Breaking the Barrier of Fear

A little over a year ago, I began to take tennis lessons with some friends. The entire process took root when we signed up our sons for a summer tennis camp. They took to the sport like ducklings to water and we spent many summer afternoons watching them whack those little yellows balls across the net, into the net, and over the fences. Naturally after the summer camps morphed into after school clinics, the desire to pick up a racquet rubbed off on several of the mothers. Most had played in their youth either in high school or college and the personal urge to see if “we still had it” seemed to be a silent yet shared trait.

After purchasing the necessary equipment such as neoprene knee braces, ace bandages, band aids and a generous supply of “Biofreeze” for sore muscles, we all picked out our favorite demo racquet and headed to the court. And after a year, I can safely say we don’t stink anymore. Actually I’m proud to point out, as a group, we have become quite respectable, enough to participate with other players at our level. And this brings me to point of this blog. Getting together for a little rally is easy. There are no expectations and no pressure to win. We laugh at our mistakes and at our friend’s knowing we live to play another day. Matches, however, raised the stakes to the level most of us hadn’t experienced for several decades and the move wasn’t without angst.

Suddenly, the thought of missing an easy shot and disappointing a partner brought anxiety. When an unacceptable double fault occurred, you might hear the frustrated server blurt out an uncharacteristic expletive usually reserved for construction workers, not from a genteel lady who volunteered at their local church to teach Sunday school. And repeatedly hitting a ball into the net, well, let’s not even go there. The fact of the matter is, the shots we missed seemed to be what was remembered and not the shots that were successful. The irrational fear we were individually combating created the ridiculous paradox where we silently held ourselves responsible for any loss. The pressure of competition introduced the fear of failure. Failure of missing, fear of letting someone down, fear of doing poorly and the fear of not being good enough. Truth is, picking up the racquet and doing something out of our comfort zones  was the success story we should have focused on. We just didn’t see it that way at the time. It was an odd conundrum and one, a dear friend, struggled with more than most.

In reality, she was  and is a very good player. Her form is excellent and although she didn’t hit the ball overly hard, she had learned to place the ball exactly where the other players weren’t standing. Furthermore, she availed herself of every opportunity to improve her game. She wasn’t perfect but no one is. We all make mistakes but she was letting the crippling fear of making a mistake take the fun out of a sport she loved.

In trying to reassure her that her fears were unfounded, nothing I said could quite eradicate those feelings and I felt awful that her fear had become a living entity threatening her desire to continue. Then it hit me. Hard. I was guilty of the same crippling fear. For twelve years, I had been working and writing a book. The writing process had flowed easily but now, at the tweaking stage, the editing stage, the forward movement had completely stalled. I had to ask myself why. Why, after spending twelve years on it, was I backpedaling? Overall opinion had been generally positive and much of the criticism could be remedied with effort on my part. So why wasn’t I crossing the finish line? Why was I so afraid to go the distance?

The simple truth is we all have fear residing deep within us. Fear we won’t live up to expectations, fear of dissenting opinions, fear of not succeeding in our endeavors, fear that limits us, if we let it, to remain within our comfortable safe boundaries, never taking a chance or fulfilling a dream. Eventually, that fear becomes a living, breathing, controlling monster who thwarts our efforts to continue. At least, that is what I surmised.

Oddly enough, my theory was confirmed a few weeks later when our coach confessed to his irrational fear of handguns. Now, I’m not fond of handguns myself but he was overwhelmed with a paralyzing fear if he tried to simply pick one up. His friends liked to go to the target range and he had to create all sorts of creative excuses as to why he couldn’t join them. How could he explain at the mere mention of target practice his heart would begin to pound and he would break into a cold sweat. After awhile, the excuses he made were beginning to sound hollow even to his own ears. Then, he began to get angry. Fear of this magnitude was something with which he was not familiar and the notion of fear being in control of his emotions and not the other way around was unsettling and unacceptable. One day, he said, “Enough”. As he later described it, the first conscious step took every physical ounce of his being. By now the challenge to overcome this mental roadblock was as much tangible as it was psychological. But defeat it he did. Challenging his fear head on reduced the scope of its power. No longer under the thumb of an irrational phobia, he has since enjoyed several afternoons with his buddies at the shooting range.

I’m also delighted to report my friend is overcoming her anxiety as well and no longer worries about unimportant unattainable expectations. She has and always will put forth her best effort. Recognizing and accepting no one is perfect has brought a welcome measure of relief and she can enjoy the game she has come to love. No one is perfect…no one. If Serena Williams can miss a shot then so can she. As for me, fear of rejection will no longer be a deterrent for completing my book. Putting these thoughts in a blog and tossing them into the winds of the internet has been my way of breaking down the barrier blocking my path.

I know the fear of failure affects most of us in some form or another but it is my fervent wish the majority will resolve, at some deciding moment to inhale deeply, gird their proverbial loins and take that first courageous step, grab the offending fear demon by the collar and kick the undermining little bugger to the curbside.

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