Angela Leong
Written & Posted by Angela LeongRegistered Clinical Counsellor, Founder of AEM

Mastering Fear: A Guide to Overcoming Your Toughest Challenges

09 Dec, 2021
how to get on a big wave teaches us exposure hierarchies

I need to tell you the story of how I conquered my primal fear of surfing.

Why was it so terrifying to me?

Maybe because my first surfing experience was in Southern Australia. Where my surfing instructor told me about all the ways I could die or seriously injure myself in the ocean and just told us to get out there. If you want to know what were the things: it was either shark, jellyfish, rocks or rip-tide. She was not a very good instructor, as she simply told us all the ways we could die and just told us to go out there and try it. And yes, I still went out there, unsuccessfully. So I’m not sure if I’m more afraid of harming myself or being unsuccessful at surfing. Probably a little bit of both.

Anyways, it’s not uncommon for people to have fears. Fears of being in an accident, fear of injuring yourself, fear of dying. Whether you’re skiing, surfing or simply out in city traffic. They are often acquired via having a bad experience with something, such as it was in my case.

Here’s how I conquered my fear of surfing:

Step 1. I called the front desk and simply inquired about the experience. I had not committed to going out in the waves yet. I just wanted to talk about going out there. I confessed I was terrified but I wanting to try. She was thankfully so kindly re-assuring. She said that Tofino is one of the best places in the world to learn how to surf. I asked her about the weather, the size of the waves. For me more information gave me an illusion of control. And it helped.

Step 2: I was even afraid of how the water was going to be. How cold it was going to be, how violent it was going to be, etc. I did not have a wet suit or dry suit but I decided to go for a cold plunge in the evening, and becoming accustomed to the feeling of the water. To become friends with it.

Step 3: After getting through step 1 and 2. I was starting to feel more confident. I convinced myself that I was just going to put on a wetsuit. That was the least I could do. This is the mental trick I played on myself: motivating myself via minimal commitment. It works every time.

Step 4: I met the surfing instructor. I informed him that I was absolutely terrified. This was to prep him to know how to handle a student like me. With extra encouragement and patience, I hoped. And so it was. He was diligent to explain things thoroughly and we did lots of practice of how to stand up on the board on land before getting out in the water. And once in the water, he was mindful to my needs.

Et viola, I was surfing! It was not as bad as I thought it would be! And I was rewarded with the feeling of being one with nature. Feeling the strength of pachamama was worth it all!

As you can see, to conquer your fears, it just takes a step by step process of increasing intensity and a little mental trickery. This process of gradually stepping into greater discomfort is what Psychologists call creating an "exposure hierachy" and it works for anything that you're afriad of! Trust me, even if it feels like you're tricking yourself, it works!

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