A friend of mine is applying for internship positions and has learned to expect some of the questions that are designed to reveal character traits. One of those is “Can you tell us about a challenging situation and how you dealt with it.” Her reply impressed me. She said that she had learned that she has to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable, and went on to describe a time when she had to speak forthrightly to a supervisor.
This has always been difficult for me. I usually find it challenging to give bad news or negative criticism to a person in authority over me. In fact, in my childhood I was subtly but clearly encouraged just to keep quiet and not to rock the boat.
My friend, on the other hand, in addition to being able to approach people higher up the totem pole, has learned that in order to improve things she must sometimes move beyond her uncertainties and insecurities. She has reconciled herself to the idea that there will be times when she will feel nervous, and that she should expect those feelings. What a wonderful revelation! It never occurred to me that I could be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
I always thought that courageous people were fearless; in fact, that is how heroes have usually been presented. Wonder Woman had no self-doubt, Superman had no shaking legs, Joan of Arc had no dry mouth, GI Jane had no paralysis, and Batman had no hives. At least, none that we heard about. They were all hero, all the time.
Anxiety has probably prevented me from doing a lot of stupid things, which is good, but it has also prevented me from doing some potentially smart things, which is bad. It has even stopped me from doing some pretty ordinary things like going to social events at which I would know no-one. I wonder how my life might have evolved differently if I had learned to expect to be nervous then carry on anyway.
One thing I would have done, I think, would have been to join the debating club at school. I would have learned to express my ideas coherently and effectively in discussions and debates. I would have learned to improvise in arguments and to persuade people in meetings. Instead, I have often concurred with the most confident speakers and regretted it later. I have frequently thought of the words I wished I had said an hour or two after I needed them.
Once, in high school, I attended a meeting of the debating society, and enjoyed being part of the audience. I was impressed with their rhetoric and amazed that they seemed to be having fun. However, when the time came for questions from the audience, I was too scared even to raise my hand. I wanted to ask a question, but I was overcome by embarrassment and an inability speak. I can’t remember the topic that was being debated, but I can remember feeling my neck and face get very hot as I wanted to ask a question, but failed.
As I grew older, I overcame a lot of those public speaking problems and eventually to quite enjoy the stage, but I never really did learn how to debate. More importantly, I never learned to accept the idea that it was OK to be afraid. Being aware that fear is going to be a part of our personal growth should be a part of everyone’s education. We should be given the opportunity to learn it by feeling it over and over again.
The astronaut, Chris Hadfield, has talked about his preparation for his space mission and he explained that he was trained how to respond to counter-productive emotions. His actual space-walking experience is not one most of us will experience, but his analogy is very commonplace. He compared his fears to being disgusted by spider webs touching the face, and overcoming that by going through spider webs over and over and over again. Eventually, that hair-raising disgust can be drained of its power. Hadfield learned to expect the emotion and ignore it in order to get the job done.
It is wonderful that we now have a hero who not only feels fear and has learned to work through it, but who is selfless enough to tell us all about it. I would much rather have a human hero who has learned how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable than have a fictional hero who is never afraid.