Fear This! (But Laugh)

What was once feared and is laughed at is no longer a master.

bowling!I signed up for a webinar the other day. It was on “Practicing Safe Stress: How to Transition through Life’s Changes with Humor,” and featured Mark Gorkin – “The Stress Doc.”

Gorkin points out that laughter keeps us moving through stressful times and helps us cope and emerge on the other side with fewer battle scars. He likes to twist his phrasing around, too: “What was once feared and is now mastered can be laughed at.” I reckon you can choose whichever perspective fits your mood or your situation. Flexibility. It’s a big part of practicing safe stress.

So I think the doc’s coined a pretty true statement. Not that I feared “webinars,” but I’d never signed up for or navigated one online at home. It was something new, different, unknown. Even though I didn’t fear it, exactly, I get what he means by those two thoughts.

First, what we fear but do anyway leads to a comfort that allows us to laugh at the fear after the fact. And finding humor in that journey – poking fun at ourselves – is a great way to keep us real and grounded yet light on our feet. We’re more flexible when we can laugh at ourselves once we’ve mastered the lesson.

Second, what we once feared but now laugh at loses its mastery over us. Boy, do I like that thought! Let me put that into action for you. I bowl. I’m not bad but I’m no expert. I maintain a decent 133 average in league bowling (our team’s currently second; none of us is too sure how that happened).

A year and a half ago, though, I’d never lifted a bowling ball. That’s right, not even for fun and giggles. I had NO idea how to hold it or how to throw it, where to stand, how many steps to take, where to aim. Nothing. Nada.

My birthday party that year was a bowling party, courtesy of my friends. Did I bowl? No. I was too fearful of making a complete fool of myself. I’m sure I came up with some excuse – I believe it had to do plantar fasciitis. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, telling a friend who had never bowled that, “how can you ever learn if you don’t try? It’s all in fun anyway,” while I watched everyone else bowl.

Hypocrite! Oh, yes, I saw the irony. All I know is that, while I had a good time, I didn’t have a great time. And all along I was wishing that I could overcome the fear of being bad at bowling just so I would have felt a part of the group. Guess I didn’t blow out all the candles when I made that wish. Sad, isn’t it?

I realize it begs the question of how I managed to join a league and bowl in public the following year. Seriously. My greatest fear is looking like an idiot. It’s true: I carry around a “must be seen as” need (I must be seen as competent … smart … expert.) Turn that around and you realize that I fear being seen as incapable, unskilled, or dumb. I mean, it’s BOWLING, folks!

So I freely admit that I like to be competent at something before I do it in front of people … even as I realize that’s a crazy, self-limiting belief. It doesn’t make it seem any less real, however. (I think I’ve chased it down to a Second Grade Christmas pageant audition when my voice broke and everyone laughed. I didn’t sing in public for the next seven years, unless forced.)

But (and this is key), I finally forced myself to push through the fear of looking like a fool. I just did it. I started bowling. I bought a ball. Charlie helped me learn a little bit. And it was scary and it wasn’t easy. I used laughter like a protective shield – if I laughed at myself first, then anyone else who laughed must be laughing with me, not at me. It was my coping mechanism. And it helped me jump into the fray and join the league.

After about six months of league bowling, I discovered an interesting thing: as I continued to push through the fear, my need to deploy the “I laugh first so your laughter can’t hurt me” defense system waned. Then one day I told Charlie about my fear (yes, it took that long), and connected it back to the Second Grade Incident. I actually saw how ludicrous it was and I laughed out loud. You know what? That fear no longer has any mastery over me.

Obviously, I learned a few good lessons from bowling. One, there’s a skill level that’s needed along with good equipment, and a color-coordinated bowling bag is a must (along with cool shoes.) The biggest lesson, though, was what Mark Gorkin paraded before my eyes the other day at my first-ever webinar – what we once feared but now laugh at loses its mastery over us. So true. Thanks, Stress Doc, for reminding me.

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