A few evenings ago, when my broken and surgically repaired elbow had healed sufficiently to be able to turn the steering wheel, and I had already driven my car to physical therapy two days before without a problem, I still asked Tony to drive me to my next PT appointment, reminding him, “I don’t like to drive in the dark.” To myself I rationalized, I don’t see very well in the dark, so it’s not safe for me to drive at night.
Is it true that I don’t see as well as others at night? Possibly. Does that make it unsafe for me to drive at night, especially a short distance and not on any major roads and without much traffic? Most likely I would be just fine, just like any other time I have driven in the dark.
My anxiety about driving at night is, at its root, my self-doubt, however unfounded, that I will not be able to handle driving conditions in the dark. Perhaps much of my anxiety can be traced to a lack of self-confidence.
The connection was obvious with biking. I wanted to go on the bike trip of a lifetime—in New Zealand!—with my dad and Tony, so I was trying to make myself less anxious about biking by building my self-confidence that I had the skills to handle the bike. Thus we were practicing on the bike path. My plan was to then move on to gradually exposing myself to varied terrain and so that I could discover my ability to handle the speed of a downhill. Then I’d work on biking with traffic.
The day of the bike accident I had gotten comfortable on the flats and shifting gears. I was still practicing skills like taking a hand off the handlebar to signal, getting on and off the bike, and stopping and starting. We had reached a minor road crossing and I think there were no cars coming, but for some reason I came to a full stop. Maybe there had been a car passing on the road, or I was just being extra cautious. Instead of staying on my bike and starting up again as I crossed the empty road, I thought I’d just get off my bike, walk it across the road and restart on the bike path where there was no possibility of cars having to wait for me if I got the pedals wrong and had to figure out how to get going again. I am sure I would have been just fine if I had just decided to restart from where I was, cross the road, and keep going the last half mile to our car. Just like all the other starts had gone without incident, even if there were awkward moments.
Instead, I listened to the insecure voice that said, What if you can’t do it right? It’ll be safer if you just get off the bike. That’s when I attempted unsuccessfully to kick my leg over the bike, got tangled up, and went over sideways on the bike path, shattering part of my elbow.
Listening to my anxiety voice has kept me from many experiences, from reaching my full potential in many realms, and in that moment, cost me the very trip for which I was trying to prepare.
Lately I’ve been asking myself, what if, instead of listening to the voice of I’m not good enough, I found a way to trust myself? Or, rather, how do I learn to trust myself? Tony is no help in this respect. He naturally has confidence in himself in all kinds of situations. It’s like his nervous system is set to You got this! Everything will turn out great—enjoy the ride. Every time things turn out okay, even if it’s a near miss, he is building up more evidence in his mind for these confident beliefs. Thus he keeps going and improving his skills and meeting his expectations that he is capable. A positive self-fulfilling prophecy—a virtuous, rather than viscious, cycle.
My nervous system, on the other hand, is apparently set to I don’t know about this. What if I can’t do it? Terrible things might happen. This is terrifying. How many times have I looked at a rapid from shore and thought about the moves required and wondered if I could possibly make them? I might doubt myself on a rapid I am more than capable of negotiating and decide not to paddle it. Other times, I go ahead and paddle the rapid and make it to the bottom okay but even then, I often refuse to celebrate the success or do it again. Instead I am stuck on the near misses: the eddy I almost slid out of and into trouble or maybe the wave that caught me by surprise and nearly flipped me. Even though my own actions kept me safe: say I took a few hard strokes to get back in the eddy or I used my body to keep the boat upright, I still find myself thinking, That almost went terribly wrong. I told you it wasn’t safe for me to do this. I’m not risking that again. This is how I manage to build up evidence in my mind that I lack skills even when I’ve proven myself adept.
I know that in those moments of negative self-talk, I could remind myself, But it did not go wrong, and it was because of your skills that you were able to handle a difficult. See? You can do this, and if you keep practicing, you will continue to improve. If I can manage to believe it, I could tell myself, Go ahead, do it again—you’ll be glad you did!
Other times, I try something, but I can be so tentative, I make situations more dangerous for myself. I remember when I first got the mountain bike, my boyfriend at the time used to yell back up the hill to me, “Let go of the brakes. Speed is your friend.” I understood the physics, but I still didn’t want to let go of my death grip on the brakes.
Away from the situations, I dream of letting go of the brakes and experiencing thrill instead of terror in the face of speed. I want this for all parts of my life, not only outdoor sports. I want to confidently get back onto a highway in my car, knowing I am as safe a driver as anyone else. I want to return to the self-assurance I had in my writing from when I was a kid, when there wasn’t a voice interrupting my drafts to inform me what I’m writing is boring, unimportant, and stilted.
I think the key is the way I am collecting and evaluating evidence that would prove myself capable. If I were to celebrate my successes and let a whoop of triumph at the end of a rapid, or even a particularly well-written paragraph, that might break the vicious cycle of self-doubt and what I looked at as failures or near failures.
As much as I’ve wished for a do-over, there’s obviously no rewinding the tape to tell myself I could hop onto my bike and get it moving forward across the road, just as I’d practiced in the parking lot. No way to remedy all the pain and long road to healing that resulted from a small decision driven by lack of self-confidence. All I can do is remind myself next time that I have the skills and, possibly, to let go of the brakes. At the bottom of the hill or rapid or paragraph or highway off-ramp, I need to learn to pat myself on the back for what I’ve accomplished. Good job, you made it!