One morning when my daughter was about six years old, she spotted some clothes she had outgrown sitting on a high shelf in her closet. On the top of the pile were a pair of sparkly tennis shoes she used to treasure. Seeing them up there reignited her adoration and she insisted on wearing them to school. Knowing they were at least a size and a half too small, I told her she could wear them around the house for awhile instead.
She did, along with a soft purple sweater whose long sleeves were now almost to her elbows. Watching her cram her little feet into those even littler shoes reminded me of the stepsisters from the story of Cinderella. A strong-minded and somewhat stubborn child, she shoved and yanked until she finally got both heels into the shoes along with her poor little toes, which were likely crammed into a small ball. When she stood up, the sweater exposed her belly button. “Look Mom,” she proudly proclaimed, “They still fit!”
I smiled and went on with my morning routine while she pranced through the house, stopping periodically to play with something she found interesting. After about ten minutes, I walked into the kitchen to see my daughter disgustedly fling the shoes in opposite directions across the room. “Mom, those shoes hurt me!” she complained. “And I don’t like this sweater anymore either.”
“Sweetheart, that’s because you’ve grown since you last wore them. You’re a bigger girl now.” I explained. “Do you grow out of your clothes too?” she asked. I thought about my jeans which had become a little more snug, but decided not to go there. “Well, once you get to be as old as Mommy, you’re body doesn’t really grow much,” I answered.
Hours after I brought her to school I reflected on that conversation and the experience my young daughter had shared with me. I realized that though my body isn’t growing anymore (with the occasionally unfortunate exception of my waist and hips), the rest of me still is. I think we all are in some way.
The more we cling to what we have outgrown, the more painful the experience becomes until, as my daughter learned, the discomfort of wearing the old stuff becomes greater than that of letting it go. I must admit there have been times in my life where I’ve inflicted quite a bit of pain on myself out of fear of letting go and moving onto something new and roomier. And I have clients, family members and friends who have done the same thing.
Sometimes when change comes we resist it because we fear that it will be too hard to adapt, or that it will land us in the middle of something we are unequipped to handle. Paradoxically, my experience has been that the resistance itself can create far more pain than the new experience.
Having children is a great example. With each child, my life changed dramatically. My daughter was our third – causing my husband and me to be outnumbered and effectively propelling our household into a chaos that we have learned to roll with over the years. Any creation you give birth to is bound to do the same thing. But it will also bring you greater joy than you ever could have imagined.
To allow ourselves to experience all the magic these new opportunities and challenges bring, we need to do all that we can to avoid tightening up and blocking ourselves from the experience. Even the act of childbirth itself becomes more painful when the muscles involved contract in different directions in response to fear. Having had three opportunities to experience this phenomenon, I can tell you that learning to relax and allow the muscles to harmoniously work together makes all the difference in the world. And I believe the same is true with life itself.
What is trying to happen in your life right now? And what can you do to give yourself fully to the experience?
Implications for Real Leaders
The Real Leader Revolution is bringing to a head the need for businesses to better tap the power and potential that exists within the people who are the lifeblood of their organizations. This energy, when properly catalyzed and harnessed, will create the kind of value that earns loyal customers, increased market share and strong, sustainable profitability.
To find out more about how you can unleash this talent, energy and potential in your own organization (starting with yourself), sign up below to receive your copy of The Real Leader Revolution Manifesto as soon as it is released.
Almost exactly two years ago, I had a karate belt test that pushed me beyond my limits. I wrote an article called Tapping Your Reserves that captured what took place as well as the lessons I learned as a result. But reflecting back on that experience now, I realize that in the months that passed, I ended up learning more than I initially realized.
Here’s an excerpt of that article, depicting that experience:
Waiting outside the dojo adjusting my mouthpiece like a horse trying to acclimate to its first bit, I quietly prepared myself, breathing slowly and deeply. After my name was called, I was ushered into a circle of black belts standing around a plastic red padded floor until I stood face to face with my opponent – one of the toughest, most intense sensei’s I have encountered as a martial arts student. Our heads were swallowed up by the protective foam of our sparring gear, exposing only eyes, cheeks, noses and lips.
After bowing to each other, we began to spar. I threw a few of the punches I’d practiced every week in karate class and managed to get some kicks in. But for every strike I made, it seemed my sensei threw at least three more. I continued to circle, launching a few more tentative jabs here and there. The black belts surrounding us were shouting encouragement, their voices merging into chords of indistinguishable tones. And then I felt a sharp blow to my face. I instinctively curled toward my stomach and felt a burst of fluid that was not yet visible. When the blood appeared, the sparring session was stopped and a hand appeared with a wad of Kleenex in it.
As I cautiously dabbed at my nose and wiped my eyes, someone asked me if I wanted to continue. I heard myself say yes. Squinting through the sweat that was dripping from my forehead and feeling my heart beating in my face, I raised my gloved fists higher and took a few more shots. Before I knew it, I was taken to the ground. I was vaguely aware that there was at least one, maybe two other black belts in the sparring match now. As I grappled on the ground, fatigue set in. I struggled to escape the choke hold, forgetting everything I had learned and feeling like a spider’s prey wriggling and writhing to escape while the grip became tighter. And then, thankfully, that part of the test was over.
I wrote the Tapping Your Reserves article to process that experience and make the most of it. Ironically, despite the insights I gained, in the months that followed I found myself feeling far more fear about what happened than I did on the day that I got punched in the nose. The experience became exaggerated in my mind, a horribly warped version much like the image reflected by a fun house mirror. The sense of accomplishment I enjoyed after having completed the test was replaced by a fixation on what it felt like to be trapped with no recollection of how to escape. I felt the blow to my face over and over again as I replayed the events in my mind. And it was far more painful in my memory than it was in reality.
What is amusing to me is that often fear like this comes before an event – as I see in my mind’s eye all manner of things that could go wrong and then magnify it until it becomes a mental picture so horrid that I would do anything to avoid it. But this time, I was using a somewhat fictional account of an actual event to work myself into a frenzy that led me to avoid the future based on a past that was more imaginary than real. After all, when given the choice on the day of the test, I decided to jump back in and keep going after getting hit. My hesitance about the whole thing didn’t really set in until after it was over.
As my kids’ team practices and dance rehearsals began to conflict with karate classes, I was secretly a little grateful that shuttling them from school to field to court to studio prevented me from attending with the regularity I once did. God forbid I would be asked to test again – to spar again. No, not an experience I was eager to repeat. Every time anyone referenced sparring in karate class, I felt a shudder go down my spine. The idea of even putting protective gear on made me nauseous. I became overly concerned with playing safe – doing whatever I could to avoid getting hit again. But I knew at some point I would need to get over it and get back in the game.
Gradually I got tired of being scared, of holding myself back, of playing in the shadows. I was still afraid, but found myself growing more and more eager to face those fears and step into them. I began to pay careful attention in the strategy sessions that were being offered. I started to envision a different scenario than the one I was previously playing out in my head. And I even attended a special open sparring class just so that I could put myself in the experience of facing an opponent and replacing my fear with the tiniest shred of confidence I could muster.
A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to test again. I accepted. The test is this Saturday.
I’m nervous. I’d like to be a little more prepared, and I realize that no matter how much I practice, the fear will still be there. But I don’t need to give into it. I just need to stand in its presence without letting it grip and control me. And I think no matter what happens in this test – even if I get knocked out cold or do something incredibly embarrassing, I will be victorious. Because the real battle I am fighting is with myself. And it’s not just a sparring match. It is a metaphor for overcoming resistance (and the illusion it creates) that keeps me from doing what I really want to do in all areas of my life.
In the end, the pain of holding out and playing small became far greater than the physical pain I can recall from the event that provoked the fear in the first place – perhaps far greater than any fear my little mind can conjure up. Enough already. I’m ready to play.
Bring it on, baby.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important.” ~ Ambrose Redmoon
For more on Overcoming the Illusion of Fear:
Karate image by Kriss Szkurlatowski.
Fire head image by Salvatore Vuono.