, but he knew the steps were the same whether or not he was seeing. He won the gold medal in that race and broke the world record. He wasn’t focusing on what was going wrong or what the outcome would be. He was simply focusing on the task at hand, the present moment.
This is how we keep the mind from running away into the stories. The outcome isn’t the focus. The focus is the technique or the small manageable steps necessary to move forward.
Practice Voluntary Discomfort
The Stoics have touted the benefits of practicing voluntary discomfort for hundreds of years. The idea is that we should regularly do things that make us uncomfortable so we get used to the feeling of discomfort. This can be things like taking a cold shower, doing strenuous exercise, sleeping on the floor, anything that takes us out of our comfort zone.
This is great practice for getting used to being uncomfortable. The more we practice, the less anxiety and fear we have over trying new things. When you are practiced at being uncomfortable, the fear doesn’t arise as much. And when it does arise, it doesn’t take hold in the same way because you’ve built up your tolerance.
So the next time you try something new and you feel anxious about it, remember that anxiety and excitement are two sides of the same coin.
Remember to let the new thing be new without trying to make it something else.
Remember to break it down into manageable steps to keep the mind occupied and focused on the present.
And in the meantime, practice some voluntary discomfort so your fears won’t be so intimidating.
Want a happier life? Click here for my Happiness in Training Starter Kit to get your practice started today.
Debby Germino is a freelance tv/film editor who enjoys writing about mindfulness, health, and strategies for happier living. She writes a bi-weekly newsletter and is open to comments and suggestions on any of these topics.