I used to be a figure skater. Actually, a pretty good one. I started in Thailand, of all places, in the heat of the tropics. Sometimes the rink would have an inch of water on top of the ice but it didn’t matter because I loved skating more than anything. I had a Russian coach who was tough and who pushed me, but also told me I could be the next Tara Lipinski if I wanted to be. At one point, that’s what I wanted.
But then we moved to the states and I lost my love of the sport. Everything changed. Ice skating became a source of anxiety for me. Maybe it was the culture shock. Maybe it was my age at the time of the move. I was in middle school, on the cusp of becoming a teenager (hey hormones). Maybe it was the ache in my heart for my friends, my coach, my old life in Thailand. Maybe it was the pressure of the sport itself. Maybe it was my sensitive disposition. Most likely it was all of these things.
My mom pushed me to continue because I was talented and she hated to see me give it up just because I was struggling. I’m sure she thought it was just a phase. Unfortunately, I never recovered my love of the sport. I kept it up for years, but the passion, the fire for it had burned out.
I was terrified to compete. Anytime I had a competition or a test to move up a level, I couldn’t eat or sleep for days prior. I would get nauseous even before practice sometimes. Something had shifted.
Figure skating, like many sports, involves a number of different components. You have to be graceful, you have to be flexible, you have to be able to jump, which requires strength, and you have to be able to spin, which requires balance and core stability. You also have to have confidence, which I definitely lacked. My two biggest strengths were grace, which happened to come naturally for me, and my jumps. I had strong legs and got pretty good height to make the rotations fairly easily.
But I started doing this weird thing. I started double footing the landing on all my jumps. If you’ve ever watched figure skating, you know the jumps are supposed to be landed on one foot. I had the strength, I had the height. I was able to land the jumps easily but as I flung myself off the ice, spinning around in the air, something would happen just before I landed and I would tap my left foot down on the landing, every time.
It frustrated my coaches and my mom to no end. They would say, “just pick your foot up!”
And I would reply, “I’m afraid to fall.”
They tried strapping me into the on-ice harness, to help me “fall softly”. I spent hours in off-ice training and could land the jumps easily. But every time I got on the ice, I’d put that second foot down. It was such a slight movement, sometimes you couldn’t even tell I was doing it, at least to the untrained eye.
I was afraid to fall. I was also afraid to progress. I think, subconsciously, my fear of performance was holding me back. If I landed the jumps, I’d be ready for testing or competition, and that petrified me.
It was a safety behavior. I was protecting myself from it all – the falling, the competition, the progress, the failure.
But protection was keeping me stagnant. My safety behavior was holding me back.
Anxious people typically have a lot of safety behaviors. Like a double footed landing for a figure skater, safety behaviors protect us from “falling”. They protect us from our greatest fears, or so we think. We don’t like to feel uncomfortable and anxiety feels extremely uncomfortable. Anything to keep us from those awful feelings, those unbearable symptoms of stress, we do it.
Here’s the catch though: Our safety behaviors may protect us from our panic, but they don’t free us from our fears. In fact, they keep us stuck in them.
You can’t expect to grow by doing the same things over and over again. I know it’s easier said than done. Facing fear and letting go of our safety behaviors may be the hardest thing we ever do. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem possible. Fear is a powerful emotion. I would argue that, sometimes, it’s the most powerful emotion we can feel.
I always think I can’t do it before I do it. I have never had much faith in myself. I’m still working on it. Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it is done.” No statement rings truer than this one when it comes to letting go of our safety behaviors and overcoming our anxiety.
I eventually got brave enough to pick up my foot on those landings. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, even after the first day I did it, there were more double footed landing days to follow, but over time, I was able to land the jumps correctly more often than not. There were also falls, many, many falls, some extremely painful. I had the bruises and the scrapes to prove it. But falling felt triumphant, in a way, because it was brave. Slowly but surely, I broke the habit of putting that second foot down. Fall or not, I landed those jumps on one foot. My coaches cheered, my mom was thrilled, and I felt an unbelievable sense of accomplishment.
I’m reminded of a wildly popular poem by Erin Hanson. You probably know it. It goes like this:
“There is freedom waiting for you, On the breezes of the sky, And you ask “What if I fall?” Oh but my darling, What if you fly?”
There will be falls. It will be hard. Letting go of a safety behavior might not happen overnight. Lord knows, I’m still working through some of my own. But, pick up that foot.
Pick up that foot and soar through the air, prepared to meet whatever comes with the landing. You may fall, but you can pick yourself up again. And, what if you fly?
Pick up your foot. Victory is waiting for you. Even if you have to fall a few times.